In this Oct. 8, 2011 photo, hot air balloons are shown at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta before take off. The 41st annual event is set to begin Saturday and is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of spectators from around the country and the global. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — High winds forced organizers to cancel a mass launch of balloons at an annual hot-air balloon festival in New Mexico on Saturday, putting the brakes on the highly visible kickoff of the nine-day event.
Hundreds of hot-air balloons had been expected to rise into the sky early Saturday morning at the 41st Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, but winds well above safety limits halted the effort.
Instead, balloons shaped like a giant Elvis, ice cream cone and child in a wheelchair were kept on the ground until a second attempt is made Sunday morning.
Organizers also postponed the afternoon launch of five hydrogen balloons participating in the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race.
That cross-country race has seen the inflatables make it to the East Coast in just a few days, spokesman Tom Garrity said. Takeoff is now planned for Sunday.
The delay was because of worries about winds at takeoff time Saturday afternoon and weather at projected landing sites.
The soaring cost of helium has limited the number of participants this year, Garrity said. It can now cost more than $20,000 to inflate a helium balloon and only a few thousand dollars for a hydrogen craft, so only hydrogen balloons are signed up to race.
The event went on anyway, with thousands flocking to Balloon Fiesta Park on the city’s west side. Organizers also said the fireworks and the Twilight Twinkle Glow, which features tethered hot air balloons that glow when their burners are lit, would go on as planned later Saturday.
More than 550 pilots have signed up to fly balloons at the fiesta, according to director Don Edwards. That’s slightly higher than in most years, he said.
The nine-day event drew slightly more than 700,000 spectators last year.