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The show must go on: and so it did

A perspective on the balloon fest by Mike Fak

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[August 29, 2011]  Every outdoor event, no matter how well organized and planned, is subject to unforeseen circumstances. The recent story of tragedy at the Indiana State Fair is a perfect, albeit sad example of what can go wrong that no one can predict ahead of time.

Our annual art and balloon fest is not exempt from something going amiss, and we had two events that we wish hadn't happened. But at the same time we should be thankful the aftermath of each was not as bad as it could have been.

The entire Friday was a perfect one for the festival. Balloons went up in the morning and early evening. Tethered balloon rides saw long lines waiting a turn, and the balloon glow went off under clear skies and still winds.

That evening a young lady as a member of a balloon team fell and broke her arm. Immediate response and treatment by emergency responders right on the premises at the airport gave the woman the care and transport she needed. Accidents do happen, and everyone is thankful that nothing more serious happened to her when she fell off the balloon trailer.

Saturday also started off with idyllic conditions. The balloons launched and the day was warm, with a cool breeze helping everyone stay comfortable both at the airport and downtown.

Cool breezes were great for the throng that attended all our downtown events. But strong breezes are not good for hot air balloons, and the Saturday evening balloon launch and tethered rides at the airport had to be canceled.

For many of the thousands in attendance at the airport, they knew that would be the case without needing to ask. They have become experienced at understanding the balloons because they come to the event every year to enjoy the weekend with family and friends.

There were some who didn't understand why there were no balloons early in the evening, not realizing that hot air balloons without steering wheels or brakes can only launch when wind speeds allow safe takeoffs as well as landings.

There was still plenty to see and do at the airport. As the night progressed, crowds poured into the airport, and they were not disappointed as dusk fell.

Many say that Saturday night's balloon glow, with all the balloons lighting the sky with their flames, was the best one the festival has ever had, and so things were getting ready to end on a high note.

By 9 p.m., many cars were headed out the gates, as their day was now complete after seeing the balloons. Still there were several thousand enjoying the amusement park, and lines were still at all the vendors, as a last chance to sample great festival food was setting with the last rays of the sun.

And then the lights went out.

The Brat Pack, a popular band with a loyal following, had just started at the south end of the airport when things went semi-dark. They were into their second song when a fuse in the airport transformer blew, leaving the airport without power.

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Fortunately, the amusement park at the north end had a backup generator and rides went on as if nothing had happened.

And generator-run stanchions of lights that were all around the airport to assist motorists see better kept the airport in dusk-like conditions, but not total darkness.

Festival coordinators and chamber staff were met with a dilemma: a challenge that might have caused a lesser group of people to throw in the towel and just tell everyone to go home. But the team that runs our festival doesn't look for reasons to quit. They look for solutions when something happens that no one can expect.

Ameren was immediately notified of the problem, and a truck and team were dispatched to the airport. In the meantime, one of the arrays of floodlights from the parking area was driven to the south end of the airport, which was darkest, and the lights gave everyone enough light to safely walk around as they patiently waited.

At the 45-minute mark, which probably felt like days to the festival staff, a generator brought in by the Lincoln Rural Fire Protection District backed up to the stage, and lights went on around the band shell.

With the lights now on, a remarkable sight was seen. The crowd of some 400 to 500 that had gathered to listen to the band was still there.

Roughly 15 minutes later the Ameren crew had repaired the damaged fuse and the airport was back to full power.

To be fair, the power outage had signaled the end for some of the vendors. Without power, oils had cooled down, some food was cold, and the strong evening sales ended in a low point for them.

But for those still in attendance, the night was a great one. The evening ended on a high note when it so easily could have been a minor disaster.

When the Brat Pack came back on stage, they began with a Bon Jovi song, "Living on a Prayer." One of the lines in the song says, "Hang on to what we've got."

What we have is a great festival run by dedicated chamber staff and volunteers who do all they can to make the Lincoln Art & Balloon Festival as good as it can be: under lights or in the dark.


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