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Weather hampers hot air balloon race, but festival will go on
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The annual Helen to the Atlantic hot-air balloon race began Thursday for long-distance endurance competitors, but not for local participants.

The local event was scheduled to begin early on Thursday. However, no one counted on the wind’s direction.

“(The winds) were blowing from the southeast, and that’s the direction that we want to go, is toward the southeast,” Catherine Cleiman, event director, said Friday.

She said that most of the morning Friday was spent doing regular inflation and tethering balloons for participants to be able to take rides while connected to the ground.

“For the local event, we’ve been able to make every morning inflation and every evening inflation, which is terrific so that people get to see the balloons,” Cleiman said.

Although the long-distance endurance race competitors were able to take off, they also had to change their plans. The change in wind direction made it nearly impossible to make it to their goal, which is to advance outside of White County by the deadline.

A few pilots, seeing that the ultimate goal was simply out of reach, still enjoyed the event and took flights to Robertstown, a small community just outside of Helen.

The racers compete in a 200-mile or more two-day race to the coast. The winner is the first balloon to cross Interstate 95 in South Georgia.

Cleiman said the local balloon festival will start as planned at 7 a.m. today. She said event coordinators hope the wind allows them to give rides that are not tethered to the ground.

Weather permitting, pilots will give both hour-long and half-hour flights that will float down the Sautee-Nacoochee valley toward the Habersham County area, Toccoa, and depending on wind speed, possibly even into South Carolina.

“So the flights in the morning and tomorrow afternoon would just be local flights that are a lot of fun,” Cleiman said. “Nice and short in duration.”

Whether the wind and weather conditions agree or not, Cleiman said the event must go on.

“We’re not canceling anything,” Cleiman said. “We’ve had spectacular weather to be able to put on a beautiful static display where the balloons inflate so that all of the spectators get to see them.”

The balloons take off at 7 a.m. and the event will continue until 7:30 p.m. 

Admission for the tethered balloon rides is $10; one-hour flights are $300.

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