By Gary Nager
After a weekend filled with insane traffic jams, heavy rains and/or the threat of major storms — and sadly, precious little flying, — the abbreviated third annual Festival of Flight (held Sept. 11-13) is likely to be the last one held at the Tampa North Aero Park on S.R. 54 in Lutz.
Festival organizer Jessica Warren, the co-owner of Land O’Lakes-based American Balloons (which put on the Festival at the Aero Park all three years), says the event is likely moving to another location next year.
“I already have an offer to move the event to the Zephyrhills Airport,” an obviously disappointed Warren said as the Festival’s many vendors were taking down their booths and closing up their food trucks as the rain poured freely on Sunday at noon.
“I love this venue, but we obviously had a lot of issues to deal with, especially the weather. I know some people are unhappy but there are some things no one can control.”
Unfortunately for Warren, the weekend started with an unexpected traffic jam on Friday evening that tied up traffic on S.R.s 56 and 54 and I-75 for several hours, well past the scheduled “Balloon Glow” that started at 7:30 p.m. This reporter was one of those who sat on S.R. 56 from about 7:15 until at least 8:30 before I finally gave up, mainly because I could see that the line of cars — from the airport’s location off Wesley Chapel Blvd. (S.R. 54 between 56 and I-75) all the way back to 56 — didn’t move at all for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time.
Like a lot of folks stuck in that mess — which made headlines on pretty much all of the local TV stations and lots of unhappy noise on the ‘Wesley Chapel Community’ Facebook.com page — I gave up trying to get there Friday night, “knowing” that I could still be on hand for the Saturday morning hot air balloon launch and return.
“We actually had some takeoffs and landings on Friday afternoon and the balloon glow was packed (she didn’t give an estimate of the crowd, but several people have said there were “thousands” who weren’t turned away) on Friday night,” Warren said. “Yes, we had parking and obviously traffic issues, but the people who came Friday night told me they enjoyed themselves.”
Other news media reported that additional Pasco County Sheriff’s Office deputies would be made available to better handle any traffic woes (there were reports that more than 50,000 locals sent RSVPs that they were coming on Facebook) on Saturday morning, but then, the event’s website and Facebook pages reported that the scheduled 7 a.m. Saturday balloon launch was cancelled due to “incumbent weather in the area” and the entire Saturday schedule was washed out by the threats of major storms, despite no rain falling in the area for most of the day.
The skies were definitely threatening, but it was a shame that those who missed out on Friday night’s festivities couldn’t enjoy the World War II biplanes, ultralights and other unique aircraft on Saturday.
The food and beverage vendors and many of the sponsors and exhibitors were still on hand on both Saturday and Sunday, even as those threatening skies turned into steady rain late Saturday night and into Sunday morning, which again cancelled all Festival activities before they even got started again on Sunday.
“All of us are sad that it turned out this way,” an exhausted Warren said afterwards. “But, I think we’re done here (in Wesley Chapel). My family and I are sorry that it didn’t work out.”
For more information, visit FestivalofFlightWesleyChapel.com or call American Balloons at 243-9507.