August 31, 2014 Updated: December 6, 2014 at 5:16 pm
Russ Colby sat in a plastic folding camping chair facing Prospect Lake in Memorial Park.
He was away from the hissing of burning propane, snapping photos and excited children and adults pointing at the collection of hot air balloons in awe. But Colby's view was perfect: He could see the more than 70 hot air balloons fly overhead, and as they attempted to drop down onto the water's surface before taking off again into the sky, earning applause and whistles from the crowd.
It was about 8 a.m. Saturday morning, and Colby had been at the park for more than an hour in what may be his final weekend of watching the Colorado Balloon Classic in Colorado Springs.
"I hope they keep it here, I really do," he said. "Look at all the people here."
Even before the rising sun, people streamed into Memorial Park, set up chairs, pulled out cameras and waited for word that the balloons could fly.
When the pilots and crews got the OK, the noise level built as onlookers gathered around crews as they unfurled the balloon's envelopes, and fired up the burners. Some people took pictures near and inside the balloon's baskets.
Tom and Karla James first came to the Balloon Classic years ago when only hundreds of people showed up to watch. Thousands filled Memorial Park on Saturday.
Tom, with a camera around his neck, said he enjoyed the colors and styles of the balloons, as well as when they touched down on the surface of Prospect Lake.
"For a photographer, this is a place to be," he said.
Tame wind and a picturesque day made for an ideal start to the 38th annual event. Two waves of hot air balloons from Florida, Illinois, Wisconsin, Arizona and Colorado Springs took flight.
One balloon was in the shape of an elephant, which enthralled 2-year-old Anna Knapp, who stared at the sight through her pink-rimmed sunglasses.
In mid-August, the group behind the Balloon Classic announced that the event would not return to Colorado Springs in 2015 due to "politics within the city, increasingly rigid special event procedures and an onerous 2015 LART (city sponsorship) application."
News of the planned move spread across social media as attendees of the event over the years voiced their appreciation of the Balloon Classic and displeasure that it may leave the city.
Patsy Buchwald, president and CEO of the organization behind the Balloon Classic, reiterated the organization's decision during her introductory remarks Saturday morning.
"This is the last year we'll be holding the event in Colorado Springs," she said.
David Begin was filling in for Buchwald in her traditional role as the event's balloonmeister. Buchwald was a passenger in one of the balloons that took off into the sky, something she said she hadn't done in the Balloon Classic since the 1980s.
"It was amazing," she said. "It brought tears to my eyes."
Begin, who was in charge of flight operations and watching the weather, said Saturday was a "perfect morning."
He arrived at the park about 5 a.m. and started to monitor the winds, which can be of concern if they are over 10 mph, he said. Flights have been canceled in previous years because of uncooperative weather,
Begin said he used to travel from Texas to fly in for the Labor Day weekend event, starting in the mid-1990s. He subsequently moved to Colorado Springs, connected with Buchwald and started helping with the event on its leadership team.
"It's been great," he said. "For Colorado Springs to lose it is a real shame."
Pilot Nolan Schuler, of the Colorado Springs-based balloon team Bella Solé, said he first came to the Balloon Classic as a fan in 1998 when his jaw dropped to the floor with wonder.
"I was in awe," he said. "I always wanted to fly."
Schuler was inspired, and he got involved with a crew before obtaining his pilot's license in June 2008, he said. Saturday was his fifth year as a pilot in the Balloon Classic, and he was surrounded by his crew.
"It becomes a social event," he said. "There's so many things that go on here. It's not just balloons."
Contact Stephen Hobbs: 636-0275