Many North Carolina license plates read “First in Flight,” and nowhere will that be truer than Statesville this weekend as the Carolina BalloonFest returns.

Celebrating one of Iredell County’s more niche industries, festival founder Bill Meadows explained that the event was started 45 years ago to act as kind of a homecoming for ballooning students of his.

“It wasn’t gated,” Meadows recalled. “There was no publicity and we didn’t put anything in the paper about it. It just happened.”

Meadows described the first few years of the event as a low profile gathering with only a few hundred people, but noted attendance has soared to around 30,000 attendees a year.

Although the timing of the festival could be considered a plus.

“There’s few things better than flying in the Carolinas in the fall,” said this year’s assistant Balloonmeister Daniel Sasser.

He said that from a pilot’s vantage point, the fall foliage and view of the Blue Ridge Mountains off in the distance are incredible sights.

Meadows added the aircraft themselves offer a beautifully stunning sight as well.

Sasser said he’s been involved with Carolina BalloonFest for four years, two of which as a board member.

He said this year will feature more than 50 balloons, some in special shapes, and balloon glows will be held both Friday and Saturday nights.

There will also be several balloon competitions, like a Hare and the Hound race featuring pilots from all over the county, and even some international pilots.

The 27-year-old mentioned that the event is a great opportunity to attract new people to the art of ballooning, and that the balloon community is working hard to attract younger blood. He also said Statesville already has a great flying community, and great staff behind the festival.

“I’m very lucky,” he said. “I’m working with a tremendous team who’s been doing this for a very long time. It’s a well-run machine.”

The Carolina BalloonFest runs from Oct. 18-20 at 531 Airport. On-site parking will be available for $10 on a first-come, first-serve basis. Free parking and shuttle service will be available from the Iredell County Fairgrounds at 630 N. Main St., Troutman.

More information can be found at carolinaballoonfest.com.

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