COLUMBUS, Kan. — Jean Pritchett might as well moonlight as a meteorologist in her spare time.

Over the past 30 years, the director of the Columbus, Kansas, Chamber of Commerce has looked to the skies during the second week of each October, studying long-term weather forecasts and worrying over mid- to high-altitude wind speed readings.

With a little bit of rain, threat of lightning, soupy ground fog or winds exceeding 10 mph, hot air balloons simply won’t take to the skies. And without colorful balloons floating above Southeast Kansas, the annual Columbus Day Festival just won’t be quite be the same.

“I always worry about the weather,” Pritchett said Wednesday morning with a chuckle. Even as she spoke, she was scrutinizing weekend weather forecasts online. “For balloons, weather is a real big factor. They are very unique, but they can also be tricky.”

Eleven hot-air balloons — with names such as “Upon A Star,” “Humbly Lifted” and “Prairie Sunset” — will take center stage at the city’s Industrial Park, Highway 68 and Merle Evans Drive, during the three-day celebration, which begins today.

The Hot Air Balloon Regatta times include:

• The popular “balloon glow,” set for 6:45 p.m. tonight.

• Balloon lift-off and “Hare and Hound” race between 7 and 7:30 a.m. Saturday.

• Balloon lift-off and race at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

• Balloon lift-off and race between 7 and 7:30 a.m. Sunday.

A pilot’s briefing will be held 15 to 20 minutes before each scheduled event, “so we know what the weather is like at that moment.” A “should or shouldn’t” decision follows, though lift-offs can be delayed for short periods until bad weather passes through.

“Sometimes things can look really good on the ground, but just a few feet in the air, winds can be going in every direction,” she said.

Each balloon holds 40 gallons of propane in two tanks and can weigh as much as 800 pounds. “We don’t want to be the one (festival) splashed across national news for having an accident. We are very safety minded.”

Weather delayed the very first Regatta 30 years ago when it was brand new and drew seven balloons to the event. It was Pritchett’s idea to link the event with

“I thought, ‘We tried it, it didn’t work,’” Pritchett said of the time. “We won’t be working again.’ But then I thought, ‘No, we’ve got to try it again.’ And it’s just grown from there.”

The Columbus Day Festival is still the only celebration in the Four-State Area that holds an annual hot air balloon event, Pritchett said.

“You can walk out your front door and see a hot air balloon in the sky,” she said. “That makes (Columbus) very unique.”

Details: 620-429-1492.

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