The balloons didn’t fly but the snow did Saturday morning at the Friends and Lovers Balloon Rally in Rio Rancho’s City Center.

Prior to the announcement that the balloons would not go up at about 7:30 a.m., about 100 pilots and crew gathered in the lobby of the Rio Rancho Events Center to get the 50th edition of the event to get under way.

“It’s a long-standing tradition to have Friends and Lovers on Valentine’s Day weekend,” said Doug Gantt, the flying events chair.

Friends and Lovers, which is held as a celebration of the balloon crews, began in the 1970s and originally flew out of Rio Rancho. It started as a strategy to garner interest in 1975 World Hot Air Balloon Championships and the fourth Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which was rescheduled from February to October that year.

“We certainly want to thank our crews,” Gantt said. “We pilots get all the glory; they get all the work.”

Eventually, the rally moved to Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque to take advantage of “the box” and the 73 acres of flying space. This year, the rally returns to its Rio Rancho origins in response to FAA guideline changes.

“The main reason we are here is because the FAA didn’t approve our waiver until the last minute,” Gantt said of being in Rio Rancho again. “The mayor is very pro-balloon, which is why we’re here. It’s nice to be here. The city is very welcoming to us.”

Mayor Gregg Hull addresses pilots and crew members at the Friends and Lovers Balloon Rally Saturday morning in the lobby of the Rio Rancho Events Center. (Tracy Goldizen/Observer)

And, in fact, Mayor Gregg Hull was on hand Saturday morning. “We’re excited to have this event here,” he said. “This event is bringing a lot of visitors to Rio Rancho. Rio Rancho is an excellent community for flying with wide-open spaces and beautiful views. It’s a real opportunity for us to showcase ourselves as a community.”

As he addressed the crowd, Hull talked about the excitement of having Friends and Lovers return to Rio Rancho. “We love to see the balloons in the air. We love the balloon community up here at Rio Rancho. You guys are amazing … I get up in the morning and I see the balloons up, and I go, ‘Those people are committed.’ … I do appreciate the view that you provide.”

Balloonmeistern Debi Ellis-Ostegulen also said a few words at the pilot briefing, noting her 25 years of involvement with the event.

“It is one of the biggest honors you can be awarded in our sport,” she said of being named balloonmeistern. The first 10 years of Friends and Lovers, she said, the balloonmeisters were all male. For the past 40 years, it has shifted to females. She said she had no idea she was even up for the honor and was very humbled. “I follow a long line of powerful, respected, inspiring women.”

After the initial pilot briefing at 7 a.m., Gantt released two more “Pi-Balloons,” which help pilots determine how the winds will affect flying conditions. After a few minutes of watching them float into the clouds, it was determined that there would be no flying Saturday.

As he made the announcement to the pilots at about 7:30 a.m., there was an audible groan of disappointment from the crowd. Gantt did, however, call for volunteers to put up a static display of balloons. A handful of balloons hung around, but the “deteriorating” weather conditions made even that difficult.

A handful of balloons remained in City Center to attempt static displays after it was determined the balloons would not take flight Saturday morning at the Friends and Lovers Balloon Rally. (Tracy Goldizen/Observer)

By 9 a.m., snow had blanketed Rio Rio Rancho. They will try to fly again Sunday.