Uplifting tribute: Founder Grishkot’s presence will be felt when balloons soar

When some people pass away, friends toast their memories by sending small balloons into the air. Wal
Walt Grishkot
Walt Grishkot

When some people pass away, friends toast their memories by sending small balloons into the air.

Walter Grishkot will receive such a tribute on Sunday. The longtime founder and booster of the Adirondack Balloon Festival died May 11 at age 85, and balloons will rise in his memory this weekend.

This year’s balloon party begins tonight with the flight of 15 balloons in Glens Falls’ Crandall Park. Seventy balloons will gas up Friday at Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport in Queensbury. About 90 will be up, up and away at the airport Saturday and Sunday mornings and early Saturday evening.

“Sunday morning’s flight will be called ‘Walter’s mass ascension,’ said Mark Donahue, president of the festival’s board of directors. “In a mass ascension, what happens is all the balloons take off at the exact same time. This year, we’re going to have bagpipers playing as the balloons launch as a dedication. Every year going forward will be ‘Walter’s mass ascension.’ ”

39th Adirondack Ballooon Festival

WHEN: Today through Sunday

WHERE: Crandall Park in Glens Falls and Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport, Queensbury; Saturday and Sunday airport lift-offs at 6:30 a.m., Saturday evening lift-off at 5 p.m.


MORE INFO: www.adirondackballoonfest.org

The Saturday and Sunday flights will take place at 6:30 a.m. As usual, a “big balloon breakfast” will be served in the airport hangar from 5 until 11 a.m. Balloonists from all over the country will be in the sky, including pilots in odd design balloons popular with both kids and adults.

Balloon Festival schedule

This year’s balloon festival schedule follows. All balloon festivals are weather permitting.


— Opening ceremony, 5 p.m. Crandall Park, Glens Falls. Flight of 15 balloons, Stony Creek Band performance.

— Block party on Glen Street, 6 to 9:30 p.m., featuring balloonists, classic car show, kids’ activities.


— Flight of 70-plus balloons begins at 5 p.m. at Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport, Queensbury.


— “Big Balloon Breakfast” at the Bennett airport hangar, 5 to 11 a.m.

— Food vendors and craft fair on site, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

— Flight of 85 to 90 balloons, 6:30 a.m.

— Flight of 85 to 90 balloons, 5 p.m.


— “Big Balloon Breakfast,” airport hangar, 5 to 11 a.m.

— Food vendors and craft fair on site, 6 a.m. to noon.

— Flight of 85 to 90 balloons, 6:30 a.m.

— Catholic services in entertainment tent, 8 a.m.

— Protestant services in entertainment tent, 10 a.m.

— Launch of 20-plus balloons in Crandall Park, 5 p.m.

One of the strangers will be the bug-eyed “Super FMG,” which Canadian balloonists will fly as a tribute to Walter. Grishkot helped put together the Gatineau balloon festival in Quebec, which has been up and floating since 1988.

“It is their new mascot special- shape balloon that they just had built this year,” Donahue said of the “FMG” model. “It’s like a kid cartoon superhero, a really cute balloon.”

The name of the big blue balloon is a nod to the festival’s name in French — Festival de Montgolfières de Gatineau. “Montgolfières” is French for hot air balloons.

“The other premier balloon is a new panda bear — ‘Pandy’ — that’s coming from Texas,” Donahue added. “We also have coming back ‘Lindy,’ which is the balloon with the hands and the huge sunglasses. The hands wave.”

Grishkot will be remembered during other parts of the festival.

“Balloons will have banners on them with his name,” Donahue said. “They will also be flying American flags as a tribute to him. At the opening ceremony, we’ll be flying a balloon with a huge, 30-by-60 American flag hanging below it.”

Tireless promoter

The festival began in 1973, when career photographer Grishkot, then doing publicity work for Warren County, was searching for an autumn event to attract tourists. He talked to a friend who had visited the fabled balloon festival in Albuquerque, N.M., saw potential and hooked up with Vermont balloonist John Marsden. The two men and Joan Grishkot, Walter’s wife, put together the first North Country balloon blast at Adirondack Community College. Eighteen flyers participated in the inaugural.

The starting time worried Grishkot. Because balloon pilots must take advantage of calm morning air, lift-off was scheduled for 6:30 a.m.

“I drove up Bay Road to go to the college, and I saw taillights,” Grishkot said during a 1997 interview with The Daily Gazette to promote the 25th festival. “I said, ‘At least we’re going to have some people there.’ We had maybe three, four hundred.”

Over the years, the talkative Grishkot pulled all sorts of tricks to promote the event.

During the late 1970s, he maneuvered a hot air balloon over an outhouse, an old-fashioned wooden closet complete with a crescent moon in the front door. The pilot climbed down a rope ladder anchored to the basket toward the rest station, and the scene became “Unscheduled Stop to the Adirondack Balloon Festival.”

“It clicked all over the country; it was a good idea, a cute picture,” Grishkot said during the 1997 interview. “I had four guys in the back of the balloon holding ropes . . . the minute the pilot steps out of the basket, the balloon wants to go up.”

Grishkot always reminded people to bring their cameras but to leave their dogs home. The animal rule remains in place; dogs are not allowed on festival grounds.

The party moved to the airport during the late 1970s.

Donahue has been working with the festival for the past 15 years and had been vice president of the board before Grishkot passed away. He said Grishkot made contributions to the event but also to the community.

“It’s amazing what one man can do who has a passion and an idea and the support of a community behind it,” he said. “That kind of sums up Walter. He was active up through last year.”

Maury Thompson’s new book, “The Biggest Kid at the Balloon Festival: The Walter Grishkot Story,” will be available at the festival. What Donahue will remember about the Grishkot story will be the man’s energy.

“He was absolutely amazing, even last year,” he said. “That someone can have the dedication and enthusiasm and just have boundless energy to pull off an event of this magnitude.”

That so many balloonists return to the festival each year, Donahue added, is another tribute to Grishkot.

“But it’s also to what Walter created,” he said. “This is the largest balloon festival in the nation, possibly the world, that is free of charge. Most other balloon events are community events that are fundraisers or for profit. This event has sustained itself for 39 years as being a community event and one of the largest spectator events in New York state that is free to the public.”

Grishkot said he believed people kept coming to the Adirondacks to see the balloons because they could get close to them. At some places, fences kept spectators away from the big rigs.

“Here, you start the cold air fan to fill [the balloon] with cold air, and after you get it blown up enough, then you turn the burner on to get the hot air in; that’s what gives it the lift,” Grishkot said in 1997. “It comes alive, the balloon comes alive. And when they take off, people holler and cheer.”

Categories: Life and Arts

Leave a Reply