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LOFTY EXPECTATIONS FOR NEW FEST

Fans of aviation will be on cloud nine this weekend at the first Festival of Flight, taking place at Tampa North Aeropark. The free, two-day festival hosted by hot-air balloon company American Balloons and the airport's flight training wing, Tampa North Flight Center, pays homage to all things aviation, from kites, bubbles and hot-air balloons to World War II aircraft and modern planes, along with vendors, a food truck, live music and entertainment.

The event kicks off at 7 a.m. Saturday with a hot-air balloon launch, followed by a day of aircraft demonstrations and activities. Though the event is free to attend, festivalgoers can pay to take a ride in a balloon or try their hand at piloting an airplane. The first day of the festival concludes with a runway full of balloons, burners lit to illuminate the night sky.

The festivities continue at 7 a.m. Sunday with a hot-air balloon launch and plane fly-in, followed by more music, planes and vendors, with the festival closing at noon.

The idea for the Festival of Flight came about in the wake of some renovations at the almost 40-year-old airport. The office was overhauled and the Happy Hangar Cafe was added. The folks at the aeropark were looking to host a grand opening for the Happy Hangar Cafe, while Jessica Warren, owner of American Balloons, was in search of a new local festival. The ideas merged and the Festival of Flight was born.

One of the goals of the festival is to invite the community to be frequent guests at the airport.

"It's a very friendly place to be and a place you can just come and hang out," Warren said. "You don't have to have anything to do with planes. You can just sit here and watch them take off all day."

The 72-hangar aeropark covers nearly 21 acres and is flanked on three sides by neighborhoods. Since the Happy Hangar Cafe opened about a month ago, Norris says that many of their neighbors have started visiting.

"I think it's one of the best things that's ever happened to the airport," Norris said, noting his 20-year tenure at the aeropark.

Norris says that less people are becoming pilots these days, and he hopes that welcoming the public to the airport will get people excited about aviation.

"You can hardly see an airplane at some airports. It's out of sight, out of mind, and that's going to keep people out of aviation," he said. "If you can't see them, how can you fall in love with them?"

sfuchs@tampabay.com

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First Festival of Flight

The festival is 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 7 a.m. to noon Sunday at Tampa North Aeropark, 4241 Birdsong Blvd., Lutz. It's free to attend; hot-air balloon rides are $189 on a first-come, first-served basis, with required pre-registration on americanballoonrides.com. Discovery flights are $75 and up per person. Call American Balloons at (813) 243-9507, or visit festivalofflightwesleychapel.com, or find the Festival of Flight on Facebook.

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