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At first, the big, silver orb of the full moon hung alone in the sky over Windsor High School early Saturday morning. Then, shortly after 5 a.m., five hot air balloons started rising, one after another, glowing like floating lightbulbs in a dark room as flames shot into their colorful parachutes, called envelopes.

It was the start of the 24th annual Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic in Windsor. The festival draws hot air balloon pilots, as well as visitors, from around the state and country. It gives visitors a chance to see close-up how the world's oldest, human-carrying flying technology works.

What appeared to be a couple hundred early risers stationed themselves on blankets in Keiser Park to watch the first balloons light off in what is known as "Dawn Patrol." After the glowing globes floated into the sky, folks got up to buy a coffee or a pancake breakfast. "Come Fly With Me" played on the loudspeakers.

Matt McFarland, a Windsor resident waiting in line with a friend for breakfast, said this was his first time at the event. "It was worth the wait," he said.

The main balloon launch took place at 6:30 a.m., and by that time, a much larger crowd filtered in. Parents and their children watched teams set up the balloons by attaching propane burners to the top of a large wicker basket and spreading the multi-colored envelope across the grass. The envelopes billowed and rose from the ground as propane burners filled them with hot air.

"It's a good turnout; the weather is perfect for a balloon event," said Steve Henricksen, president of the event. He was referring to the cool air, the clear skies and still air.

Kids jumped around excitedly and pointed out their favorite designs to their parents. With the over-sized balloons suspended in the field and the smell of pancakes and syrup in the air, the event had the feel of a giant birthday party.

Over the next hour, about 20 hot air balloons floated into the sky, including a six-legged creation called the Purple People Eater, which was the color of grape soda. It seemed to hover over Windsor High School for a few moments, green claws dangling at the end of its jointed legs, before catching the wind south.

Other popular balloons included Spunky, shaped like a cartoon skunk, and Sushi, a goldfish-colored orb with orange fins, flippers and lips.

Gay James, from the Chico area, was flying a friend's balloon called Strawberry Heights. She said she'd been coming to the event, on-and-off, since it started more than two decades ago.

She described flying a balloon as "sky sailing:" the vessels are pushed through the air by the wind, but without a rudder. She said she loved catching up with pilot friends from around the country.

Some of the hot air balloons remained floating, but tethered down in the field, so that visitors could take short, controlled rides.

James said she enjoys offering such rides.

"I love to let people get the experience of ballooning," she said. "That's how I got started."

The festival continues from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. Sunday at Keiser Park. For more information, visit schabc.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5205.