LAS CRUCES — Dauntless hot air balloon pilots are rallying for a non-rally this weekend, despite official cancellation of a beloved annual event.

Early birds may catch a colorful glimpse of a dozen balloons launching near the Three Crosses area and flying throughout Las Cruces from about 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. today.

"The balloons are cool," said fan Serenity Apodaca, 8, watching a colorful launch early Saturday morning with her brother Gavyn, 11, and their dad Phillip Apodaca, all of Las Cruces.

The official Mesilla Valley Balloon Rally for January 2013 was canceled. Instead, the event became a "non-rally fly-in" this year, under the auspices of the Greater Mesilla Valley Aerostat Ascension Association, rather than the MVBR group.

Still, several pilots and crew from throughout the Southwest and from as far away as Michigan and Kansas, decided it was worth the effort to travel and pay their own way.

"It's my mid-winter break. It's a lot of fun and a beautiful place to fly," said Nick Stroupe of Silver Lake, Kan., who has been flying for 26 years and coming to the Las Cruces rally since 1997.

The Mesilla Valley also boasts a dedicated group of volunteers who come to help assist pilots. They are sometimes rewarded with a balloon flight.

"I've been doing this for 17 or 18 years," said Sandy Farmer of Las Cruces. "If somebody tells me I can fly, I'm there. I flew in a balloon before I flew in an airplane — and you can give be a balloon ride any day."

Many balloon aficionados are as faithful as San Juan Capistrano's swallows, returning year after year.

It was a return trip for Dusty Weston of Lubbock, Texas, and his balloon, Bag "O Wind.

"There are good friends and good flying here," said Weston, who has been coming for seven years to the January gathering.

It's the 15th year for Tom Gardner and the 12th for Blair and Ann Kaufman.

"I helped organize the first (hot air balloon event) here in the "80s. I've been flying for 30 years," said Patrick Lamb.

It's also been about three decades for balloon fan Vicky Shaw of Las Cruces, who agrees with balloon pilots, crew, volunteers and spectators on the main attractions: friendly people, great weather and great views.

Balloon pilot Orbin Stone of Las Cruces, and his long-time rally organizer wife Janette, said 18 pilots had signed up for the event.

"But things happen. There were some who canceled because of illness or had last-minute problems. We had 13 scheduled to fly (Saturday) and one had some problems with a balloon, so we ended up with 12," said Janette Stone.

The Stones handed out propane stipends for pilots, provided by last-minute sponsor donations. The main difference for the public this year is that the "non-rally" launch site, on private property, has limited parking, so access is limited to pilots and their crew.

Balloon fans are still able to enjoy dramatic — if fewer — sightings of balloons flying over the city.

The January rally is believed to be the year's earliest hot air balloon event nationwide, and one of the earliest in the world. Most hot air balloon events are held at times of the year when favorable weather conditions are more likely.

Founded in 1982 as part of the Whole Enchilada Fiesta, the event split off and officially became the Mesilla Valley Balloon Rally in 1988, launching next to Burn Lake. Over the years, it moved to Mayfield High School, then to a site owned by Southwest Cotton Growers located on Valley Drive and Amador Avenue and in 2005 to its current site at Brown Farm Field.

The MVBR was canceled for economic reasons in 2009, but hot air balloonists showed up anyway for an unofficial "fly-in." Balloonists did the same in 2010. It seemed things were looking up in 2011 and 2012, when the rally hosted a full schedule of mass ascensions, balloon competitions, fun launches and balloon glows, plus special shapes, tethered balloon rides and social events for pilots and volunteers. Food and other vendors showed up to cater to thousands of expected spectators.

But this year, sponsorships and support were sluggish and led to the MVBR's decision to cancel.

The rally's future is uncertain. John Kemp, president of the MVBR Board of Directors, said the group will meet soon to determine whether the official rally will return in 2014.

S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at 575-541-5450. Follow her on Twitter @DerricksonMoore.

Keep looking up:

What: Mesilla Valley Balloon "Non-Rally" Fly-in

When: Launches continue this morning; flights from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m.

Where: Las Cruces.