This week is the forty-fourth annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Oh, the pageantry! Oh, the excitement! Oh, the humanity! This is the signature event for Albuquerque and the surrounding area and there will be thousands of visitors over the nine day event. Lots of money pours into the local economy. It is well worth a visit and really something that people should experience at least once.
The locals experience it every year and it is quite common to see hot air balloons flying overhead almost any time of the year. My daughter, experiencing her first real encounter with the Balloon Fiesta, remarked that she didn’t understand why people weren’t out on rooftops and lining the streets watching the balloons. Burquenos take it all in stride and go about their business with the sky full of balloons. They take notice because what goes up must come down and sometimes it comes down on the street in front of you, tying up traffic. Occasionally there are some mishaps. Last year there was a “hard landing” and a few broken bones and another pilot found himself tangled in power lines. With 550 balloons taking off over the course of an hour the number of mishaps is quite small.
Albuquerque has an ideal climate and a unique atmospheric condition called “the Albuquerque Box”. The winds in the Rio Grande Valley here in Albuquerque will often blow north at one level of elevation and then south at another level so balloon pilots can take off and fly for a long time and then increase or decrease their altitude and fly back to where they started. I know of people who take off and fly for an hour and land within five feet of where they started. Add to that the terrain, the Rio Grande River and Bosque forest, the beauty of the Sandia Mountains and the open desert and this is the ideal place — a hot air balloon Mecca.
I have taken so many pictures of balloons that I don’t need any more but I still do it. Every year there are new and different shapes and designs. When the wind blows just right they come to my house. I don’t have to leave my front yard and sometimes they are landing in the vacant lot across the street.
On Wednesday the Fiesta scheduled International Day and balloons and pilots from various countries displayed flags of their home nations. A balloon from Ireland flew over the house.
Thursday’s event featured special shapes. There are many special shape balloons that go up every day but Thursday is the big show. I climbed out of bed around 4:45 in the morning and, after a quick cup of strong coffee and a little finger food, I headed out. They have a well devised system of funneling spectators to the Balloon Fiesta park…I drove to the Intel parking lot and boarded a school bus and arrived un-frazzled at the gate of the launching grounds. This went much smoother than I expected and I will never drive over there again as long as there is a “Park and Ride” option. They even have a system set up with the RailRunner train so you could climb on a train in Santa Fe or as far away as Belen and be delivered at the Balloon Fiesta park. This was my second visit to the Balloon Fiesta. My first visit was in 1979 and it was a different experience. What I remember most was being cold and having my shoes and socks so wet from dew that I squished when I walked. It was a wonderful experience thirty-six years ago but it was better doing it on paved walkways and dry feet. It also wasn’t as cold.
It is still dark when you arrive at Balloon Fiesta Park and there are already hundreds or thousands of people there. The activities start well before 6 AM when the Dawn Patrol is launched. These half-dozen balloons are equipped with lights so they can be tracked as they fly up and away from the park. This is what I usually look for when I stagger to the door in my jammies to see if balloons are going up…I can see the lights in the sky from my house. Seeing it up close was cool because the propane burner that heats up the air in the balloon lights it up like a giant light bulb.
As you walk toward the inflating balloons you have ample opportunity to grab a breakfast burrito or some other carry-able breakfast and your morning coffee. There are dozens of vendors and a pretty good variety. I had heard from a friend to be sure to pick up some Tom Thumb Donuts…a dozen miniature donuts in a bag. I didn’t expect to find any but, voila, there they were right in my path. I picked up a small bag of donuts and a coffee and wandered out toward the balloon area. It was still dark but growing lighter in the east over the Sandia Mountains.
What spectators do is just wander around among the balloons. There’s no separation. You are right there among the balloons. You feel the heat from the propane burners and you zig-zag around the ground crews and take it all in.
The roaring sound of the propane burners bounces around you as the balloons start to inflate. It looks chaotic but there are striped shirt ground managers who keep things under control. The special shape balloons are bigger and need more attention and room to get them laid out properly. There is a little crowd control needed to move spectators back far enough to get balloons ready.
It is well worth the wait when the special shapes take flight. Some of these show up every year and people look for them as old favorites. A cheer goes up every time one of these behemoths take flight. You wouldn’t think that some of these could fly but, with enough hot air, they do. They are sometimes unwieldy and hard to control so the wind plays an important part in whether they get off the ground.
So, once the balloons get up they move off according to the direction of the wind. It is about 8:30 or 9 AM by the time they all are up. There will be some precision flying competitions that take place. One involves pilots maneuvering across the field and dropping a marker close to a target. They need to make a low pass as they come close to the target.
Some folks watch the competitions or the following Parabatics performance (motorized parachute planes). Some find their way back to the busses and head home to take a nap. Some are hungry and head back to the vendors to find a late breakfast or an early lunch.
I stayed around and took more pictures…like I needed more. I was home before 11 AM. So that was my experience so far. There are still a few days left for the 2015 Fiesta so, who knows, they could be landing in the front yard.