Hot Air Over Albuquerque
Come Fly Away
By Robert Painter
I've been going to this party for over thirty years and every year it feels like it's the first time. I still get excited about getting up by 5 am and driving to the balloon field. A breakfast burrito and a hot cinnamon roll along with some hot chocolate and I'm ready for another Dawn Patrol followed by yet another mass ascension.
The fact is that every one of the ascensions is different. Every day the wind is different and every day I see some new balloons that I have never seen before. This year Darth Vader was a big hit, but my favorite was Mr. Bup - a giant tortoise from Belgium.
I always love to see Airabelle, the gigantic cow. Sometimes she inflates but doesn't fly. I guess you can't expect to see a flying cow every day. She's so big that by the time she's fully inflated sometimes the wind picks up a bit too much for a safe flight for her. Photo # 4
This year Noah's Ark, Jesus, Mr. Scarecrow, Pegasus, Little Angel, Buzzy the Bee, Smokey Bear, Hopper T Frog, Felix the Cat, Humpty Dumpty, Purple People Eater, Enchanted Duckie, Farm Chicken and a whole bunch more special shapes balloons were flying overhead.
Not all the balloons are special shapes. The majority are pretty standard, but all are beautifully colored. This year a pair of tie-dyed balloons really got a lot of attention. Also, there were a few egg-shaped racing balloons. They are slender and faster in the wind I was told.
I should explain that the Dawn Patrol is the first group of balloons that fire up in the dark and take off just before sunrise to test the winds. Everyone cheers when they light up their burners which, in turn, lights up the entire balloon. A spectacular sight in the pre-dawn sky.
Following the successful flight of the dawn patrol comes the mass ascension. Now the balloons go up in waves. It may look a bit chaotic, but there officials on the field that monitor the take-offs to be sure there are no mid-air collisions or other problems. The pilots ascend in waves from one end of the field to another. As they take off, the next group is inflating their balloons and preparing to take off.
The balloons are first cold inflated with a powerful, large fan. Once the balloon is cold inflated and filled with enough air to provide a safe opening for the hot flames, the propane burners are fired and the flame heats the inside air and causes the envelope to rise. And that's the reason for the very early morning starts for these events. The cold air outside the balloon makes the heated air inside much more efficient and increases the lift, making it much easier to fly in the early morning air rather than the late afternoon.
When you look at the you'll see that you can get right onto the field and into the middle of the action. Just pay attention, keep your eyes open and be ready for fun.
If you are wondering how Albuquerque was chosen for this special event there are a number of reasons. Pilots love to fly here because of the weather. Not only the cool mornings and clear sunny days, but also a phenomenon called the "Albuquerque Box." The wind conditions are such that often a pilot can take off and fly in one direction for a while, then increase altitude and find an air current taking the balloon back in the direction from which it came. The pilot can then drop down and change back to the original direction - hence the "box." This is especially important because of some of the flying competitions wherein the pilot has to be able to maneuver the balloon into position to hit targets with bean bags, etc. And the big contest, the Key Grab, requires some maneuverability so that the pilot can fly by a pole and pick off the key to a new car or truck. There is not a winner every year, but there is always plenty of competition.
Personally, I believe one of the reasons for the continued success of this terrific event is the involvement of the people of Albuquerque. As you may have guessed, the balloon is much at the mercy of the wind. A good pilot can do a lot, but no matter the skill, cannot always control the exact direction of flight and cannot always choose exactly where to land. Probably one of the best examples I can offer is from my flight earlier in the week. When we took off from the field the wind was almost calm. As soon as we got a bit of altitude, the winds were beginning to pick up. After a beautiful flight, being able to see the other balloons above and below and off in the distance we began to descend. The balloons are large and there has to be room for the canopy to fall once on the ground. Albuquerque is a city, of course, and there are only a limited number of places to set down safely. As we were coming down it was pretty apparent that we were going to come in a little faster than we might prefer. Sometimes this means the balloon will drag the gondola (that's the basket the passengers and pilot ride in) until it stops. Often that means the gondola will tip over and you might have someone on top of you. (Try to fly with friends if you can - but, if not, become friends with everyone when you get in the gondola,) But, rather than dragging along the ground in the wind, there were dozens of local residents who were in the field waiting to help the balloons land. They ran alongside, grabbed the gondola and helped keep it upright until the balloon was stopped. When I talked to some of them they told me that they planned to stay in the field until all the balloons coming there had landed.
Many local residents sign up to be on chase crews. These people follow the balloons as they fly and then help land the balloon if possible and then pack the balloon and load it back on the truck or van to go back to the take-off field. But you don't have to be a local - out-of-towners are welcome to sign up for chase crew duties as well. And, if you're lucky, you might even get a free ride for your troubles. That's not guaranteed - the pilots usually try to take up as many as they can. So you may have to just settle for a beautiful Balloon Pin or a sip of champagne!
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is a source of pride for the people of Albuquerque. Sure, it brings in a lot of money, but many of the people who help are not directly affected by this great influx of cash. They just want to participate because of a wonderful community spirit and a chance to join in the fun.
So, if you want to come to the party (I would go even if it wasn't my birthday - Did I mention that is probably another of the reasons for having it here in Albuquerque) look at your calendar and mark off the first and second weekends of October next year and plan to come for some time during that 9 day period. Make your plans early, a lot of the hotels sell out. If you'll need to rent a car, reserve it today. If you have friends in Albuquerque, book your room today. If they won't be in town, just ask them to send you a key. But, whatever you do, don't miss the spectacle and excitement of Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Before you come be sure and look at the websites listed below. And, don't forget, this will be your opportunity to fill up on fantastic New Mexican food. Order anything on the menu - the only other choice you'll have to make is - Red or Green? Your server will explain.
When You Go:
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta: www.balloonfiesta.com
Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Center : www.abqcvb.org
Story and by Robert Painter: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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