International Balloon Fiesta –
For 9 days every October, Albuquerque hosts the worlds largest celebration of balloon flight. Billed as the most photographed event in the world, hundreds of balloons fill the autumn skies.
Why Albuquerque? The phenomena of the “Albuquerque box” provides the ideal setting for the balloonist. The lower altitude of the Rio Grande River Valley to the west and the higher altitude of the Sandia Mountain range to the east create a wind pattern that flows in a box. Lower altitudes move the balloon south and higher altitude moves the balloon back north Sometime leading the balloon right back to their starting point.
While my schedule doesn’t place me here during the fiesta, I don’t have to look hard to immerse myself into Albuquerque’s balloon culture.
Would you like to ride…
I select the World Balloon charter for no particular reason, but their Red, White and Blue balloons are appealing. To take advantage of favorable winds and to beat the desert heat, flights begin early, real early. Our meeting time is 6:00 am. We meet at a nondescript dirt lot behind a Panda Express on North side of Albuquerque. One of the well-marked vans arrives just as I do. Moments later another two vans roll in and begin unloading. I meet Murray and Randy, two of the pilots. These have to be the happiest guys I have ever met. The love what they do and you can just tell it. While they and their crews are busy they interact with the few other passengers that are starting to gather around.
I grab a cup of coffee from the nearby restaurant. Just as begin my return, I see the glow and hear the roar of the burner test firing. The roaring of the fire triggers the adrenaline and the loud and bright glows excite us all. I scramble across the parking lot but don’t get my camera out in time to catch the show. My disappointment didn’t go unnoticed as Murray offers another blast when I’m ready. Happy guys, do this kind of thing.
The support crews, in the meantime, are rolling out tarps and the balloon (the Envelope) over them. Just as the sun begins to clear the surrounding mountains, large fans are inflating the envelope. Don’t make the mistake of saying blowing up the balloon, trust me. Once the balloons begin to fill with air, the burners are engaged to further fill the envelope with heated air. The basket is on its side waiting for the hot air to work its magic and right the ship. The whole set-up process takes maybe half an hour.
For we can fly, we can fly
The baskets are designed to carry 12 passengers depending on weight. You are asked your weight during the registration process. This is not the time to fudge on that number. We only have 7 in our basket today and it’s very comfortable. After a brief safety overview, pretty much don’t fall out, the burners roar to life.
Up, Up and Away
Lift off is about as anticlimactic as you can imagine. In fact, only when I see the top of light poles do I feel we’ve even moved. After just a couple of minutes, I can see forever and notice that there are about 10 other balloons popping up all over town.
Our flight is only a few hundred feet above ground as we pass by the city and heading in a southerly direction toward the Rio Grand River. A little river tributary provides a mirrored reflection of us as we float by.
We skim the treetops as our Pilot, Randy, lowers the basket to just above the Rio Grande.
My beautiful, my beautiful balloon
After the river dip, we assume a loftier altitude. There is a quietness and a sense of serenity that’s only interrupted by the now familiar blasts from the burner. I lose myself in the beauty before me for several minutes.
Seemingly way too soon, the chatter amongst the chase crew and other pilot begins over the radios as they contemplate suitable landing locations. A local warehouse and shipping yard lot is to be our touchdown point.
At about 100 feet above ground, we are asked to assume the landing position. As we had practiced earlier, we crouch down below the basket’s edge and hang on to a rope railing. We hit with a mild thud when. To help keep us grounded, 2 crew members who were waiting for us, jump on to the basket from the outside. We become airborne for just a brief second before bouncing a couple more times as the one ton, $85,000 balloon finally comes to rest. The 3 point landing kicks up a little dust but is otherwise uneventful. The wrapping, folding and reloading of the envelope and basket into the trailer becomes a group effort.
The flight lasts about an hour and covers nearly six miles. The van ride back to the starting point seems much longer. Hitting morning Albuquerque traffic reminds me of the 5th Dimensions song: Up Up and Away.
The world’s a nicer place in my beautiful balloon
It wears a nicer face in my beautiful balloon
In the early days of ballooning in France, the peasants who have never seen a hot air balloon would often attack a landing balloon out of fear. Pilots begin to carry champagne bearing the Kings seal as an offering of peace to the startled citizenry. This tradition continues today with a celebratory toast upon landing.
For videos of today’s flight check out my YouTube channel.