The picture of us in the gondola was taken when we visited the Cannon Exhibit, one of the major sponsors of the event.
That afternoon, we went to visit Ron's high school friend and her husband, Joan and Dennis, who lived across the Rio Grand. They have a beautiful Adobe home with a view of the river and Sandia Mountains. We enjoyed conversation and an iconic New Mexico lunch of Green Chili Hamburgers.
Madrid is an old coal mining/ghost town which has become a small artists' colony and tourist destination with 400 full time residents. The film Wild Hogs (2007) was set and filmed in the town.
We had a great lunch and best Fried Green Tomatoes ever at The Holler restaurant while watching the resident artist drill his artwork to the entire surface of the outside patio.
First, let me encourage everyone to put this event on your bucket list. It is very unique and absolutely worth the trip.
The amazing pictures you see don’t come close to the actual experience of attending the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. The setting, the well-run organization with thousands of proud volunteers (called Navigators) and the camaraderie of the balloonists add up to an event of absolute wonder. This is their 45th year and it’s the most photographed event in the world.
This year over 600 balloons from 24 countries are attending for 9 days during the first week in October. Then there are the 900,000+ visitors and the insane logistics and manpower to move and organize such a big crowd for the numerous events.
Saturday, October 1st is opening day. Morning temperature is 55 degrees and winds are 5-10mph from the west. I awoke at 3:50am, drove to the park-and-ride closest to me which was the parking lot of a local mall. I arrived at the mall at 4:45am, stood in line for 20 minutes then boarded a bus and was on the field by 5:35am. Balloon Fiesta Park is over 360 acres and the launch field is 78 acres, or the equivalent of 56 football fields.
It was still dark and difficult to get acclimated but I found the concession area (of course!) and had an obligatory 'award winning’ Breakfast Burrito and an orange juice while I found my way to the launch field. Music was playing and there was a laser light show which was hitting and illuminating the first wave of balloons starting to inflate on the field. First up were eight balloons they call the ‘Dawn Patrol’ which were situated in the middle of the field. It was still dark and they glowed as the propane prepared them for first fight just before sunrise.
I was lucky enough to attend the opening ceremony, which had perfect weather conditions for the first ‘mass ascension’. This is not always the case and over the years I read that numerous events and whole days have been cancelled due to unfavorable weather conditions. This is why the event is 9 days long and includes two weekends.
Luck again had me located close to the lead balloon where I was allowed to help with the first launch. All of the launch procedure is under watchful eye of ''Zebras' which are a large team of launch directors and safety officials easily identified by their black and white striped jackets. We unfurled the yellow balloon emblazoned with the Balloon Fiesta logo and held the opening open enough for a large fan to start inflating the ‘envelope’. When inflated to about 80 percent, they fired the propane which slowly gave rise to the massive balloon. I could feel the heat of the propane as it was fired. The temperature of the air inside needs to be 100 degrees warmer than the outside air in order to achieve lift. Once airborne, it is simply a back and forth operation of heating the air for lift and ‘venting’ to release the heat to descend. Air currents steer the balloon.
As the balloon starts to tilt upright, there is a coordinated safety checklist which includes the propane operation and the venting mechanism which are ropes attached to vents at the very top of the balloon.
Fiesta officials were in contact with the balloon crew who were waiting for the ‘green’ flag to signal safe conditions for liftoff. While that was happening, several dozen kids were gathered by the Zebras to help hold a giant American Flag attached to the Gondola.
When the green flag was finally raised, a countdown began which was chanted by the thousands of people surrounding the area. The balloon took flight as first light rose from behind the mountains that surround the city and the National Anthem blared from the sound system. It was an absolutely awe inspiring and a magical moment. I was overwhelmed with emotion and had tears in my eyes.
Besides the normal hot air ballon teardrop shape, there are numerous balloons that have what they call “special shapes”. Recent technology has allowed balloons to be larger and more intricate in shape. Larger ‘envelopes’ can weigh over 1,000 pounds and while regular balloons need a crew of 4 or 5 to lay out and inflate, special shapes require up to 20 people.