All year we had been anticipating and looking forward to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. On Wednesday we arrived at the Balloon Fiesta RV park across the street from the balloon grounds where we camped for twelve days with the Escapees Boomers RV Club.
Balloonists come from all over the world to fly here. An atmospheric effect called “The Albuquerque Box” makes precision flying possible. The “box” is a set of predictable wind patterns in the Rio Grande Valley beside the Sandia Mountains. Pilots launch into cold surface winds from the north and ascend into winds from the south which allows balloonists to take advantage of the winds to change direction by varying their altitude. Balloons cannot be steered so there is no control over where they fly, but pilots can change their altitude and take advantage of the wind in different wind layers to control their direction. They like the challenge of using the Albuquerque Box to attempt to launch and land in almost exactly the same spot. Few balloonists achieve this feat.
Friday morning we got up at 5:00 A.M. to go with a group of Boomers to a local elementary school. We met a balloonist who was going to launch a balloon from the school so the children could watch. Since it was 7:00 A.M., we assumed this was a before school care program. This was our introduction to hot air ballooning as we watched him launch his “Alley Cat” balloon.
Friday afternoon during Boomer Happy Hour we were given our pilot assignment for the week. We had a choice of signing up to crew for a limited number of days or the entire week. In our excitement we bit off more than we could chew by signing up for all nine days of the Fiesta!
Saturday morning we got up at 5:00 A.M. and took the shuttle bus from the RV park over to the balloon field. As we entered the park we could see the Dawn Patrol, several balloons which go up each morning to test the weather conditions. In order for the balloons to fly, visibility has to be no less than 3 miles, clouds not below 1,500 feet and winds no faster than 10 knots.
The Balloonmeister will postpone or cancel flights if the weather conditions are not right. Likewise the pilots may decide not to fly if the winds are too light. Sounds a lot like Goldilocks’ porridge, doesn’t it! For that reason, if you want to attend the Balloon Fiesta and have a good chance of seeing balloons launch, you need to come for several days. Each morning the pilots have a briefing before they meet their crew on the field. We met our pilot Layne from Jefferson City, Missouri. There was one other Boomer to help us. With no training other than having watched the pilot on Friday, we hit the ground running. It is hard work. The balloon and wicker basket has to be placed on the ground. Both are very heavy. The balloon is taken from the bag and spread out on the field.
A fan is turned on and a person stands on each side of the balloon and holds the mouth of the balloon open while the balloon fills with air.
Another person holds the crown line which stabilizes the balloon both during inflation and later during deflation. Once the balloon is full of air, the pilot uses burners to blast hot air in the balloon to finish preparing it to launch.
One of the “zebras”, who are the Launch Directors in black and white outfits, gives the okay for him to launch. Every morning just after dawn there is a mass ascension where up to 550 balloons are launched in two waves which takes about two hours. Some mornings we were in the first wave and other mornings we were second wave.
This allows the 550+ balloons to launch safely in the crowded sky. What was amazing to us is how close they allow the massive crowds of people to get to the balloons on the field. There are no barricades keeping the crowds away. You can walk right up and watch any balloon being launched.
In fact the pilot might even ask for your help. It is the only hot air balloon event in the world we know of where such open access occurs.
Once the balloon is launched, a chase vehicle needs to follow the balloon to help with the deflation and storing of the balloon and basket once it lands. Bill was asked to drive the chase vehicle which was difficult since we don’t really know the layout of Albuquerque! But Bill did a great job and the pilot had a cell phone to notify us of his location if we lost sight of the balloon.
Once the balloon landed we had to get the air out of the balloon, roll it up, put it back in the bag and load the basket on the back of the van.
Saturday evening we went back and did it all over again for the Saturday evening “Glow”. This is when the pilots inflate their balloons and they all fire their burners at the same time. The balloon light up the night sky, a beautiful sight!
Bill was taught how to do the crown rope, probably the most strenuous job because you have to keep the huge balloon stabilized as it fills with air.
We were really tired by the time we caught the shuttle bus back home. It was then quick baths and hurry to bed so we could get up the next morning at 5:00 A.M. Fortunately this was the only nightly event our pilot participated in and the only two launches in one day we had to do. I don’t think we would have been physically able to do many two launches a day.
On the first Saturday they launched eight gas hydrogen balloons which raced each other across the country over a course of several days. These balloons are trying to break distance and or time records.
In the nine days of the Fiesta we helped launch and put away the balloon seven times. It was hard getting up each morning at 5:00, being out in the cold and using muscles we hadn’t used so strenuously in awhile. A couple times the balloon launches were canceled due to wind. We still had to report to the field by 6:30 A.M., only to find out the launches were canceled. Most mornings it was really cold. The first morning I thought I had enough clothes on, but I didn’t, and just about froze to death. From then on I wore two long sleeved shirts, a light jacket, a heavy winter coat and three pairs of socks. Once the sun came out we needed to shed the layers.
One day our pilot landed in Indian territory. The Native Americans really dislike balloons landing on their land. If that happens the chase vehicle has to call a number and wait for an Indian escort to the balloon. The pilot and chase car driver have to fill out forms provided by the Native Americans. There were some days pilots didn’t fly because the winds were blowing toward the Indian reservations.
Several days they had Special Shapes Day when huge balloons in different shapes were inflated. At night when the special shapes were all lighted it was called a “Glowdeo”.
Bill especially enjoyed the Star Wars balloons and one evening they had different Star Wars characters and Bill had his picture taken with several of them.
The last evening of the Glowdeo the wind was strong and the balloonists were struggling to get the huge balloons inflated and tethered. We were standing next to two of our favorites, adorable boy and girl Mexican balloons. They were huge and the balloon owner had a mariachi band playing. Suddenly one of the tethered ropes of the Mexican girl balloon broke and the balloon with the pilot in the basket went soaring through the night sky. The crowd gasped in alarm, it was really quite scary to see. We were all concerned about the safety of the pilot and where he would land in the dark and windy night. It made the local news that night and we learned the pilot was safe.
Each night at the end of the evening they had a laser show and fireworks.
On Wednesday Bill’s college friend Peter and his wife Beth flew in from Florida. This was their fifth time to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. They stayed at a nearby hotel and joined us for each day’s events. They also agreed to help us crew our balloon which was a big help!
On Thursday Bill went flying with Layne and I was able to go flying on Friday, the 13th. It was both Bill’s and my first hot air balloon ride. It was amazing! So smooth you could hardly tell we were moving and the views were amazing. The hardest part was climbing in the balloon!
During the Balloon Fiesta commercial balloonists were charging $350 per person for rides. Every time you entered the field for the morning or evening events it cost $10 per person. In exchange for helping our pilot we each received a free ride and free passes for the week to all events. We estimate helping crew saved us over $1,000. They also had a Pilot Picnic for the crew. We thought they were having hamburgers, hot dogs and beer. I decided not to go so Bill went with a Boomer friend parked next to us. Turns out they had steak, chicken, potatoes, green beans, Caesar salad, strawberry shortcake and all the mixed drinks or beer you wanted. That will teach me to turn my nose up to hot dogs and beer!
Besides saving money, we also had a great experience learning all the ins and outs of launching, piloting and landing a hot air balloon. It was hard work, cold and getting up really early was difficult. The traffic is beyond crazy and the crowds huge. It is such a big event in Albuquerque they close schools on Thursday and Friday of Fiesta week so children can attend with their families. We would do it again, but next time we probably won’t volunteer to help the entire week, but would gladly help for several days. Attending the Balloon Fiesta and riding in a hot air balloon had been on our bucket list for some time. Now we can check it off!
On the last day we told Layne goodbye. He sent us a Facebook request and posted a nice comment on his wall about what a big help we had been to him. Nice to know he was pleased with us rookies.
Next up: More about our time in Albuquerque with Peter and Beth. It wasn’t all about the Balloon Fiesta!
Hot Air Balloon facts:
- Joseph-Michael and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier invented hot air balloons in 1783 in France. They discovered if a lightweight paper or fabric bag was placed over a fire, the hot air made the bag rise. They built a balloon, and a duck, sheep and rooster were the first passengers to fly in a hot air balloon. They flew almost two miles in eight minutes.
- The first human passengers flew in a balloon built by the Montgolfier brothers on November 21, 1783. They flew over Paris for 5.5 miles for 25 minutes. Today November 21 is known as Montgolfier Day. (By the way, our pilot Layne made his own balloon.)
- Hot air balloons usually do not fly in the rain because the heat on the inside of the balloon when combined with the rain on the outside of the balloon can damage the fabric.
- Burners on hot air balloons produces enough air to heat almost 200 homes.
- A hot air balloon rises because the temperature inside the balloon is warmer than the temperature outside. The average temperature inside a hot air balloon is around 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
- The average height of a hot air balloon is approximately 90 feet tall, the height of a nine story building.
- The Balloon Fiesta launch field is almost 80 acres, the size of 54 football fields.