ALBUQUERQUE (WWLP)–When it comes to hot air ballooning, weather is everything.
The 48th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta got off to a foggy start opening morning. While hundreds of balloon crews were on the field and ready to go, only about a dozen got off the ground due to the poor weather conditions.
The fog did not deter the thousands of spectators who converged on Balloon Fiesta Park. People walked amidst the inflated balloons in awe of the colorful spectacle, taking pictures and talking with the pilots and crews. A popular activity is collecting trading cards from the pilots. Like baseball trading cards, each card has a photo of the balloon and statistics about the balloon and pilot. While some were disappointed that the Mass Ascension was cancelled, most were thrilled to be a part of this exciting event.
Among those attending were Bosque Farms, New Mexico resident James Phillips, his daughter Abigail and four members of her Girl Scout troop. They were there to earn their 2019 Balloon Fiesta Patch.
“Some of the girls have never been to Balloon Fiesta, and it’s in their backyard!” said Phillips. “This is an opportunity for them to learn about this important international event that not only helps provide a boost to the local economy, but gives them exposure to the unique experience of hot air ballooning. They’re learning about the history of flight, the science of aeronautics. They’re seeing the importance of teamwork. And then there’s the fun factor.”
Day 2 was a different story. Like the theme of this year’s Fiesta, “Picture Perfect,” Sunday morning dawned with clear skies with virtually no wind. The dawn patrol balloons rose into the early morning twilight, twinkling like stars against the growing sunrise. After that, it was colorful chaos as the hundreds of balloons began to inflate.
Crews work quickly, laying out the balloon, also known as the envelope. The top of the balloon is the crown, where there is a rope attached. A member of the crew holds on to the rope to keep the balloon steady while it inflates.
The opening at the bottom of the balloon is the throat. The crew places a large fan inside to get the air flowing and the balloon to unfurl. After the balloon is full of air, they remove the fan and attach the basket, which is fitted with a propane gas burner. The pilot fires up the burner to heat the air, and the balloon begins to rise.
The pilot stays in the basket along with anyone who will be along for the ride. The crew hangs on to the edges with all their weight, keeping the balloon from moving until the pilot gets approval to launch.
The launch directors, also known as “zebras,” are easy to spot in their black and white referee style tops. They coordinate the balloon launches with the other directors to make sure the balloons ascend safely. Some of the zebras dress the part, creating outfits that make them stand out in the crowd. Be sure to ask one of them for a trading card or special Fiesta pin.
The “Albuquerque Box” is a weather phenomenon that is created by upper and lower level winds and is unique in the world to the Rio Grande Valley. Balloons launch and catch the lower level that moves them in one direction. They rise further and catch the upper level wind, which moves them in the opposite direction. They drop down to the lower level and repeat the cycle.
While many balloons traveled away from the field Sunday morning, hundreds chose to stay in the box and floated above the field for over an hour, like vibrant candy drops in the sunny sky. Dozens of the pilots chose to land in the field, with spectators and launch directors running to direct and help stop the balloons.
And balloons aren’t the only attraction at the park. There are plenty of vendors and activities to keep all ages occupied. Hungry? There are 43 food concessions with tasty treats to please any palette, from Krispy Kreme doughnuts to New Mexican specialties like breakfast burritos, chili and pulled pork.
Looking for that special Balloon Fiesta souvenir or other mementos of your visit? There are plenty of vendors with a diverse supply of merchandise from t-shirts to jackets, to pins and posters, to shot glasses and everything and anything in between.
For a uniquely New Mexican gift you’ll find “Artisans at Balloon Fiesta” featuring handmade fine arts and crafts from both local and regional artists.
A real crowd pleaser is the NASA showcase tent. Outside is an inflatable half scale model of a NASA F/A-18 plane. Inside are multiple displays where visitors can learn about the most recent research and development aeronautic projects. Visitors can get their photo taken in a virtual space suit, view a high altitude pressure suit, and sit in an F-15 cockpit simulator.
Included at the exhibit is the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment, or GLOBE, program. The program focuses on students and citizen scientists from around the world to make environmental observations and then report them to NASA. The information shared is valuable research that supports NASA Earth science.
If you’re a fan of music, there’s a main stage with local and national acts, as well as dancing and other cultural performances.
In the evenings there are more special events. Read my article on “Balloon Fiesta after Dark” to find out what awaits spectators who venture to the field for night time fun.
The first multiple balloon event in Albuquerque occurred in 1972 with 13 hot air balloons launching from the Coronado Shopping Center parking lot as part of a radio station promotion. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta officially began in the fall of 1975.
Here are the official numbers for the 48th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta held October 5-13, 2019:
Total number of registered hot air balloons: 588
Total number of registered special shape balloons: 104
Total number of registered pilots (primary and additional): 671
Total number of America’s Challenge Gas Race teams: 9
Total number of estimated guest-visits: 866,414
Total number of media organizations: 141
Total number of registered media representatives: 839
Total number of views on Balloon Fiesta Live: 740,901
Total numbers of countries represented (registered pilots): 17-Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Kenya, Netherlands, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand and the USA.
For more information about the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, click HERE.