October 1, 2010
By Mike Collins
Two jets of flame leap high into the predawn darkness, and a roar rolls across the high desert north of downtown Albuquerque. This happens again and again, with fire seemingly erupting everywhere in the large field. Each brief, intense glow illuminates a sea of people, many turning up collars against the night air’s chill.
Clear morning air Pilot Michel Auzat of Quebec, Canada, watches nearby balloons during a mass ascension. With his ground crew—volunteers from England—the Canadian balloon captures the international flavor of the event.
Are these some kind of volcanic eruptions? A practice for Burning Man? Neither. This frequently repeated ritual is merely preflight at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Hundreds of pilots and crews are preparing their hot air balloons to launch in a mass ascension at dawn. An area the size of 54 football fields can launch more than 700 balloons in two hours. Visitors are invited to get up close and personal with the balloons and their crews.
The Balloon Fiesta is like EAA AirVenture for the hot-air set. Pilots fly, often in competitive events, in the early morning and evening hours, when conditions are most favorable. High winds can curtail flying; they can’t exceed 10 knots at the launch site, but some pilots have lower personal minimums. During the day, they can attend safety seminars, visit exhibitors, or socialize. Many evenings feature balloon glows, when balloons are inflated, then illuminated by their burners—but do not launch.
Balloons paint the New Mexico skies for nine days every October. The 2009 event saw 550 registered balloons, from 38 U.S. states and 16 other countries, and an estimated 761,864 visitors. The 2010 event is October 2 through 10. More information is available online. A glimpse of the 2009 festival follows.
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Going up With the burner’s flame heating the air in his balloon’s envelope, Timothy Evans of Cedar Crest, New Mexico, ascends into the Albuquerque morning.
Special shapes Special shape balloons are just that—one-of-a-kind balloons that are shaped into almost anything you can imagine. Examples include animals, cartoon characters, locomotives, even Darth Vader. Balloon Fiesta offers flying events and balloon glows dedicated to these unique aircraft.
Launching pad Baloon Fiesta Park’s 78-acre launching field is a beehive of activity just after dawn, as a mass ascension takes flight. As many as 700 balloons can be launched in two hours. Visitors enjoy an up-close view of the inflation and launching process.
Splash and dash Balloonists maneuver to take part in one of the sport’s traditions, a splash and dash. The goal is to descend, touch the water with the bottom of the basket, and then climb. The Rio Grande, northwest of Albuquerque’s Balloon Festival Park, is a popular objective when the winds cooperate.
So close, yet so far Harold Graves of Emery, South Dakota, tries unsuccessfully to snag the prize in a key grab competition. The balloonist who grabs the envelope from the top of a pole wins the prize inside—usually cash, a gift certificate, or a vacation package.
Balloons after dark During colorful balloon glows, choreographed burner applications at twilight illuminate dozens of inflated envelopes. Most are tethered to their chase vehicles to safeguard against an inadvertant flight.
After the flight Pulling hard on two long lines, chase crew members begin the process of deflating a balloon along a dirt road in northwestern Albuquerque. Pilot Michel Auzat stands by in the basket. The balloon’s envelope will be folded into a package the size of a very large duffel bag.
Getting up close AOPA Pilot Technical Editor Mike Collins takes you along on his personal tour of the 2009 Balloon Fiesta. Enjoy the ride!
Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.
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