Hot air balloon pilot Colin Graham lifted off in his colorful Wandering Endeavor at sunrise, and climbed gracefully into the blue New Mexico sky as hundreds of voices from a gathering crowd below cheered him aloft. Moments later he returned like a boomerang to nearly the exact same spot at Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta Park, during a mass ascension.
An atmospheric phenomenon known as the “Albuquerque Box” brought predictable, low-altitude southerly winds, and at higher altitudes northerly winds returned Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta pilots to the 78-acre field in a vertical rotation that crowded the sky with color. A variety of hues, shapes, and styles of balloons silently floated and bobbed as the sun peeked over the Sandia Mountains in a stunning scene that unfolded for nine days, Oct. 2 through 9.
The visual display attracted 550 pilots, 1 million visitors, and each year pumps more than $175 million into the state’s economy, according to organizers. Highlights included early-morning mass ascensions where hundreds of traditional and specially shaped balloons lifted off, and sunset “Glowdeos” where yellow gas flames whooshed into scores of balloon envelopes, illuminating them as stars rose over the desert.
Local resident Saul Jaquez took in the scene bundled in a heavy coat with a hat tucked low on his head to ward off the morning chill. Others wore pajamas or draped themselves in traditional blankets.
“It’s so colorful,” said Jaquez. “I’ve heard that it’s the most photographed event in the world, so that tells you something.” He invited family members from Texas to view the unusual display. “It helps our economy, it’s great for our state and it’s one of the nicest events,” said Jaquez.
The balloon rally grew from 13 balloons launched in 1972 to one of the world’s largest spectator events because of the circulating winds, organizers said. The prevailing winds aloft and their accompanying drainage winds create the aerial circulation.
Much of the terrain north of Albuquerque toward Santa Fe is above 8,000 feet, “and that’s what creates the flow pattern,” said Graham, who studied the intricacies of what he called “micrometeorology, which is not necessarily easy” so he could better understand local weather patterns. “Learning the local area, watching the weather, and then being physically present and flying in various conditions are the keys.”
Graham said similar boxes can be found elsewhere, but the camaraderie in Albuquerque attracts a who’s-who of ballooning, a festival where old friendships are renewed and new bonds cemented. He said he looked forward to working with a familiar ground crew each year, including “chasers” in vehicles who pursue balloons when the winds don’t cooperate. Other crew members help tuck away the balloon, burners, and basket. Pilots can get by with a minimum of two people, he said, with one on the ground and one in the air. However, it’s more likely that six to eight load, unload, fold, or stuff the envelopes, which can weigh 700 pounds or more, into trucks or trailers. Their wicker baskets and propane fuel tanks can weigh up to 1,200 pounds.
Salt Lake City’s Tim Taylor, a member of the critical “Dawn Patrol” crew, floated above the launch area during the early morning darkness to check winds and weather aloft while pilots gathered around a wooden tower for a daily safety briefing. He arrived by 2:30 a.m. to inflate his balloon for dawn duties along with a half-dozen others selected for the advance team.
Taylor said he learned to fly when he was 16 and attended the U.S. Air Force Academy. Although he “flew everything from a Learjet on down,” it was ballooning that attracted his attention the most after an introductory flight on his wedding day. “I got married in the balloon and loved it so much I bought the balloon I got married in and I’ve been flying ever since, for 29 years.”
Earlier in the week two balloonists had flown into power lines during an off-site landing but escaped serious injury. Pilots said obstacles such as power lines, trees, and houses are avoided at all costs. The balloon world was still reeling from a highly publicized commercial ride accident in Texas that claimed the pilot and 15 passengers. There were immediate calls for increased oversight and regulation, but so far nothing official has been done.
Graham, who also holds a commercial pilot certificate for airplanes, said the regulations for ballooning are similar to those for other aircraft: Airspace, weather, and flight rules are front and center. Certification to fly balloons typically takes less time than a certificate to fly airplanes. The 33-year-old Montana balloon operator said it can be done with about 10 hours of instruction.
Once the day’s plan was set and the winds and weather checked, pilots scrambled to their assigned launch grids. All eyes were on a yellow flag indicating winds greater than 10 mph, the maximum wind speed allowed. A green flag signaled a mass of motion as envelopes were unfolded by pilots and crew. They sorted ropes and affixed gas burners to the tops of their baskets while fan blades filled giant sheets of cloth with cool air, warmed by the burners in loud blasts that attracted a growing crowd. Safety personnel dressed in black and white zebra stripes, with comical zebra hats to match, and directed traffic as hundreds of balloon envelopes inflated one by one, springing up like mushrooms from the grassy field.
When the signal was given for liftoff, a kaleidoscope of color filled the brisk air as 550 balloonists jockeyed for position, bobbing and weaving on the cool breeze like prize fighters in a boxing ring. The feeling of floating skyward in a balloon was the complete opposite of the sights, sounds, and sensations of an aircraft on takeoff roll, pilots said. The aroma of funnel cakes and coffee filled the air as the aircraft silently rose. Balloonists could hear people on the ground cheering as the ground rushed away from them.
On the nearby Rio Grande, a group of kayakers paddled in for a closer look as a fleet of traditional and specially shaped balloons fashioned like sea creatures, animals, or objects filled the skyline and the crowd receded in the distance.
“I’ve been flying longer than I’ve been able to drive a car,” said Graham, as he pumped a blast of hot air into his balloon over the river. “You can come out here for a day or stay for a week. It’s just a really cool event and it’s good, clean fun.