In addition to being home for Rio Grande, Albuquerque is also known as the Hot Air Balloon Capital of the World. Every October the city hosts The International Balloon Fiesta. Starting with just 13 balloons in 1972, the fiesta celebrated its 40th anniversary this year with more than 600 balloons aloft.
Living in the village of Corrales, just north of Albuquerque, I’ve been blessed for years with incredible aerial shows as hundreds of colorful balloons drift overhead. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I ever thought I’d have the chance to actually go up myself. One of my teammates, Amy Melvin, is an FAA certified balloon pilot and she promised me that she’d take me up. That was five years ago.
Schedules didn’t work out, weather didn’t cooperate, I couldn’t force myself to wake up that early, on and on it went until it looked pretty hopeless for me to ever get a ride in a balloon. Then, about three weeks ago, the stars aligned and it looked like we’d be able to fly in Amy’s new balloon: American Beauty. So there we were at the crack of dawn, setting up out in the middle of the mesa – Amy, her amazing crew, me and my amazing girlfriend, Lara.
We’d just started to inflate the balloon when the wind kicked up and it started to rain. Either one spells potential danger for a flight; both together cancel a flight. Foiled again! We rushed to get the balloon packed up and back into the trailer while Amy promised that we’d fly another day.
Later that week, Amy came to me with another date in mind: October 2, during Balloon Fiesta. Getting your first flight during the Fiesta is like taking your first car ride at the Indy 500. And it just happened to be the third anniversary of my first date with Lara – perfect!
Balloon Fiesta Park is a 360 acre facility with about 80 acres devoted just to the launch field. Tens of thousands of visitors fill the park everyday of the event. Unlike most air shows you’re free to walk among the balloons and talk with pilots and crews as long as you’re out of the way when launch activities kick in. It takes a huge amount of coordination and concentration to get a balloon set up, inflated and launched.
Amy’s crew chief, Jeff, is highly skilled, very experienced and uncommonly conscientious. His first concern is the safety of his pilot, passengers and crew. He seems to be in three places at once, keeping tabs on everything and everyone. He made sure we all knew our roles and responsibilities as we began our preparations. Next, it was Amy’s turn to brief us on in-flight procedures and then it was time to get busy.
Once the balloon is inflated, there’s no time to waste – hundreds of balloons are launched every hour at Fiesta. The Zebras let us know we were cleared for launch and off we went. Ascending quickly, the ride is so smooth you hardly notice you’re climbing except that everything on the ground is getting smaller.
Pilots “steer” their balloons by changing altitude, ascending or descending into different layers of air, which are moving at different speeds and directions. Part of what makes Albuquerque such a popular destination for balloonists is the Albuquerque Box, a local weather pattern that allows pilots to cycle back and forth over the city.
We initially headed south, but as Amy took us up to about 1500 feet, we caught a new breeze and began to drift northwest over the Rio Grande and Corrales. The views were amazing and our smiles were ear to ear as we drifted slowly over the landscape; our peaceful flight occasionally broken by the roar of the propane jets overhead heating the air in the balloon and keeping us aloft. Other balloons floated below, above and around us, all keeping a healthy distance, avoiding collisions.
We were in constant radio contact with our chase crew on the ground as they made their way from Albuquerque to the northwest side of Rio Rancho where we planned to land in open space. We could see from other balloons landing ahead of us that the ground winds were pretty strong out of the north and that would make our landfall a bit more exciting. And just to make it a little more adventurous there was the small matter of the barbed wire fence that suddenly appeared, running right through the middle of the field we were shooting for.
Amy’s an amazing pilot and she sailed us over the fence, clearing it by just a couple of feet, and then we hit the ground traveling southeast at about 10 miles per hour. A couple, three, five bumps and we came to a stop as the crew hustled across the field to grab the gondola and keep us steady until the tarp could be laid out to catch the deflating balloon and protect it from cactus. Holes and hot air balloons don’t mix.
After packing up, we all headed back to the balloon park where Lara and I were initiated in a secret ceremony into the ranks of balloonists. I will share that part of the proceedings involve a bubbly liquid, but can say no more about the ritual.
Ballooning is an incredible adventure and unlike any other experience I’ve ever had. One of the most impressive aspects of the sport is the camaraderie and support of the ballooning community. There are competitions at the Fiesta, but crews will do anything and everything they can help one another. When folks come together to take on great challenges by providing each other with even greater encouragement and collaboration amazing things can happen.
Many, many thanks to Amy and her crew for this wonderful adventure!