From the time we started house-hunting in Albuquerque a few years ago, all our New Mexico friends kept saying, "You've got to come for Balloon Fiesta!" It's the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, a 9-day event held in early October, and the biggest festival of the year in New Mexico. But work and other schedules prevented us until we moved here this year.
Each morning before dawn, about 100,000 people converge on Balloon Fiesta Park in north Albuquerque to watch 500 - 600 hot-air balloons from around the world lift off and fly in the "Albuquerque box," a local weather pattern that allows balloons to fly south at one level, then ascend and fly back north (or vice versa).
Through friends in Corrales, Linda and I arranged to volunteer as part of local balloonist's crew: helping to unpack the balloon, chase it after launch, and pack it up after landing. But spectators don't have to be part of a crew -- you can mingle on the field among the hundreds of balloons as they lay out, fire up, and prepare for launch.
The experience begins with a 4:00am wake-up call and early light breakfast with friends.
Because balloons launch around 7:00am, you've got to get out early: the traffic jams begin by 5:15am. Just imagine the traffic around an NFL football stadium, except in the dark before sunrise! Nobody's drunk . . . just sleepy!
The pilots gather on the west side of the field for a briefing on the winds aloft, and various housekeeping announcements.
With 500 - 600 balloons launching in the space of an hour from an area the size of 12 football fields, there are rules and on-the-ground officials (dressed like football referees and affectionately known as "zebras") to keep things safe and orderly. Balloonists who have violated the rules on the previous day are invited to have individual "meetings" with officials. (You don't want to be in that group.)
If the weather is favorable, the first to launch are the Dawn Patrol: 6 - 8 balloons that go up before sunrise to see -- and show -- how the winds are blowing at different altitudes. (Yes, it seems weird, but out here the winds can be blowing in opposite directions just hundreds of feet higher or lower.)
After the Dawn Patrol, balloonists start laying out their balloons.
Once their envelope (balloon) is hooked up to the gondola (passenger basket), and the propane burners are hooked up to the tanks and checked out, the crew starts filling the balloon with air using a large fan powered by a small gasoline motor that's really loud.
When the balloon is sufficiently inflated, the pilot fires up the burners to heat the air inside and lift the envelope and gondola from horizontal to vertical.
Passengers are loaded up
and the pilot checks in with the "zebra" to prepare for launch.
The zebra clears the path and gives the thumbs-up sign to launch . . .
The pilot fires the burners and the crew carries the gondola until the hot air lifts the balloon up, up, and away!
This routine is happening simultaneously with hundreds of other balloons and crews all around you. You feel like you are in a deep canyon of balloons:
Then the balloons around you launch, the sun comes up over the mountains in the east, and suddenly you can see that the sky is filled with balloons -- it is AWESOME ! ! !
There are balloons of every size and description. In addition to the traditional multi-colored patterns . . .
there are "special shape" balloons:
As you stand there on the field, the balloons fly over you and you feel like you can reach up and touch them.
And as they ascend, they look like beautiful glass marbles in the sky:
The beauty is breathtaking . . .
From our house, about 5 miles northwest of Balloon Fiesta Park, here's what it looks like as dawn breaks . . .
. . . dawn Patrol goes up . . .
and balloons stream northward from the launching site:
Eventually, the balloons have to find a place to land, and sometimes they come down right in our neighborhood:
This balloon, from Cannes, France, landed about 1/10th of a mile away in a neighbor's front yard:
Linda, now an experienced crew member, helped them pack up and chatted with the pilot:
Meanwhile, back at the field, the chase crews depart and the sky empties . . .
For all the spectators, it's time for breakfast -- a burrito and hot chocolate!
Eventually, all the balloon crews and their balloons return to the field . . .
. . . including the intrepid crew of the Sundagger balloon:
Tailgate parties ensue:
. . . as well as initiation ceremonies for those who made their first balloon flight this day:
Balloonists, crew, and spectators take the afternoon off to refresh, and then return to the field in the evening for two light shows. The first is the "balloon glow," where balloons stand up, but do not launch, at sunset.
Finally, the day concludes with a traditional fireworks show:
It's been a long time since 4:00am, but spectacular and enjoyable.
If you'd like to see larger versions of these photos, and others from Balloon Fiesta, visit my photography website, Todos Juntos Photography, by clicking here.
Be sure to look for the video of the launch of Sundagger balloon (the one we crewed for). It's the last item in the gallery.
And don't forget to make your reservations for next year's Balloon Fiesta well in advance: hotels, air fares, and rental cars all go fast.