Since living in Denver, we’ve visited New Mexico many times and grown to love it. And for many years we saw photos of balloons over Albuquerque and talked about attending the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, but the timing never quite worked.
Then last year while visiting Quartzsite, Arizona, we met some of the Boomers, one of the special interest groups within the Escapees, an RV club, who have traveled to Balloon Fiesta for the past nine years. So I contacted the coordinator of the Boomers’ Balloon Fiesta group for 2014 and signed up.
But I also found out that they don’t just attend the event, a bunch of them volunteer to crew for the balloon pilots, many of whom travel from other cities and countries and need crew to help them set up, chase the balloon and then break down. So we too volunteered to crew.
The Boomers have developed a special relationship with one family of three pilots that they’ve consistently provided crew for in the last few years. Mike and two sons Daniel and Chris, and Mike’s wife Theresa (aka “Mama T”), who oversees all. The Liberti family generously offered to have a training flight for newbies on Friday morning, the day before the event was scheduled to begin.
At the practice run we assisted in unloading and unpacking everything, laying out the balloon (called the envelope), cold inflating it with a high powered fan, attaching the top (called the crown) which can be pulled open to vent for landing, and standing the balloon up with heated air ready for lift off.
Then we chased the balloon and helped pack everything back up after landing. A couple of Boomers even got to fly!
Chasing was fun, and pretty easy since there were only three balloons flying in the area (there were other small balloon happenings around town).
One of the things we learned right away is that pilots land throughout the city and most members of the community are excited to see them and will pitch in and help in any way that they can. Which is especially helpful when the chase crew doesn’t quite make it to the landing site on time; groups of people run over to hold down the baskets as the balloons land.
The Liberti family balloon fleet.
Meanwhile our friends Tim and Amanda arrived at their campground across from the launch field. After reading their blog for a while we finally caught up with them in Quartzsite last year and were really looking forward to seeing them again.
The first morning of the Fiesta we rode over to the launch field on our bikes. The Balloon Fiesta folks provided bike valet service by the entrance to the park, so we didn’t have to depend on the shuttle bus or deal with traffic or parking fees. Kudos to them!
As we arrived at the 78-acre launch field before dawn we began to realize the scope of this event.
Balloon Fiesta is one of the few hot air ballooning events that allow spectators on the field alongside the 500+ balloons. So everyone gets to see all of the action up close. Which makes it even more exciting.
The giant field is sectioned off so that each of the balloonists has a designated area to park their vehicle and lay out, inflate and launch their balloons from. There is anticipation in the air as dawn approaches.
The nine-day event kicked off with a Mass Ascension – with all the balloons lifting off in waves. Field officials dressed like referees – referred to as zebras and wearing zebra accessories – made sure the coast was clear just above each balloon and gave the final go ahead for them to lift off. Over 100 people manage the launch field with 60 of those zebras on the field. Controlled chaos.
One lone balloon carrying the American flag lifted off while someone sang the National Anthem. Then, slowly the sky filled with balloons, and it was unlike anything we’d ever seen before. Everyone was looking up at the sky and taking photographs. This is the most photographed event in the world.
That evening, we met Amanda and Tim over at their campsite, where about 200 beautiful Airstreams were camping. We’re big fans of Airstreams, so it was really cool to see so many in one place.
We met several other happy Airstream owners including two couples that recently became fulltimers. It was wonderful to meet Kate and Iain and Lauri and Jase, they are special and fun people. We wish them well as they embark on their new adventure.
And did I mention that these events are totally dependent upon weather and winds? Pilots attend a briefing before dawn each day where they are given detailed information on weather, specifically the wind speed and direction.
That evening, along with four other evenings during Fiesta, there was a scheduled Balloon Glow event; pilots inflate the balloons but don’t take off. Then various times during the night, there is a countdown for the pilots to light their burners simultaneously, illuminating balloons as far as the eye can see.
Oh, and did I mention that the morning events begin at 5:45 in the morning? All crew must be on the field with their pilots by 6:15 or so.
And even earlier if they crew for the “Dawn Patrol”, which consists of between four to six balloons that lift off (when conditions allow) just before dawn. Each flies at a different altitude to provide additional information to the other pilots on differences in wind speed and direction.
The dawn patrol is worth getting up for, as they light up and lift off in the darkness. Stunning.
After the Dawn Patrol lifts off, the Balloon Fiesta organization communicates to the field as to whether the event is a go or not by raising an appropriate flag. Green of course means conditions are safe to fly, yellow means flying is on hold because conditions are not right but may be expected to improve, and red means weather is inappropriate to fly. But even when the green flag is raised, it is ultimately the pilot’s prerogative to fly or not, and they sometimes don’t.
Sunday morning we headed back to the launch field along with a huge crowd only to be disappointed as the red flag was raised because the winds at higher altitudes were too strong to fly safely. Rats.
That evening’s Balloon Glow more than made up for the morning’s disappointment. A spectacular sight, especially since most of the balloons participated. But it was tough to capture the row upon row of giant sparkling balloons in photographs. That will just have to live on in our memory.
After our exhausting time in Denver and crazy drive to Albuquerque, getting up between 4:30 and 5:00 for three mornings, and staying up pretty late in the evenings, we were beat. I don’t nap so I’m not able to catch up on sleep during the day. So Sunday night after we heard that it was going to be windy again in the morning, we decided to sleep in a bit.
Not! We were awakened by the sound of burners. The wind had died down, and balloons were flying into the landing field (in front of us) and right over us! We stumbled outside and they were absolutely everywhere in the sky and many were coming towards us.
As I was standing there, I heard someone say good morning and thought it was my neighbor Ken. But he wasn’t anywhere near his motorhome. I looked up and a balloon was flying low right over Island Girl. The pilot was the one that said good morning. He asked if we had breakfast and beer for them, and of course we said yes! That’s one of the cool things about hot air balloons, you can talk to the crew when they are near the ground or in another balloon next to you in the air.
That afternoon, one couple in the Boomers group who is into biking and breweries, Diane and Harvey, led a bike ride to one of the local breweries. There was a great bike path just across from our campground and it was an easy ride – just under ten miles roundtrip. Which was a good thing, since I don’t do so well riding after drinking beer. Good times, new friends, delicious beer and a nice little workout – not bad. Already other Boomers had been on balloon rides and were telling their stories. But we didn’t get any photos at the brewery!
If this had been the end of our visit, we would have been thrilled to have taken part in this phenomenal event. But it wasn’t, stay tuned for more ballooning fun on our next post.