We had a fabulous time during the first half of the week at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and were looking forward to crewing and participating in the rest of the event. The theme this year was “Spirit of the Winds”.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday didn’t have Mass Ascensions scheduled but there were still lots of balloons on the field. The rest of the balloonists were preparing for various competitions, many of which give away prizes, including cash. The balloons that take off from the field are the ones not competing, and they need to clear the field early so that the staff can set up the targets for the competing balloons to aim for.
Daniel Liberti was the winner of the 2013 competition and his balloon was flying with banner number 001. On competition days Daniel was flying a special balloon called a racer. These balloons have a different shape and are more maneuverable.
In the various competitions, pilots read the winds and launch from a location of their choice elsewhere in the city (no less than a mile away, although many start further away to have more room to maneuver) and steer their balloon towards the launch field.
The competitions really demonstrate how skilled many of the pilots are. We watched a couple of the competitions where the balloonists were trying to get a marker to the target, and it was amazing how close they got to the ground and the targets.
On Tuesday, BJ, one of our new Boomer friends, introduced us to a pilot who needed crew for the rest of the week. We joined Ron’s crew on Wednesday. Ron hails from Tampa and flies a balloon named “Skywalker”. This was his 29th Balloon Fiesta!
Crewing makes the event much more interesting not to mention educational.
During this time of year there’s a special wind pattern, unique to this area, called the Albuquerque Box. Because of the shape of the Rio Grande Valley, winds at lower elevations move in one direction while winds at higher elevations move in another. Usually low winds are from the north and high winds are from the south, allowing balloons to take off and land in the same general area.
One morning there was a perfect Albuquerque box. Absolutely fabulous as we watched balloons fly away, then come back around and around. It was a spectacular day with wispy clouds.
But my all time favorite morning event was the Special Shapes Rodeo. This was scheduled for two different mornings, and the first morning Ron chose not to fly so we could all stay on the field and enjoy the special shapes from the ground.
If you haven’t had that feeling of childhood wonder for a while, you will rediscover it during the Special Shapes Rodeo. Adults and children alike were looking up, pointing, and excitedly calling out names of the special shapes. Pigasus, Sharky, The Blue Whale, Hopper T. Frog, Arky, Oggy the Friendly Dragon, Pegleg Pete…
And one special shape balloon made a surprise debut, a Yoda balloon was uncovered by the owners of the Darth Vader balloon so the two of them could fly together. Awesome!
Some of the special shape balloons need huge crews to deal with their enormous and often really complex shapes. And many can only fly in extremely light winds.
On the second Special Shapes Rodeo morning, I got to fly! Beth, the lady who won the contest for next year’s theme, “Where Dreams Take Flight”, and her husband flew with us as well. Beth is a teacher from Topeka, Kansas. Very cool.
The wind was very light so many of the special shapes were able to fly. It was quite wonderful to be up in the air with special shape balloons as far as the eye could see. At one point we were surrounded by Bumblebees!
I was so nervous and excited that most of my photos came out blurry, but I got a few. Fortunately, Hector took some awesome ones from the ground. When we landed we again caused a stir and an adorable little girl in a princess dress and her mom ran over to us and helped to pack up the balloon.
After each balloon ride, once all of the work is completed, it’s traditional to have a champagne toast. In the old days when flying was still new in the world, balloons were much more combustible. They sometimes set fires when they landed on people’s properties. And so people were not very welcoming and sometimes would attack the balloonists with pitchforks!
So in order to make a better impression the balloonist began to carry champagne and offer some to those on whose property they landed. A tradition that thankfully continues to this day.
Special Shapes Glowdeos were on the schedule for Thursday and Friday evenings. Sure to be spectacular. But weather once again didn’t cooperate, windy on Thursday and windy and rainy on Friday. We had to ride back to our campsite in the rain, fortunately I had our rain gear in my back pack.
Winds were blowing in the direction of one of the Indian reservations. Pilots don’t like to land there because if they do they have to be escorted out and there can be big delays in getting out of the area and many of the pilots were flying further out. So Hector got a nice long ride, and we chased a very long way.
Including some of balloons doing a Splash and Dash; lowering their balloons briefly into the Rio Grande. Baskets can be damaged by water, so the pilots lift off immediately after touching the water, thus the name.
And Ron wound up landing on someone’s private horse ranch. When I arrived in the chase vehicle with the crew chief Mike, the gate to the property was closed! Mike jumped the fence to the property to help them move the balloon to a location where it wasn’t in danger of getting caught on the roof of one of the buildings.
And there was one other activity – not included in the schedule of events – that takes place every day of the event: partying. Many pilots come back out to the field after morning activities have ended to celebrate and party. There is food and drink for all to share.
We only participated in the tailgating two of the days we were there. Ron introduced us to a group that had a homemade blender built from a motorcycle handlebar and throttle with a gas engine. It took a bit of effort, but they made some decent margaritas.
The last evening, another Balloon Glow was scheduled to take place. And, being the last one, we expected it to be fabulous. Well, another front came in and once again we rode back to our campsite in the rain. Amazingly, there were fireworks displays every night after the Balloon Glows were cancelled.
On the last morning of Fiesta, the winds were very strong once again, and the balloons didn’t fly. So sad for those that could only attend on the weekends; both Sunday morning events and both Saturday evening events had to be scrapped due to weather (although the first Saturday evening a few balloons did inflate for the Balloon Glow).
And it was also sad to say good-bye to new friends. This was one of the most beautiful events we’ve ever attended, we highly recommend it to everyone!
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that God joins you in laughter and sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.