Our three and a half days at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
As members of the Airstream Club International, our quest for tickets to the Airstream rally at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta began three years ago. Our number did not come up in the 2019 lottery for one of the coveted spots next to the field, but it did in 2020! Then, COVID derailed that event like so many others. Luckily, the Rally and Fiesta organizers and even the pre-staging campgrounds honored our reservations and rolled them forward to this year.
What a treat for us! After a very hot season of serving the public in our volunteer jobs with Grand Teton National Park, we could relax and enjoy someone else putting on a big event. We must give a shout out to Ken Johansen and his teammates for the million-and-one things they accomplished to organize such a smooth event for the owners of 150 Airstreams.
Club members from all over the United States gathered in Albuquerque for the first weekend in October. Many of us arrived a few days early at the Enchanted Trails RV Park to catch up on groceries and laundry. Taking advantage of Route 66 fame and nostalgia, the park owners have a charming collection of vintage trailers and automobiles on display.
In addition to the usual restocking chores, we had some maintenance and repair work to do. A few days earlier, we discovered to our surprise that our trailer hitch jack quit holding up the trailer — the day after leaving our summer campground where it had been fine for five months. We dare not unhitch on our travel days. The manufacturer shipped the part we need to Enchanted Trails prior to our arrival. In the drizzle and wind, Dave muscles the bolts off and replaces the jack stand. We are operational again!
From our campground, our rally hosts lead small caravans of us across town to the reserved western RV parking lot. Volunteers guide each trailer to a spray painted spot on the pavement with aircraft carrier deck precision. Once everyone is in, we unhitch and move the truck behind the rig. Curious for the need to deviate from the usual tow-vehicle-in-front-of-the-rig position, we find out that it is a fire department requirement — they have to have access to the propane tanks in case of disaster, which are on the front of each trailer. I never would have thought of that!
Our first afternoon is spent setting up our chairs and tables outside, extending the awning for shade from the bright New Mexico sun, and decorating our trailer so that we can recognize it among the sea of similar silver shapes. We’ve never mounted our club member numbers, also known as the “Big Red Numbers” on the trailer’s end caps, but are quickly seeing the wisdom in that choice! For now, we make due with some fun patio string lights and a wind spinner to tag the Airstream as our home. We stroll around, on the lookout for friends from past rallies that may be here.
It is hard to get to sleep that first night — knowing that the fun will start early and afraid that we might miss the alarm. I need not have worried!
Laboring under the stars at 5:45am, about a dozen hot air balloon teams set up in one corner of the 80 acre field. They will carry special location lights, allowing them to fly in the dark when they launch at 6am to investigate the speed and direction of the winds at various altitudes before reporting their findings back to their fellow balloonists waiting on the ground.
Work lights from the festival concessionaire row along the edge of the field silhouetted the early and brave balloons making ready on the field. We could see the dark domed shapes huddled together in the quiet mid-thirty degree morning, hearing only whispered Good Mornings from fellow Airstreamers as they emerged from their trailers, joining others in the open common spaces, hands wrapped around steaming mugs of coffee.
Like fireflies, those faint shapes suddenly and randomly glowed to life. I could not help but recall the Sci-Fi movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s alien conversation in lights.
Soon, one balloon, glowing from the sword of blue-and-gold fire reaching up into its heart, lifts free of the ground, and steered by the low level winds, drifts directly over our Airstreams. One by one, the Dawn Patrol rises and follows, sailing over our heads. Dark silent shapes ghost along, haloed by the faint glow of the coming morning that is stretching tentative fingers over the mountains of the city. Each balloon calls out with a throaty whoosh of gas, the flame lighting up the kaleidoscopic envelopes of fabric and boosting the balloons to higher altitudes, their tiny directional white lights blinking from tails dangling beneath the whicker baskets. It is jaw dropping magic to us mere mortals. And the day has just begun!
Relaxing our necks from their strained position of looking up to follow the dawn patrol, we turn to look again at the field. Like bio-luminescent creatures, the once dark field has sprouted flickering, rainbow-colored mushrooms. Dave and I grab our cameras and head through the ticket gates into the magical mayhem.
Chase vehicles of every description are parked across the dark field. Triangle and square shaped baskets slide off ramps onto the damp grass. Limp parti-colored millipedes of nylon crawl fifty to eighty feet out of canvas bags the size of a VW Beetle automobile. Teams assist their pilots in a rush to attach burners that look like miniature jet engines to the tops of the baskets, testing the flame control with bright blasts that intermittently roar above the excited chatter of visitors and directions called between team members.
The energy and excitement on the field reaches still higher. It is time to kick off the 49th fiesta! The National Anthem plays from loud speakers. A master of ceremonies gushes welcome to all. A flyover streaks overhead. To our shock and delight, pilots blast the morning awake with a hot gas salute of flame and noise, as we stand encircled by their columns of exuberant fire.
Balloon teams now tip over their baskets and attach the cables of the balloon to the basket. Waist-high fans are positioned near the base of the balloons to blow air inside the envelope and make it safe to turn on the flames that will heat the air within. With fluid grace, the nylon envelopes begin to swell and rise. One person from each balloon will be at the top of the balloon, straining with a thick rope wrapped in their gloved hands to wrangle the restless beast the balloon is becoming and keep it from impeding the progress of the neighboring balloons, as it ripples and rolls in the morning breeze. And then, like slowly waking giants, one by one the balloons stand up, shoulder to shoulder on the field, awaiting their release into the skies. For Dave and I, it is like standing in a forest of Sequoia — insignificantly small at the feet of impossibly tall, sky-blocking shapes.
At seven, the Mass Ascension begins. Over the next two hours, all 500+ balloons will launch into the skies over Albuquerque. I am enthralled. The Noise! The Color! The Energy! I cannot stop taking pictures, and get a cramp in my hand from holding the camera so tight! Dave watches from the field for awhile and then goes back to the trailers to watch the balloons fly over the Airstreams. Can he get a balloon and our Airstream in the same shot?! By 9, the field is empty. By ten, the sky is empty. Wow!
The mass of visitors leave the field and crowd the fiesta booths. There are a few tents of companies hoping to sell hot air balloons, baskets, and burners to new and old enthusiasts. Naturally there are souvenir booths selling anything with a balloon on it as well as vendors selling thick wool ponchos, knit hats, and hand warmers for those not prepared for such chilly mornings. The usual carnival style food booths fill the air with competing aromas of breakfast burritos, funnel cakes, and smothered french fries. I am delighted to discover a tiny booth serving strawberry & Nutella crepes, and I make it my regular breakfast place for our remaining time here. Not surprisingly, Dave finds a burrito stand and makes it his post-ascension habit.
Soon, chase vehicles begin returning and will dribble back to field for much of the afternoon. Many set up dining flies on their assigned spot on the field and share champagne (a pilot tradition) and breakfast with their team. I chat with one of the pilots. While I enthused about what I had just witnessed, he had a sparkle in his eye and a chuckle on his lips. He said that on a scale of one to ten, ten being the best, he would rate the day’s Mass Ascension as a one. He complained that there was “no box,” and that the balloons just went up, over the field, and straight off into the distance. Isn’t that what they are supposed to do? He kindly enlightened me regarding the coveted “Box.”
The Box refers to a special set of wind conditions that can form in the early morning and create a circular air flow. At low altitude the air moves in one direction and at higher altitudes it flows in the opposite direction. This allows pilots to launch and fly away in one direction, and after ascending higher, fly in the reverse direction, and potentially land back at the field where they started. Because the box had not formed this morning, the pilot I was chatting with felt it was a “very boring” flight.
Later that afternoon, around 4, the balloonists assemble their balloons for a nighttime static display, a balloon glow. All of the balloons at the fiesta are inflated but remain earth bound. The burners blast just enough heat to keep the balloons upright. In coordination with the MC on the loudspeakers, the pilots fire the burners in unison with prolonged bursts, changing the deep dark canyon of balloons blocking the light of the setting sun into massive, undulating walls of intense and incandescent color. My fondest memory of the fiesta is standing in the middle of a double row of balloons, feeling especially small, and slowly spinning on my heels to take in the riot of color and sound that engulfs me.
As full dark falls, the balloon teams are once again working to put away their gear and leave the field to go and refuel for tomorrow, leaving the field open for fireworks. Dave has some very nice captures of the pyrotechnic display. I learn from him and have much better results the next night.
We are very lucky this year. The weather cooperates and every scheduled event happens, unlike later in the week after we have gone. We see the start of the distance competition between four gas powered balloons. It takes over $5000 of gas for them to fill each balloon. The prize money or bragging rights must make it worth it!
And The Box sets up the next three mornings we are here!
On Box Days, the Mass Ascension starts moving directly over the Airstreams, sometimes so low it feels as if we can reach up and hand them a cup of coffee! They do not travel far before we see them rise like an elevator, straight up to catch new winds blowing in the opposite direction. In rising, they catch the first rays of the morning, glowing with the warmth of the sun against the cool blue morning above, bright beacons calling to their brothers and sisters to join them. The mass ascension now has more visual mass than before. With balloons lingering instead of flying away, the number of balloons continues to grow and stack up in the skies over Albuquerque.
The fiesta has competitions for the balloonists. There are targets laid out on the field that the competitors throw markers at (bean bags with tails?), hoping to score points for accuracy. There are other goals for landing in pre-marked zones on the field.
And when I say land, I use the term loosely. To our eyes, landing appears more like a controlled crash. There are small gangs of young men on the field that chase the incoming balloons, their whole goal is to jump on the back of the basket to add weight and drag as the pilot tries to spill air as fast as possible out the top of the balloon.
Sometimes the landings are graceful, the people hanging on the basket using their legs like Fred Flintstone stone-age car brakes and the basket remains upright. Sometimes the wind overcomes all that effort, and the basket tips over, occasionally dumping riders face forward into the arms of mother earth.
We loved our first experience at the balloon festival. I think we’ll take our chances again in the lottery in a few years. The pacing of events worked great for us — the main activity started early and was over by 9:30, with a second flurry of activity from 4-8pm. We could use the middle of the day to rest up or process photos. If we felt lazy, we didn’t have to cook and could load up on fair food. We especially loved the opportunity to walk amongst the balloons and talk to crew members and pilots. Apparently that is a rare privilege at other events.
Next time, I think we will try signing up to crew with a balloon. You don’t necessarily get a ride in the balloon, but you certainly have the opportunity for a tremendous learning experience and insider’s view of what it takes to launch a hot air balloon!
We had a blast! We will remember this event for a long time.
To see more of Dave’s balloon fiesta photos, follow this link to our SmugMug site.