Position: 35°11’52.0″N 106°35’49.1″W
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is one of the premier draws for visitors to the city. This year marked the 51st gathering of balloon enthusiasts from all over the world. Beginning with 13 balloons in 1972, by the turn of the century the event attracted over 1,000. Nowadays registration is limited and around 550 balloons participated this year.
Spectators get up around 4:30AM, well before sunrise and head for Balloon Fiesta Park. This large patch of ground sits at the north end of Albuquerque, not far from the banks of the Rio Grande River. Traffic funnels in from all sides, guided by local police-folk waving lighted red batons and blowing an occasional whistle.
Concessions open early and a cup of coffee and breakfast burrito come in handy in the pre-dawn gloaming. All over the park balloonists stretch out their long ripstop nylon bags (the envelope). The public gingerly picks its way around the flaccid material trying not to trip over it in the dark.
Slowly, with dawn brightening the outline of the Sandia Mountains, careful flight preparations begin. The basket needs attaching, the propane cylinders need plumbing, and the burners igniting. Most of the balloons are modest, 2-4 person affairs. In Kapadokya, Turkey, last year, almost all the balloons we saw were large, tourist ferries holding 20 or more people.
The stillness of the morning makes for safer launch and recovery; the sun hasn’t yet warmed the ground enough to generate thermal currents.
Once aloft, pilots take advantage of the valley’s terrain and fly the Albuquerque ‘box’. Near the ground is a gentle wind that drifts southwards. Higher up is another wind flowing in a northerly direction.
Ideally, a fiesta flight launches around 7am, the balloon travels several miles south, then ascends and heads back to its launch point by around 9am. Any winds over 12 knots usually means postponing flights. Thursday this year was a complete scrub due to the blustery conditions.
Friday, Kids’ Day, turned out cold and clear. Perfect for the ‘Special Shapes’ balloons. That’s fiesta speak for the wacky, cartoonish designs that extend a balloon’s traditional teardrop shape in all kinds of ways. A few even sprouted legs and became a dog, a dinosaur, and a stork, respectively. Calm conditions are even more important for special shapes, and they won’t launch in anything over 8 knots of wind.
Despite her parents retiring to Albuquerque and attending high school in New Mexico, Carol had never been to the fiesta. Despite my brother being stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base in the mid-1970s, I had never attended the fiesta either. Tai hadn’t heard of it, so they flew in and joined us, too. The only Aleta crew member missing was Marlon.
Like any large community, the world of ballooning has its hardcore Luddites. The Gordon Bennett Cup is the world’s oldest balloon race. It is an annual international event that attracts teams from all over the world. Participation is limited to three teams per country, with two members per team. Aeronauts compete for the longest distances from the launch point in hydrogen lofted balloons controlled with traditional sand ballast. If conditions allow, teams can fly 3,000 miles or more. This year the ABQ Balloon Fiesta served as the Cup’s launch point.
If you’re a Brit, then you’ll know Gordon Bennett from the expletive, “Gorden Bennett!” “Gordon Bennett!” seems appropriate for a competition where people fly supported by the most flammable substance there is over territories populated by gun-toting Texans.
Earlier this week one of the Polish teams crash-landed in flames near Dallas under a hail of gunfire. Police are looking for the perps. I suspect they were QAnon supporters trying to shoot down a Chinese spy balloon in a tragic case of misguided patriotism. Perhaps that’s generous. A tragic case of sublime stupidity would also explain what happened. Welcome to Texas! Have a Blast!