What started as a promotional event for a radio station with 13 balloons in a mall parking lot has grown into the largest ballooning event on earth, held on 365 acres and attracting 550 balloons from 23 countries.
The Balloon Fiesta takes center stage in Albuquerque, New Mexico the first nine days of October, offering balloon enthusiasts and curious thrill seekers a chance to get up close and personal with both the colorful balloons and their talented pilots. Over the last 46 years, organizers have perfected the unique event lineup, placing focus on enhancing the guest experience – only the most popular events make the cut, and each day offers a new experience. “Ballooning and Balloon Fiesta is a very participatory sport, so guests are permitted to gather around the balloons and the pilots and listen to pilot briefings which is a really unique experience,” stated Tom Garrity, Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Media Relations Director.
Albuquerque Aloft, an outreach program started 15 years ago, kicks off prior to Balloon Fiesta’s opening ceremonies, providing pilots a chance to get up in the air a day early while serving as ambassadors of the sport. “We assign pilots who want to participate at different Albuquerque Public Schools and other public schools in the area,” Garrity explained. “They set up at their assigned school, teach the students about what a hot air balloon is, how it works, how it gets set up. Students will watch that process unfold and then the balloon pilots will take to the skies and have a great time flying around Albuquerque.” Eighty elementary schools are participating in 2017, yielding incredible outreach to generate ballooning interest from younger generations.
Flying in Albuquerque is unique. The city boasts 300 plus days of sunshine with consistent winds and temperatures in the mornings, and a fascinating phenomenon known as the “Albuquerque Box.” The Sandia Mountains to the east and the Rio Grande to the west create drainage winds – winds at different directions at different altitudes – which presents a unique setting for balloon flying, as balloon pilots do not have the ability to steer their balloons and rely solely on wind direction. “Balloons can launch and land in the same location which is fantastic for spectators because they all circulate around and over Balloon Fiesta,” remarked Garrity. “Sometimes the winds can be in about eight different directions within a span of 1,200 feet.”
Experiencing Balloon Fiesta’s morning events requires an early wakeup call, with the Laser Light Show at 5:45a.m. and Dawn Patrol immediately following at 6 a.m. “Dawn Patrol leaves the field first to test the air,” Garrity stated. Dawn Patrol provides pilots a first-look at the balloons to understand approximate wind speeds and directions as they rise to different altitudes.
WHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD CAN YOU HAVE 400 PLUS HOT AIR BALLOONS COMING RIGHT AT YOU?”Tom Garrity
“Mass ascensions are the biggest flying events that we have, where we feature 500 plus balloons all taking off in the span of a morning,” Garrity pointed out. Balloons are launched in two waves with “the most spectacular display of sound and color in all of aviation.” Dawn Patrol balloons perform the ‘Dawn Patrol Show’ – a choreographed inflation and launch – on mass ascension days.
The dazzling static displays and fireworks provide guests an eye-catching visual experience. Garrity explained, “Balloon glows are a static display of hot air balloons fully inflated and all hitting their burners so the balloons appear to be like lanterns on the ground. This is great for spectators because they can walk around knowing the balloons are not going to leave.”
First launched in 1989, the “Special Shapes Rodeo” has rapidly grown into the most popular event at Balloon Fiesta. The inaugural event attracted 28 shapes, and was a raving success. This year , Garrity expects 94 shapes from nine countries, with 16 of the shapes making their first Balloon Fiesta appearance. “I have seen everything from the Forbes balloons – they were quite spectacular– to a giant eagle, a giant Harley Davidson… so many memorable shapes over my time!”
Creating a special shape balloon is an intricate process requiring months of preparation. “There’s the design and there’s, ‘will the design work and be approved by the FAA?’” Garrity pondered. “It’s quite involved, so it’s not something you can think of two months before Balloon Fiesta. You can’t say ‘hey, let’s go ahead and get Aunt Margaret and have her stitch together a few things for us.’ It just doesn’t work that way.”
Special shape balloons are both enormous and heavy, weighing around 840 pounds. “This year we are having a motorcycle special shape called Superbike coming over from the Netherlands that weighs 1,400 pounds. It will be one of the largest special shapes that we’ve ever had out here at Balloon Fiesta,” Garrity touted. A few of the other shapes making their inaugural appearance at Balloon Fiesta are Pepe the Hedgehog from Czech Republic, Captain Jack from the United Kingdom, Nitrofish from Brazil and Tom Cat from the United States.
Those who demand adrenaline through competitive sports will want to attend the “America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race Launch” the first Saturday of the event. Former Balloon Fiesta President Mark Sullivan and recipient of the Montgolfier Diploma (one of ballooning’s highest honors) founded America’s Challenge in 1995. “There are eight gas balloon teams featured this year,” Garrity mentioned. “The goal of the challenge is to fly as far away from Albuquerque as possible. We’ve had gas balloon teams that have launched from Albuquerque and have flown to the east coast, up into Canada and up into the Great Lakes. These teams go for distance and bragging rights!”
Gas balloons are very different from hot air balloons, making them challenging and much more expensive to fly. “Typically, a hot air balloon can be unfurled, inflated and in flight within about a half hour,” Garrity continued to explain, “A gas balloon usually takes about five to six hours to fill and it’s filled with hydrogen gas, so it’s a very methodical process to accomplish. It’s an expensive sport, usually costing $2,000 to fill the envelope for one flight – whereas a hot air balloon is usually around $25 for propane.”
How do the balloons from overseas travel to the Balloon Fiesta? “It can be quite expensive to fly them in, because they require a cargo jet, so most balloons from overseas will come by way of cargo boat and container. That long, slow boat from China typically has balloons on it,” laughed Garrity.
Competition days, specifically Thursday and Friday, offer guests a unique viewing experience, with the Special Shape Rodeo and competition flying. “The field will be lined by 94 special shape balloons, two by two from the north to south end of the field. The rest of the field is cornered off for competitions,” Garrity continued. “So while you have the special shape balloons inflated, you have all the balloons that would typically be flying away from the Balloon Fiesta in a mass ascension, flying towards Balloon Fiesta to participate in different competitions. Where else in the world can you have 400 plus hot air balloons coming right at you?!”
Balloons are definitely the main attraction – however, Balloon Fiesta focuses on the overall guest experience. The event offers over 80 vendors – from concessions and ballooning merchandise to artisans with one-of-a-kind pieces. The 7-Eleven Balloon Discovery Center showcases interactive exhibits including parts of a balloon, and NASA is even on site. “There are a lot of different activities that are all family friendly,” Garrity explained. “We even have a concert – this year it featured Billy Currington.”
The exclusive Gondola Club, Balloon Fiesta’s white tablecloth VIP service, offers guests a first-class experience in a picturesque private area away from the crowds with savory food, admission to Balloon Fiesta, a prime location for viewing hot air balloons, dedicated bathrooms, live entertainment and much more. Guests wishing to immerse themselves in the Balloon Fiesta experience may find the Chaser’s Club appealing, with access to an outdoor patio next to the launch field offering low-key balloon viewing.
Because Albuquerque is centered between the Sandia’s and Rio Grande, at a mile high, Garrity recommends dressing in layers. “The temperature is generally in the upper 40s when you arrive to the field, but by mid to late morning, it will start to warm up to about 72 degrees pretty quickly.” What else is needed for prime balloon appreciation? He also recommends sunscreen, hat, glasses…..and Chapstick. “Chapstick is probably the one thing I get asked for the most. ‘Where can I buy Chapstick?’” Garrity laughed. “Remember, not just the balloons are up and away – you’re at a mile high!”
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE 2018 EVENT AT: BALLOONFIESTA.COM