Up, Up and Away

The art and science of hot air ballooning—the first form of human flight—are among the many delights on display at the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Written By Patty Jensen
Photography By Skip Terpstra

Nobody likes to be boxed in—unless you are a balloonist in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

They love it.

The weather phenomenon known as the “Box” was only one of the unique attractions that drew 550 aeronauts, thousands of volunteers and nearly one million visitors to the 45th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta held last fall in the gathering’s namesake city. Rightfully recognized as “The World’s Premier Balloon Event,” the fiesta filled the southwestern skies with hundreds of balloons representing 20 countries, and featured everything from balloon glows and laser light shows to a women’s flying competition, chainsaw carving exhibition and a special shapes rodeo.

The joy found in hot air ballooning is ageless. Whether your first exposure was watching the man behind the curtain lift off without Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” or witnessing a staggeringly tall, brightly beautiful balloon ascend at a small local fair, this first form of human flight has long held a fascination for people around the world. While the passengers aboard the original balloon flight nearly 235 years ago weren’t humans—a duck, a rooster and a lamb hold that honor—participants at the fiesta were able to recreate that historic moment watching hot air balloons whimsically shaped like a dog, a chicken and a sheep rise into the air.

Time and Temperature

There’s something eerie about heading out to a balloon festival at 4:30 in the morning. The sky is at its darkest, the streets deserted, the temperature a chilling 18 degrees above freezing. And then, through eyes groggy from lack of sleep, you see it—a seemingly endless undulating snake line of bright white headlights all leading in the same direction, eager to arrive at the gigantic park where in only a few hours the excitement will begin.

The reason for the early wake-up call was not to beat the traffic and the crowds. Too late for that since it is not unusual for the fiesta to draw 80,000 people on a single day. No, it was the weather—the cool morning air to be precise.

Everything about hot air ballooning revolves around the weather—the waxing and waning of the temperatures, the ebb and flow of wind currents, the fickleness of the atmosphere. All impact the journey each balloon and its passengers will take. Yet the science behind this earliest and exquisite form of flight is really very simple—hot air rises. If the temperature is cooler outside the balloon than the air inside, you have liftoff.

“Weather is extremely important to all aviation, but that is particularly true for ballooning,” says Dan Pagliaro, a certified consulting meteorologist and chief weather official for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. “In hot air ballooning, cool dawns and dusks are best.”

The construction of a hot air balloon is pretty basic too. There are three main parts: the envelope, which is the fabric that holds the air and forms the balloon’s shape; the burner, consisting of one or more propane tanks that propel heat inside the envelope; and the basket, most commonly made of wicker, that holds the pilot and passengers.

While the mechanics of hot air ballooning have not changed that dramatically since its beginnings in 1783, the Albuquerque festival is dedicated to showing you that the wonderment and delights of modern-day ballooning have just begun.

Colors, Sights and Sounds

The theme for the 2016 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta was the aptly named “Desert Kaleidoscope.” Forget the science for a moment—the art behind the sheer magnitude of hundreds of hot air balloons in multitudes of bedazzling colors and shapes, all presented in an ever-changing environment of activities, was the main attraction for balloon aficionados who are drawn each year to the event.

“People have a fascination and passion for ballooning; it becomes part of your DNA,” says Jay Czar, 2016 board president of the nonprofit fiesta, who was celebrating his 44th year at the event. “The fiesta is a magical time, a special family event, and we understand the importance it holds to our community and all who attend. We strive to keep adding to and refining the activities to ensure we provide a good guest experience, while keeping the familiar favorites.”

The official morning activities begin at 6 a.m.—weather permitting—with the rise of the Dawn Patrol. Positioned on the sidelines, a warm, yellow glow of light slowly emerges from the darkness as first one then another burner is lit, soon revealing each balloon’s sheer size and color palette as the sky begins to lighten. This small group of aeronauts serves an important purpose in addition to mere showmanship. It is their duty to be the first to leave the Earth and fly until the landing sites become visible, providing reconnaissance on wind speeds and direction at differing altitudes.

Waiting eagerly below for news from above, a swath of nearly 500 rainbow-colored cloth envelopes, limp with the promise of what is to come, are carefully laid out, each on a designated patch of grass, attached baskets meekly lying on their sides. The pilots and crews pace with anticipation, drinking coffee or hot chocolate to fight off the cold air, the very condition which ironically will be what helps give them the ability they so desire to ascend into the skies.

Finally, the word spreads that today’s flights are a go. Quickly, the crews begin the work of getting their balloons ready to rise above their tethered constraints, shouting vocal cues and encouragement to each other. With a noisy roar, small gasoline-powered fans are started up and pointed toward the balloons’ openings, filling the space with air. Crew members grunt with exertion as they tug on the heavy ropes stretched tautly around the envelope, and slowly the giant balloons lumber upright. A powerful and startling “whoosh” accompanies the lighting of the burners, heating the interiors. Pilots and passengers climb aboard, ready for takeoff.

Taking Flight

What comes next is one of the most memorable activities offered during the fiesta. Starting at 7 a.m., hundreds of balloons, their envelopes sheathed in nearly every hue imaginable and sporting a stunning array of geometric designs, participate in the spectacular Mass Ascension, launching into the atmosphere in two massive waves. The sight of the sky literally filled with balloons is breathtaking. As each lifts upward, the crowd cheers and those inside the tiny wicker baskets wave with glorious glee as they float off to where the wind and—with some additional skill and luck—the aeronauts take them. As each balloon fades into the distance, another takes its place, with the ascension lasting up to two hours.

A burner propels heat into the envelope.

Another event favorite is the special shape balloons. With more than 100 taking part in last year’s event—17 boasting their inaugural appearance—there was seemingly no limit to the imaginations of the envelopes’ designers. These gargantuan works of flying art featured everything from a friendly dragon, pirate parrot and baby dinosaur to a crazy crab, happy orca, alien rocket and the ever-popular Smokey Bear. Even Yoda and Darth Vader made the scene.

Piloting these creative balloons, however, can be a challenge.

“All shapes fly differently; it’s harder to get them up,” states Doug Gantt, president of Fantasy Ballooning, a corporate balloon promotions company, and proud owner of Ham-Let, an endearing pink pig balloon. “Ham-Let was created in honor of my dad, whose favorite expression was ‘when pigs fly.’ The balloon certainly can fly, but it gets a little tricky when his wings start to spin.”

The Box

The most amazing aspect of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is a quirk of nature unique to the area known as the “Box.” This weather anomaly brings aeronauts flocking to the site every year while offering spectators an astounding sight in the skies over the park.

Normally, hot air balloon pilots don’t have a tremendous amount of control over where their craft will head—or land. It all depends on the wind.

“You fly up and down to find the winds, the layer, that is going in the direction you want to go,” says Frank Hunter, a Carlsbad, New Mexico, resident and owner/pilot of Aimless Drifter—an appropriate name for a hot air balloon. “As a good pilot, if you are up for 5 minutes you start looking for where you can safely land.”

Fiesta chief weather official Pagliaro agrees with the capriciousness of a balloon’s flight.

“Once the balloon is up, there is no way to steer except by wind,” Pagliaro says. “You have to rely on the winds at different levels, always being sensitive to strong winds, which you want to avoid.”

The precise landing position for a hot air balloon is an unknown factor, making the chase crew a de rigueur component for any aeronaut. There is one exception to this rule, and it only happens in Albuquerque.

The city’s fall weather favors clear days and cool mornings—already perfect for balloon flight. But about 30 percent of the time in early October, when the fiesta takes place each year, a special relationship between mountain formations and wind patterns occurs that creates an amazing experience for aeronauts and visitors alike.

“The ‘Box’ is a combination of upper and lower level winds created by the Rio Grande Valley and enhanced by the Sandia Mountains,” explains the fiesta’s media guide. “The ‘Box’ enables balloonists to backtrack their flight patterns and land close to their launch sites, conjuring the impression of flying inside a box. Cool air from the north near the surface will take pilots one direction while higher winds blow in the opposite direction. Pilots need only to change elevation to fly back to their original course.”

Science aside, the phenomenon is incredible to see. After watching balloons over several days of the fiesta drift off to unknown parts—never to be seen again from an observer’s perspective—to witness each colorful envelope rise up, move horizontally across the park in one direction, rise again, move across the park in the opposite direction, and then descend to the same spot where it started, is the definition of magic.

Making it All Happen

You literally can’t walk through the fiesta’s gates without interacting with a volunteer. In fact, you didn’t even park your car or catch a ride on the many golf carts that ferry people to and from the event without meeting one of the fiesta’s more than 1,000 cheerful and accommodating volunteers, known as “Navigators.” For many, it is an annual affair that fuels their love of ballooning. For others, it is a check-off on their bucket list.

“I’m a former commercial airline and helicopter pilot. I come from a family where everybody was involved in aviation,” says Claudio Fernandes, a native of Luxembourg who now spends most of his time in Vero Beach, Florida. “Today, I’m more interested in something that goes 5 mph than 300 mph. I cross the country and the world following the hot air balloon festivals. It’s not work, it’s a passion.”

Nigel Philcox, who has called New York, Los Angeles and London home, is now an Albuquerque resident and avid fiesta volunteer.

“I began by crewing for 15 years, including packing and unpacking Smokey Bear, which is an envelope that weighs 600 pounds. That was hard work,” Philcox says. “Now I volunteer my time driving visitors and I love it.”

The urge to defy gravity has stirred the soul of mankind since our earliest beginnings.

The volunteer crew members, which number in the thousands, help inflate the balloons and then serve as the chase teams, following each balloon’s flight, recovering it upon landing, packing it back up, and bringing it home.

All agree that the freedom and encouragement extended to visitors to walk the grounds of the event—there are no crowd barriers—is what makes the fiesta special.

“What makes this event unique to others around the world and so amazing is that only here can you walk among the balloons,” Fernandes says. “You hear the sounds, feel the heat. You are part of it. If you are an experienced volunteer and you’re wearing work gloves, you can even walk up to a crew and offer to help.”

The Ultimate High

The urge to defy gravity and soar into the boundless blue skies has stirred the soul of mankind since our earliest beginnings. Cave drawings depict birds in flight, possibly reflecting the artists’ yearning to achieve the freedom of the avian flocks they observed. Centuries later, according to Greek mythology, Icarus was given a pair of wings made by attaching feathers to a wooden frame with wax. Overcome with the wonderment of flight, he flew too close to the sun, the feathers melted away and Icarus plummeted to his death in the sea. In the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci sought the ecstasy of escaping the Earth, designing a flying machine that sadly never took flight.

Finally, on November 21, 1783, in a balloon made by French brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier, the first manned flight was launched in Paris and flew for 20 minutes. The ability to take to the skies had been achieved.

Today’s balloon aeronauts are fulfilling the destiny sought by many of us—to ascend to heights unknown, arrive at destinations undetermined, and explore experiences as yet uncharted.

“If you ever go up, you will know why you fall in love with it,” asserts pilot Hunter. “The serenity, the calm, the peaceful feeling; that’s why you fly.”

“I’ve always loved balloons,” claims McKenna Secrist, a pilot and Seattle resident who made her check ride on her 16th birthday last July. “I love flying—the calm and beautiful escape. I love the people and the whole experience.”

“It’s the closest thing to being a cloud I can think of,” balloon owner and entrepreneur Gantt says.

Perhaps why people yearn to rise above the planet is stated best in Richard Holmes’ classic book about hot air ballooning, “Falling Upwards.”

“The dream of flight is to see the world differently.”

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