April 1, 2023

rf-albuquerque-1BY ROLAND FLEMING

Looking up to the sky, a scarecrow, a fire hydrant and a dragon can all be seen floating by. It seems like a bizarre dream, a fantasy world, but it’s not. It really happens. It has been called the most photographed event in the world. It is a gathering of people from many na-tions, all coming together to take to the skies. It is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot air balloon festival in the world.

Up to 100,000 people can be found within the park on any given day of the festival. Last year the total attendance was almost a million people. Several hundred of those were the pilots and crew who were in charge of flying and retrieving the approximately 550 hot air balloons that were registered to fly this year.

Pilots from 20 different countries were in attendance. Many were from Canada while others came from faraway places such as Taiwan, Australia, countries all around Europe and a couple from South America.

A typical day at the fiesta started around five in the morning. Hundreds of vehicles drive out onto the launch field to their designated launch site. As you can imagine the launch sites are quite close together to accommodate the massive number of balloons that will ascend in quick succession. At 6 a.m. the daily laser light show begins. Colourful laser beams cross the field in sync with music that plays across the park.

Every morning, before the mass ascension begins, the pilots attend a briefing in which they talk about the current weather conditions. They discuss when and if they will be able to take off that morning.

Once they are given the green light they start what is called “cold inflation” where cold air is blown in from large fans to partially inflate the balloons. As the balloons inflate they bump up against each other and the space between them is swallowed up. When given permission by the launch directors they will take off and join the mass ascension to decorate the sky. At the festival a launch director is called a “zebra” and can be found dressed in black and white.

The first to take off in the morning are the balloons called the dawn patrol. This group inflates their balloons and take off before the sun rises. Next up are the ride balloons. Inside these balloons are the paying passengers who get to experience the sight of the fiesta from the air. All of the other balloons will take off shortly after that.

A lot of these balloons are small, non-commercial ones that people are just flying for fun, but there are also what are called “shapes.” These balloons have a non-traditional shape. This could be anything from a diamond to some sort of animal or even Darth Vader. The organizers pay for “shapes” to fly in the festival based on what they think people want to see.

Once the balloons are aloft, that is when the chase begins. Most people have seen a hot air balloon in the sky. What they don’t see is what happens once they land. As well as having a pilot, every balloon has a chase crew. For most crews the festival is a very different experience.

“The main difference is the safety conditions, there is a lot more people … a lot of people around your fans and around your lines and your balloon, everybody wants to get in there and get the picture, so you have to do crowd control,” said crew member Mackenzie Wilson.

The fiesta is also a different experience for many of the pilots. But instead of working with the crowds on the ground, they are working with the crowds in the air.

“When you’re flying a balloon, you want to be focused … when you’re having 600 balloons around you … it’s not normal. It doesn’t happen every day,” said balloon pilot Chinthaka Jayasinghe, who was participating at the event for the first time.

“Just fly your balloon … do your job right,” said Jayasinghe.

Although there is a lot happening in the air and on the ground, the most important thing is to just keep focused on the task of flying.

After the pilots have taken off, chase crews must fight through the crowds to exit the launch field. One crew member will walk in front of the vehicle to clear the way for the driver, making sure no bystanders get hit.

Crews must simultaneously keep a close eye on their balloons amongst the hundreds of others in the sky. Using radio communication and GPS they will try to meet their pilots upon landing. They also help to inform their pilot of any balloons that are flying above them. Once they locate their pilots, they will pack up their equipment and return to the park.

But this is often easier said than done. Some landings are smooth with easy vehicle access and other landings can be a little rougher.

“We hit the ground … we started tipping over due to winds … a camera flew off someone’s neck … then the entire basket slid over it … totally ripping it to pieces,” said Wilson, of one of their landings during the festival. But losing a camera is certainly not the worst that can happen.

On the first day of the festival two balloons hit powerlines and a couple more hit trees. Fortunately no serious injuries were reported at the festival this year. Local balloons repair shops were kept busy repairing the many rips and tears that occurred. Rough landings are not the only problem for balloonists though. Road and property access can also present challenges.

“We ended up going down a few roads that had dead ends and were blocked off due to the festival,” said Wilson.

There are many areas that a balloon can land in that may not have easy vehicle access. Some fields are gated and locked with padlocks.

Albuquerque police are kept busy working as escorts for chase crews and dealing with any issues that may arise between balloonists and landowners.

After the mass ascension there is usually some competitive ballooning. Different games are played where pilots are scored on their accuracy for different tasks. It may be trying to land in a specific spot or dropping something out of the balloon to hit a target. After the morning, balloons are usually grounded until the evening because weather conditions are not ideal for flying.

During the day there are plenty of vendors around the park to check out. In the evenings they have balloon glows. Balloons will not take off, but will stand upright on the ground. Pilots then will put fire into the balloon and dozens of balloons will all flicker together like lightbulbs. They time their burns far enough apart so that the balloons stay grounded. They do not want to be taking off in the night because powerlines cannot be seen in the dark.

So what does a day working at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta look like?

“Insanity … It’s super crowded and a lot of fun,” said Wilson.

“Flying in the festival, it’s like a dream come true … to fly in that, it’s an achievement,” said Jayasinghe.

And that is just a peek into what happens in a day at the world’s largest hot air balloon festival. It is a spectacular sight to behold. The best way to experience it though, is to see it. The festival is held at the beginning of October each year for nine days.

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