For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with all things aviation. Big or small. Fast or slow. It didn’t matter. From dragging my parents to the airport to spot the little commuter planes that buzzed into our northeast Kansas town, to watching my dad fly his powered parachute as a kid (think a go-kart with a propeller and a parachute), I simply could not get enough. That same passion carried though to my adult life. And in spite of over 16 years of flying, every now and then, I get the opportunity to experience something in aviation that reconnects me to that childhood sense of wonder. The same things that made me say “wow” when I was little.
And so my girlfriend and I found ourselves at the 2015 Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta staring up at hundreds of colorful balloons being released silently into the blue New Mexico sky. Looking upward and smiling, all I could think was “I want to be up there.” So, when the opportunity arose for us to take a flight, I couldn’t have been more excited. I think I may have literally leapt at the chance!
We met our pilot, Gary, early on that brisk October morning. He was a veteran of the Fiesta, or so the multitude of Balloon Fiesta pins on his tan vest indicated. Gary’s balloon, Asses Aloft, would be our ride. When we asked about the origin of the name, we were told it was more a literal assessment of the balloon and its cargo than anything suggestive (granted he was smiling as he said this, so we aren’t sure we believe him). Nonetheless, Gary did share that the balloon and its name have become a favorite of festival announcers.
Like many of the pilots we met that weekend, Gary got involved in ballooning completely by luck. After his first interaction with them at a Northern California airshow piqued his interest, fate intervened. Gary’s friend, an employee at a Central California auto auction, alerted him to a repossessed hot air balloon offered for sale. Although he had no idea about the licensing for pilots (you had to have one) or the maintenance on a balloon (it’s more intensive than you’d think), Gary jumped at the chance. After spending $2,000 on the balloon itself, and $12,000 more fixing it up and acquiring all the necessary support equipment, he was set. And after many hours flying with an instructor, Gary earned his commercial ballooning license. “You become hooked,” he told us later while floating effortlessly above suburban Albuquerque. And with over 2000 hours and 20 years’ experience under his belt, his passion for ballooning still shows. We were very fortunate to get to share in that passion.
Albuquerque itself has long been a hub for ballooning. But, it’s worth nothing, the city’s location and weather are about as ideal as you can get for the sport. This is due to the presence of what’s called the “Albuquerque Box.” Essentially, early in the morning, cool dense air near the surface flows gently south from Santa Fe, which sits to the north of and at a slightly higher elevation than ABQ (pilots call this drainage). However, at higher altitudes, the wind blows in the opposite direction, from the south to north. This unique weather phenomenon occurs due to the mountainous terrain in the area and the stable air masses that exist over the city in the fall. This wind pattern provides balloonists with a predictable means of navigating their craft (yes, they do have SOME control). Using the “Box” and their expert knowledge of the winds, some balloonists are able to navigate their balloons back to the field they launched from!
Gathering near Gary’s truck, Cait and I were able to observe the amount of time and effort that it takes to prepare a balloon for flight. The crew first laid out the envelope (the colorful fabric “balloon” section) and began to inflate it using a high-powered floor fan. It was interesting to us that Gary’s Crew Chief was a local Albuquerque resident who had worked with him on several occasions managing the rest of the ground crew. The crew itself was composed of two semi-retired couples who enjoyed the Fiesta so much that they decided to lend a hand! This is truly a hands-on event and balloonists are always recruiting crewmembers to help out.
Tip: Volunteer to be on a ‘”crew” and get to experience ballooning culture up close! Some pilots even take their crewmembers on rides!
Once the fan had partially inflated the envelope, next came the heat! Using prudent applications of the propane burner, we watched as the red, yellow and blue balloon slowly became upright. As it became vertical, we lent a hand to stabilize the basket as Gary piled in, ensuring everything was checked and doublechecked. Waving a hand, he motioned for us to climb in as well.
Looking out from the basket, I was taken aback to see that a crowed had quickly amassed around the balloon. Seeing as we were one of the first ones to launch in the Mass Ascension, I shouldn’t have been surprised. We smiled and waved at some of the kids that had collected. They smiled and waved back. Suddenly, a roar of the propane burner broke the tranquility with noise, heat and a brilliant flash. The basket started drifting and swiftly broke the bonds of Earth. We were flying.
As I’m a pilot, you’d think the thought of drifting silently on the wind would be underwhelming to me. But I was awe-struck! I hadn’t felt that same level of exhilaration since I flew my first airplane! The balloon gained height silently, rising deliberately from the surface. From a hundred feet in the air, we were offered an amazing view of the festival below. It was a brilliant kaleidoscope of humanity and color, the likes of which I will never see in any other place. We climbed higher in the chilly air as the balloon began to drift south slowly. Gary was expertly pointing out landmarks on the ground, but honestly, he could have been speaking French. I was completely enamored with the view out of the basket! From the launch field, balloon after balloon rose in the early morning light, each more colorful and more beautiful than the last.
As we drifted towards downtown ABQ, Gary explained how balloonists use their knowledge of the weather and the movement of other balloons to interpret the wind at different altitudes. It’s important for every pilot to understand the weather, but to me, it was simply fascinating to see his knowledge on such a local level. Judging every slight variation in the wind and adjusting the balloon accordingly. Every now and then, he would spit off the edge and watch it fall. “Lets me know what the wind below us is doing.” That is one of the odder techniques he employed. Simple but effective.
Climbing up a few thousand feet, we began to drift north back over the Balloon Fiesta Park. Firsthand seats to the “Albuquerque Box” in action. From our vantage, we could see that balloons were still being launched off the field and the crowd below resembled a giant colony of ants. The sky around us was filled with hundreds of our fellow balloonists, also enjoying the beautiful morning air.
Descending north of the field, we began to track south again, this time over a suburban Albuquerque neighborhood where the community atmosphere of the Fiesta began to reveal itself. It seemed that everywhere we looked, people were coming out of their houses and kids were waving at balloonists as they floated quietly overhead. We even heard a mariachi band greet one balloon upon touchdown! Occasionally, Gary would have a conversation with someone who had come out of their home just in time to see Asses Aloft drift by. We shared in the camaraderie by waving back and saying hello to locals, unable to control our smiles at the simple beauty of it all.
About two hours into our flight-of-a-lifetime, pilot Gary began the search for a landing site. As we had been up significantly longer than had most of the other balloons launched that morning, most acceptable fields were already occupied by other crews recovering their ships and packing them up. “That one there!” Gary exclaimed with a pointed finger. We looked. It was a small, pale-brown dirt field with a balloon already occupying the northeast corner. As we cleared this obstacle by what felt like inches, our expert pilot pulled the red rope that dumps air out of the top of the envelope and we began to descend. Rapidly.
We hit the ground with a strong thud and the basket lurched sharply forward. Our ground crew ran over to stabilize the basket. Once we were firmly attached to the ground, we were invited to step off. We had landed.
Our time floating above Albuquerque was simply amazing. And if a balloon ride is on your bucket list, there’s simply no more spectacular way to do it than at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. In spite of being a pilot, I don’t feel that I can accurately describe just how incredible it was. The simplicity of ballooning is staggering. Simply speaking, it’s hot air in a bag. But the detail of a pilot’s knowledge of his ship and the weather was incredibly intricate—almost beautiful—all adding up to produce a simply unforgettable experience. The act of riding the New Mexico wind that morning, staring out at hundreds of pockets of striking color, is one that will remain vivid in my mind for a lifetime. Much like the glow of a balloon against the rising sun. It is something that even now, I think back and go “Wow.”
For more on the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, visit balloonfiesta.com.