By David Gelles
The 31st Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta concluded this weekend after a nearly perfect week of flying.
Up until Saturday night, the all-important weather remained calm, clear, and crisp, creating ideal conditions for balloonists from dozens of international countries and almost all 50 states.
Albuquerque is widely considered to have the best balloon weather in the world, largely because of the famous "Albuquerque Box," a phenomenon that causes wind to blow different directions at different altitudes. The "Box" is so pronounced that pilots are able to navigate with considerable accuracy, and even back-track along their original course. "Usually you can't steer a balloon," said local pilot Jonathan White, "but in Albuquerque, you can."
The Fiesta got underway on the morning of October 5th with the first of several Mass Ascensions. Nearly 750 balloons took off together, after which their crews gave chase, speeding through town in the ever-popular pickup truck while keeping their eyes on the sky.
All week the skies were beautiful and the streets were busy. While balloons of every size, shape, and color idled across the desert horizon, nearly 1,000,000 visitors crammed for a view, as chase crews tries desperately to stay close to their balloon and be ready for the landing.
Though not every morning was a Mass Ascension, balloons could be seen every dawn, drifting over town and skirting the nearby Sandia mountains. And while ballooning can be dangerous, the week was without major incident.
Well before each day's first light, Balloon Fiesta park was bustling with activity. Visitors, volunteers, pilots, and crew were browsing the arts and crafts tents, sampling free Spam sandwiches, and eating the locally-famous breakfast burritos. Other favorites included roasted corn, Indian fry bread, and green chiles.
Spirits were high, even before the sun rose, and the camaraderie that permeates ballooning culture inspired constant merriment. Paul R. Smith, Executive Director of the Balloon Fiesta, commented on the Fiesta attitude, saying, "In a year full of international strife, it's refreshing to see to many coming together to celebrate in such a peaceful sport. Friends from around the globe reunite here each year, and politics, language and culture barriers take a backseat to ballooning."
Between morning rises and nigh events, the field stayed busy. Some played frisbee and football, occasionally tossing a pass to a policeman on horseback, while other crews joined together for lunches of crepes and champagne.
Collectors were busy buying and trading pins from past Fiesta's, with some rarities going for over $100. Also on hand were several companies, including GE and Lindstrand, promoting their products and showcasing new technologies.
One of the Fiesta's main attractions was the 7th America's Challenge Gas Balloon Race. 17 gas balloons from four countries launched on the evening of the first day, competing for the world's premier distance ballooning prize.
While back in Albuquerque hot air balloons rose and fell with solar regularity, the gas balloons were airborne for nearly a week. The winners were Richard Abruzzo, and New Mexico's own Governor, Gary Johnson. Piloting a helium balloon, Johnson and Abruzzo flew 1738.11 miles, landing in Delaware, just a few miles from the east coast. This was the second longest flight for distance, and the longest for duration in the event's history.
Other competitions included Friday morning's Pole Grab competition, in which pilots navigated their balloons toward five poles with envelopes attached to the tops. Each envelope contained a certificate for a prize, the grand prize being a 2003 Ford Expedition, which was grabbed by Bill Glen of Roswell, NM.
The Special Shapes competition was won by Bill Woodhead, piloting "Arky," a colorful depiction of Noah's Ark. "Airabelle," the enormous Creamland cow, was voted favorite Special Shape by the crowd.
Nights were marked by magical Balloon Glows, at which balloons inflated and burned propane, but did not take off. From a distance, Fiesta field looked like a lake filled with Japanese lanterns, while on the field looking up, all one saw was enormous bubbles of color. Glows were followed by fireworks, which lasted for two hours some nights, and were accompanied by live music, and drew large crowds.
On Saturday the 12th, the Fiesta's last Glow was canceled due to high winds, and Sunday morning's Farewell Mass Ascension was canceled because of rain.
But despite the final events' cancellations, the Fiesta could only be called a success. Crowds and crews enjoyed themselves to no end, and once again, ballooning's premier international showcase passed with flying colors.