The alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. and I throw the pillow over my head and think ‘maybe it’s too windy; maybe they can’t fly, maybe I can sleep in…’ The 2nd alarm goes off at 5:45 and I lift the blind, peek through the window and see the glow of the 1st balloon. I see them! They’re going up!
Jump out of bed, splash water on my face and brush my teeth. Throw on the pair of jeans and sweater that I wore the morning before, grab our jackets, scarves and gloves, pick up the flashlight, our entry pass AND CAMERA and we’re off!
It’s 6:00 a.m., the dark grounds are a sea of people, you can smell the breakfast burritos and green chile and the Tiny Tom donuts, souvenir booths are open and busy, the hospitality tents are serving breakfast to invited guests, the balloon trailers and chase vehicles are parked on the field – it’s a beehive of activity! Some of these people have been here since 3:30 a.m. and I say out-loud for the hundredth time –
This is the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. From its modest beginnings in 1972 when 13 pilots launched from a shopping mall, this year’s Fiesta – with over 650 beautiful balloons from 19 countries – has grown into the largest & most photographed balloon event in the world!
SCHEDULE OF EVENTS – MORNING
1. Daily Dawn Patrol and Dawn Patrol Show
A “ballon in the sky” featuring as many as a dozen balloons are the 1st to launch in the early morning darkness. They launch to gauge the winds and weather and report back for the pilot’s briefing. On Mass Ascension days, pilots perform the Dawn Patrol Show, a choreographed inflation and launch set to music.
2. Mass Ascensions and Morning Glows
The spectacular Mass Ascensions of hundreds of hot-air balloons on weekends and Wednesday are the Fiesta’s signature events and are preceded by “mini” balloon glows.
3. Competition Flying Events
Scheduled for weekdays except Wednesday, in a ballooning competition, pilots use winds at different altitudes to steer the balloon to a target and drop a marker so it lands as close to the centre of the target as possible. The competitions also feature the Ring Toss, where pilots fly to a pole and win cash prizes, as much as $2,000, if they successfully toss the ring onto the pole. The overall competition winners are determined by individual pilot’s cumulative scores during Balloon Fiesta week.
4. Flight of the Nations
The Flight of the Nations at Wednesday’s Mass Ascension especially honours 90 international pilots from the 18 nations participating in Fiesta. While the majority of the pilots are from the USA, countries in attendance included Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Lithuania, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and the U.K. Hence, the name International!
5. Special Shape Rodeo
Thursday’s and Friday’s mass ascensions showcase the incredible craftsmanship, creativity and artistry of 100+ ‘special shape’ balloons that make monsters, critters, movie characters, and just about anything else you can imagine take flight. These shapes, combined with the brilliant blue sky on Friday morning were amazing!
SCHEDULE OF EVENTS – EVENING
- Balloon Glows
Held on the Saturday & Sunday opening weekend and again on Saturday closing weekend the static displays of illuminated balloons known as “Twilight Twinkle Glows” OR “Balloon Glows” are now among the Fiesta’s most popular events. The “All Burn”, when all the balloons fire their burners and light up at the same time, are perhaps the most spectacular single moment of the Fiesta.
2. Special Shape Glowdeo
The fantastic static displays of special shape balloons, on Thursday and Friday, are even more fantastic in the glow of early evening. This is one of Fiesta’s most popular events! You can wander onto the launch field for an up-close and personal view of the pilots and the balloons – some of them HUGE.
3. AfterGlow Fireworks Show
Immediately following the 5 scheduled evening Glows the sky lit up with an amazing fire work display. I’m afraid this was not Gracie’s favourite event. Since Mexico, fireworks are pretty stressful for her. We made it to 1 showing but stayed back at the RV on subsequent shows with the windows closed and the tv turned up loud. She still could figure out what was going on…
Canon was this year’s presenting sponsor and to ensure you get the ‘best’ photo ever their booth offered free camera & lens loans, free camera & lens cleans & checks and exclusive show discounts with on-site camera, lens & printer purchases. They sold out of their product! Talk about a captive audience!
The 1st 3 nights we were parked in Standard RV parking – across the street from the Fiesta grounds. It’s about 1 mile from the Fiesta grounds and your options to get to the Launch Field are (i) walk; (ii) ride your bike and park at the Bike Valet and (iii) jump on one of the many shuttle school buses which run every 15 minutes and drop you off at the main entrance.
Biking together was not an option since my bike is in a repair shop in Poplar Bluff, MO. It fell off the bike rack somewhere in West Virginia and was dragged along the highway for how long – we have no idea! One side of the handle bar was entirely worn down… We’re told it’s fixable and we’ll pick it up on our way back east!
The 4th day we moved to VIP West where we had reservations for 3 more nights. We were scheduled to move back to the Standard lot for the final 4 nights but Chuck actually be-friended the parking officials in VIP West and combined with some last minute cancellations we were able to stay in the same spot for the rest of the week. Yahoo!
In the VIP West location we were parked 3 rows back from the entry gate, could see the launch field from the windshield and were in the thick of it all in about 10 minutes. A little more expensive than ‘Standard’ but not as expensive as ‘The President’s Compound’ at $175/night.
On Sunday afternoon we signed up to volunteer to crew and they assigned us to a pilot from Oklahoma City, Jason Aiken and his balloon named JARL. Yes, all balloons have names!
Each of the morning and evening sessions run for 5 hours starting at 6:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. and tickets are $10 for each session or $45.00 for 5. There are definitely perks to crewing – one of them being you get an entrance pass to all morning and evening sessions for the entire week! We also got to attend a pilot and crew BBQ lunch and get coffee and breakfast in the Pilot’s Pavilion. We also had passes to the awards lunch which we couldn’t use. The Fiesta really takes care of the balloon pilots – and their crews! The real perk to crewing is the possibility – but no guarantee – that the pilot will take you up for a ride, in thanks for your efforts.
Our 1st opportunity to crew was Tuesday morning since we were not only relocating the coach on Monday morning but, more importantly, the balloons were grounded. Not even the early morning Dawn Patrol could go up. We set the alarm Tuesday morning and at 6:00 a.m. we were making our way to our pilots location at R3 in the launch field. Imagine 54 football fields, all put together. That’s the size of Balloon Fiesta Park’s 78-acre launch field. And R3 was almost clear the other end from the RV!
Introductions were made and he said he didn’t think he would be going up due to gusting conditions but we would go through all the motions of inflating the balloon and just remain static (on the ground). This dry run gave us a chance to quickly learn the ropes.
We set the alarm Wednesday morning and at 6:45 a.m. were making our way back to section R3 on the launch field. The morning looked perfect, and conditions appeared ideal, and yes, JB was going up! We were a crew of 4 – including the pilot – which is small. Unloading the trailer, attaching the balloon to the basket (these things are HEAVY), tether the balloon to a vehicle, start the fan and inflate the balloon, hang on to the stabilizing guide wire, heat the balloon with the propane and wait for one of the ‘zebras’ to give you the thumbs up and 3 toots of their whistle.
Chuck, I need you to drive the chase vehicle. Here’s the walkie talkie and when we land I’ll send you a map text showing where we’ve landed. All you need to do is find us and pick us up… I’m going to take your wife up to make sure I get my car back!
Jacquie, I need some weight in the balloon – want to go up? First time I have ever loved the word “weight”…
Hmmm! Should I be excited or just act blasé? What do you think?
We made our way to the field again Thursday and Friday morning but each of those mornings he didn’t even want to take the equipment out of the trailer. We just stood around talking to other pilots and crew and spectators – which is fun also! Lots of opportunity to ask your questions and get answers from the seasoned pilots and crew. Also fun to watch the spectators who are swaddled in blankets and totally in awe.
Jason had only been licensed to fly 4 years ago and I got the sense he was overly cautious. You are encouraged to find a pilot that you feel comfortable and enjoy working with. If it doesn’t work out find another pilot. But you also hate to ditch him when you know he needs your help. It’s impossible to launch these things by yourself!
Now each pilot does have the choice to do exactly what he/she is comfortable doing. The Dawn Patrol go up 1st to assess the situation and report back. This is followed by a pilot’s briefing where the stats are discussed – wind velocity, wind direction, temperature, sun rise, etc. Without a doubt all of the commercials balloons will ascend – they have riders that have paid $400/person to go up! It does include a pre-flight breakfast and a post-flight champagne celebratory toast, so maybe it’s a good deal…
Our pilot actually left Friday morning and we were free to do whatever. It was too late to find another pilot to crew with so we went back to being spectators only. The Friday morning mass ascension was actually amazing with all the spectacular shape balloons!
We were there for the entire 9 days and while the daily schedule of events mirrors that of yesterday – and the day before – each day is so different and unique. First of all I don’t think they could launch ALL participating balloons at the same sessions. So, you get to see different sizes, shapes and colours each day. Secondly, each day’s launch is so weather and wind dependent and there’s been 2 morning launches cancelled completely, 3 additional mornings that our pilot that we were crewing with didn’t want to launch and 1 evening glow session that was put on hold for 3 hours due to wind and finally cancelled. Unfortunately, if these were the only days you were here it would be so disappointing.
Opening weekend was perfect by all accounts and we spent Saturday and Sunday just being a spectator. Walking the launch field, touching the balloons (‘envelopes’ as they are more accurately referred to by seasoned pilots and crew), perusing the exhibit tents, smelling and sampling the food, talking to everyone – from everywhere and snapping hundreds of photos… You start the morning with gloves, scarfs and jackets and by 10:00 a.m. your headed back to your RV to change into shorts! You have the rest of the day to do whatever – which may include taking a nap!
Closing weekend Saturday was a total wash-out – both the morning and evening sessions were cancelled. We explored old-town Albuquerque so it wasn’t a total waste.
Crewing definitely enhances the experience and provides such a unique hands-on learning experience that I encourage everyone to sign up for it. There’s some heavy lifting involved but with enough crew it’s not impossible. There were folks older than us crewing and enjoying it as much as we did!
Events outside of ‘all-things balloons’ included daily chainsaw carving invitational competitions and a Music Fiesta on the last Saturday afternoon spotlighting Chris Young from Nashville.
There is a phenomenon surrounding the Balloon Fiesta that I was really intrigued with – the wearing and collecting and exchanging of coveted souvenir Balloon Pins and Patches. There was even 2 Balloon Fiesta Pin Trading Sessions scheduled during the week. I would have loved to check it out but we missed both of them – although we did buy a few souvenir Official 2016 Fiesta pins! As you walk the Launch Field you see people covered in pins from their hats to their jackets – just like this one…
Sunday mornings farewell mass ascension was bitter-sweet. Sad to see it all come to an end but amazing to watch hundreds of balloons in their final farewell flight set against an over-cast sky. We watched it from a hill overlooking the launch field which gave the ascension an entirely different perspective.
This is a long-winded blog and probably one of the most difficult I have written so far as mere words just can’t describe the beauty, awe, size, scope and superb organization of this Fiesta. Sifting through hundred’s of photos to select that ‘oh so perfect one’ – was also not an easy job!
Whether you call it your ‘bucket list’, ‘butterfly list’ or simply your ‘to do list’ make sure the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is on it!
Next year’s dates are October 7th – 15th, 2017.
Maybe we’ll see you there!