Ballooning is an Albuquerque thing. It’s precisely burqueno and in my 3 years here, I’ve avoided it like the plague. The whole notion of walking around looking at balloons amidst a bunch of screaming kids just never really appealed to me. Well, it turns out, I was wrong about balloon fiesta, way wrong.
This year through some friends of friends, I’m crewing for Paul Clinton on Daytripper. He’s been flying in Albuquerque for about 25 years. Through him I’m learning “that ballooning is like sailing, only in 3 dimensions.” I’m also learning about the peculiarities of hot air ballooning at 5,000 feet surrounded by mountain ranges and Indian reservations.
So on a chilly morning, I’m listening to Pink Floyd’s Animals (recall the album cover and that reference almost makes sense) and having awaking dream about curling up in a stack of warm pancakes as I speed past IHOP on the way to the interstate. Basically, the way it works, is that if you’re willing to show up at 5 am, you can lift things and take direction, you can be on a balloon crew. Once the balloon is loaded on the trailer with the fan and the basket we wind our way up Edith toward Balloon Fiesta Park.
I’ve been out with them a couple of times now, chasing the balloon in a truck kicking up dust on the mesa west of town and also driving a not quite fully refurbished prison van to dead end on a cul de sac and then begging a homeowner to cut through their house and yard to get to the ditch and catch the balloon. Getting to the landing is key, so is keeping your cool while negotiating balloon fiesta spectator traffic and looking out for other out of town balloon crews. This part of balloon crew is very important. Once the pilot lands, he needs more weight on the basket to keep it from lifting off the ground again and to get tilted toward the ground so he can let the air vent out of the balloon. Once the balloon is on the ground it has to be carefully packed away, because, hey, you don’t want to deal with a mess the next time your stumbling in the dark at balloon o’clock (usually about 5 am). Once the envelope (fancy name for balloon part) and basket (duh, it’s the basket part) are on the trailer, its time to start drinking beer.
Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you get to drink it from a vintage firetruck/chase vehicle called the gentle stripper. Other times you sip it from a can as you watch the balloons come in for competition. Other than my actual balloon ride, the competition drop was my favorite part of my virgin fiesta. Basically balloons fly in to the field and try to drop bean bags on an X on the ground, or for the really big money, put a ring on a pole that’s about 15 feet tall. Because Albuquerque’s balloon fiesta is the biggest Ballooning Rally in the world, you get really top notch competitors.
Much like sailing, everyone who intends to fly, meets at a pilot’s briefing. Once the weather conditions and rules are sorted out at this meeting, the competition pilots start to calculate the best place to launch from in order to hit the targets. Strategy, local knowledge and a bit of luck all weigh in to this equation about equally.
On this exceptionally brisk October morning, we had the first two going for us. Paul knew exactly where he wanted to launch from, but unfortunately we had a mechanical, um situation, one of the uprights that holds the burner above the basket had broken the day before and was lodged so far down in the slot where it sits that the spare upright would not go in.
Despite brainstorming and resourceful attempts at removing the piece, it looked like the day was going to be a wash.
I never thought I’d say I was glad to not get a ride, but sitting on the infield with a beer, watching the pros come in to the targets was the non-flying highlight of the week. It’s a really cool sport with some really, really talented pilots and the wind conditions were right for several of them to make multiple attempts on the targets. From my novice observations, the wind conditions were such that the north south wind “dumping” from Santa Fe sped the contestants right to the targets, then they’d rise up and catch a south-north current to head back up and give it another go. It looked like they were using an elevator and a conveyor belt. Very cool.
All the while we were trying to fix the upright situation the special shapes were taking to the air. I got a lot of cool pictures of special shapes.
Finally on the final Sunday of fiesta, after 3 weekends of 5 am wakeups, I got my ride. It was a perfect day for flying and everyone was inflating on the field for a huge, sunny mass ascension.
We waited until the tail end of the ascension and sailed right up over the field. Balloons directly ahead of us to the south dotted the sunny skyline in a perfect Albuquerque moment.
But all good things must come to an end and just as smoothly as we had ascended, we started to head toward a field to land.
We came in smoothly, softly and slowly right over the top of the Noah’s Ark balloon, still inflated on side. The fine folks from the Smokey the Bear were right there in the field to help us, and by 9 am we were all packed up and enjoying a growler of IPA. Once we got back to the field it was time to enjoy a gorgeous New Mexico day with some more beer and elk summer sausage, another great fiesta in the books.