It’s an exhilarating feat of flying that is celebrated every year with the latest in special equipment and state-of-the-art equipment. For half a century, hot air balloon pilots have time and time again faced the limits of what their technology can’t do while enjoying what it can do at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, the massive balloon festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
But while thrilling audiences and providing passengers with an experience of a lifetime, the event also showcases how a particular technology has evolved into a culture that blends seamlessly with everyday metropolitan life in America’s 32nd most populous city.
As participants gracefully celebrated the art of hot air ballooning, they also showed how it gradually transformed into something more—something magical, meaningful, but always as unpredictable as the technology itself.
Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta began in 1972 and has become the largest balloon festival on the planet. More than 600 balloon pilots are invited to take their balloons to a sort of annual “convention” that lifts off simultaneously each morning of the nine-day festival.
Flights have an irresistible appeal that fascinates people from all walks of life. Albuquerque native Colleen Perry describes herself as a “stay-at-home mom and dog trainer” — but she’s also now leading the chase after one of the early Dawn Patrol balloons. They help inflate the balloon — then help it land along its flight path, and then break it down so it can be transported back for later launch.
In fact, up to 800,000 visitors are expected this year, a community of adventurers and entertainment enthusiasts of all kinds, including at least one nomadic couple who turned a bus into their dream home . They shared a video of themselves on YouTube of Dawn Patrol’s first balloon inflated (and illuminated inside) for a predawn flight.
But while watching the first balloon light up the darkness of the morning, the couple also pondered the fundamental challenge of ballooning: “They never knew where they would end up.”
At least a century before the Wright brothers’ first flight, humans had been trying to take to the skies using balloons, filling them with hot air or hydrogen, which is lighter than air. The technology has always had its limitations, a lesson played out in real-time every year at the Balloon Carnival. Balloon lovers can only choose when to go up and when to go down – all other movements depend on the wind direction above and below them. With hundreds of balloons flying in the air every day, every pilot faces this fundamental unpredictability. On Thursday, local TV station KOB captured footage of a balloon landing on a suburban street.
This is far from uncommon.
Last year WBUR noted that local landowners even spread out colorful sheets, inviting balloon pilots to land (or telling them to land elsewhere). But they also noticed that 1,200 homes were without power after two balloons accidentally hit power lines in 2021.
One morning this week, the couple in the converted bus found that the wind had blown a balloonist into their car park. They later interviewed another balloon pilot who deliberately joked that “once you run out of fuel it’s easy to land”, while remembering that the other balloon had actually landed in the convenience store parking lot.
On the bright side, he noted, “I haven’t missed the ground yet.”
Other traps await. A staff member managed to pack their balloons at a park – only to find the heavy gear sank their truck into the park’s soft grass.
As one balloon company tactfully points out, “Ultimately, balloons go with the wind and don’t always end up where we landed in the past.” But they assure potential clients, “New Mexicans love hot air balloons, and most residents And the owners were happy to let us land the balloons nearby.”
“One of the joys of true chasing is never knowing where or how far the balloon will go,” Perry wrote on a blog called Albuquerque Mama.
In fact, unpredictability has become part of the local culture. “One of the best parts of landing in a residential area is getting the people in the neighborhood involved,” Perry added. “As long as the conditions are good, the chase team will often ask the audience to help put the balloon down. We also try to get the kids into the hoop for a minute before deflating if we can.”
Audiences sometimes even engage in a time-honored tradition: Balloon pilots always carry a bottle of champagne. Legend has it that the first balloons were mistaken for fire-breathing dragons or demons from another world – French balloon lovers brought champagne to prove they were French who usually like to have fun.
To this day, it’s useful for quelling angry landlords when you do an accidental touchdown on their property. One pursuer spoke with admiration of their pilots sharing champagne as they landed on a commercial tree plantation.
“If the balloon lands in your yard, the pilot will share champagne with you as a gesture of thanks and kindness,” Perry wrote.
Perry also added: “We usually have cheese and crackers as well.”
The thrill of chasing the crew
Over the past half century, the festival has gradually accumulated and adopted the latest technology. One of the “hunters” on the ground told me they were still using a web-based flight tracker to track the balloons they were servicing, which instantly converted their GPS coordinates into a handy visual flight path tracking map. Air-to-ground radios now add GPS tracking systems and even backup cell phones for communicating with ground crews. Of course, balloonists also use altimeters to measure altitude.
There’s also an official Balloon Fiesta app, which now provides news and schedule updates for Android and iPhone.
But modern technology continues to find its way in the event’s elegant celebration. One of the parking facilities was even sponsored and named after Intel, and the chipmaker also released its own balloons during the holiday season.
The local police department will even attach electronic tags to children so they can wander around the event and still be found by parents. In an interview on the festival’s official livestream, a local police officer said the department had flagged “500 to 700 children.”
When the event starts in October. 1. The first event is the drone light show.
But technology can only accomplish so much, and the past half century has also brought festivals to a world facing climate change — and the tricky weather patterns that come with it.
“The only place in the entire United States where it has ever rained is New Mexico,” balloonist Scott Appleman complained to a local news station. (Or at least the only state where excessive rainfall can lead to flooding.)
Balloon Festival meteorologist Brad Temeyer told the radio that Hurricane Ian in Florida created a low-pressure weather block over the Rocky Mountains. “It just couldn’t move because that hurricane was traversing the East Coast. This low pressure was only there over the weekend, leading to severe weather showers and thunderstorms.” Also, low clouds reduced visibility — a big concern for this year’s balloonists. Said to be a dangerous situation.
The iconic “mass boost” event – the event where hundreds of balloons all lifted off in the morning – was cancelled twice Due to rain, within a week. Thursday night’s Glowdeo was also canceled — a delightful spectacle in which air-heating burners were adjusted to light up the entire balloon, creating a gala of glowing canvas.
But perhaps the biggest disappointment was the cancellation of the spectacular gas-powered balloon race, which disappointed eight different teams from five countries, including father and son Germany, who currently hold the world record, according to the festival’s webpage. (Past contestants have flown all the way from Albuquerque to Canada and even the U.S. East Coast, the festival’s website adds.)
Organizers of the event arranged for live satellite tracking of all balloon positions in preparation for webcasting via the festival’s website and the festival’s official mobile apps for Android and iPhone. But in the end, “weather conditions made it impossible to play a safe, competitive race,” explains the Carnival’s official website.
However, as the event entered the second half of a century, the spirit of hot air balloon enthusiasts remained unyielding. Dana Seymour told me that their pilot was one of many who ended all flights with a balloonist’s prayer.
“May the wind welcome you tenderly.
May the sun bless you with warm hands.
May you fly so high, so well, let God laugh with you
Let you tenderly return to the loving embrace of Mother Earth. ”
Over lunch at the Albuquerque Burger, Seymour put it more succinctly.
“We found one thing over and over at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta – joy.”