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Largest Ballooning Event Marks 50 Years

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (AIBF) is a festival of hot air balloons that takes place in October in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA. This year is very special as more than 650 balloonists from the United States and 21 other countries will gather to celebrate the 50th International Balloon Fiesta from 1st to 9th October 2022.

Since the AIBF first took shape with an inaugural launch of 13 balloons, 50 years ago, Balloon Fiesta will host a reenactment on September 30 at Coronado Mall of the first flight that had launched from Coronado Center. The same day, balloonists  will also launch from public schools in and around Albuquerque and Rio Rancho in a popular event called Albuquerque Aloft.

Now regarded as the largest ballooning event in the world, Balloon Fiesta comes from humble beginnings.

The first Balloon Fiesta took place on April 8, 1972. It was organized by Sid Cutter, Albuquerque resident and balloonist, in honor of KKOB (KOB) Radio and its 50th anniversary. That year, 13 balloons participated in the “First Annual KOB Radio and Television International Balloon Festival,” now considered to be the first Balloon Fiesta, at Coronado Center.

The event grew quickly, and in 1973, the Fiesta hosted the First World Championships, along with a balloon rally for non-competing balloonists. Held at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds, 128 balloons were flown. Over the years, different locations have played host to the event, which finally moved to its current location at Balloon Fiesta Park, north of Alameda Boulevard in 1996.

2016 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta; Photo: LTA-Flight Magazine

The nine days of Fiesta are packed with various ballooning events, spectacular shows, competitions, and fireworks. The festival attracts about one-hundred-thousand visitors per day. Every year hundreds of balloonists return for this one-of-a-kind experience and to enjoy the camaraderie. Doug Gantt, a veteran balloon pilot says, “My first Balloon Fiesta was in 2001 with a commercial balloon (Sony WEGA). I was living in Florida at the time, and I swore I would never miss another one. So, for many years, I drove back and forth from Florida until I officially moved to Albuquerque in 2019. I’ve saved a lot of gas since then! We started flying Ham-Let, the World’s Largest Flying Pig, in 2002, and it’s been a great adventure ever since.”

The Fiesta features many favorites like Mass Ascensions, Dawn Patrol, races and competitions, Balloon Glows, Special Shapes Rodeo / Glowdeo, laser light shows, fireworks, entertainment, and chainsaw carving demonstrations. The Dawn Patrol show is beautiful and captivating. It also provides useful information for subsequent balloon flights. Dawn Patrol pilots take off before sunrise and fly until landing sites become visible, giving other balloonists an idea of wind speeds and direction at different altitudes. On Mass Ascension days, the Dawn Patrol balloons put on a show with a choreographed inflation and launch, set to music.

The Dawn Patrol at AIBF 2016. Photo: LTA-Flight magazine
The Dawn Patrol at AIBF 2016. Photo: LTA – Flight Magazine

In the 1970s, a small fraternity of daring balloonists used to make their Dawn Patrol ascents by launching in the pre-dawn hours. When I met balloon pilot Tom Gough at the Fiesta in 2016, he said he used to do pay rides for Fiesta founder Sid Cutter. “Fiesta didn’t recognize us [Dawn Patrol] in those days. We had to go off the field as we couldn’t launch from the field. We’d go by Honeywell to launch and fly. It was a great time,” said Gough.

Doug Gantt explains: “Though balloons are registered aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), we can only fly under VFR (Visual Flight Rules), that is between sunrise and sunset. Typically, with Dawn Patrol we launch an hour before sunrise — we have a strand of aircraft lights that we hang off the
side of the basket which makes us legal and then we takeoff and fly into the dark sky.” Two California balloonists came up with this position lighting system for balloons to fly in the dark. The Dawn Patrol became a part of the Albuquerque Fiesta in 1978. Until then, it was not considered safe, and pilots
were prohibited from taking off from Fiesta grounds.

Immediately following the launch of the Dawn Patrol Show, a “baker’s dozen” balloons will light up the field with a balloon glow.  A tradition established in 2010, some balloonists will take part in the Krispy Kreme Morning Glow on October 1, 2, 5, 8, and 9. They will then launch with the rest of balloons on the field at sunrise.

Then comes the breathtaking premier morning event, the Mass Ascension featuring hundreds of colorful hot air balloons launching to the skies in two waves. This year, weather permitting, the event will take place on October 1, 2, 5, 8, and 9. The dazzling and vibrant show across the Albuquerque sky can last up to two hours.

Since balloons can be maneuvered only by going up or down by catching a favorable wind direction, in a mass ascension, balloonists have to be more careful and aware of the balloon traffic that is above, below, and around them.  “Balloons below have the right of way because we can see it coming up. Its pilot cannot see us,” said Gantt. For balloonists, flying in a mass ascension is great fun and a test of their piloting abilities. The experience also allows them to sharpen their skills and be a better pilot.

Highlighting the international flair of Balloon Fiesta is the Flight of the Nations event on October 5. Balloon teams representing each country will carry their nation’s flag during a mid-week flight. This special ballooning event started in 1998.

The Fiesta also showcases balloons designed as works of art. Balloon aficionados come from all walks of life and love to see their favorite craft fashioned into an amusing shape or fun character or icon. The result is floating works of art across the sky. This year an “alien” “flying saucer” and many interesting shapes will take to the sky along with the hundreds of characters. So it’s hardly surprising that the Special Shape Rodeo is the most popular event, since it began in 1989.

Special Shape Balloons at AIBF 2016. Photo: LTA-Flight Magazine

There are other highly anticipated events, such as the Twilight Twinkle Glow, Balloon Glow and Night Magic Glow that light up Balloon Fiesta Park. Just before dusk, balloons are inflated and tethered; the Balloonmeister then orders ignition and all pilots simultaneously fire their burners, filling the balloons and the sky with a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors. Guests can walk around the balloons and take in the brilliance. This magnificent tradition started in 1979.

Gas balloons for America’s Challenge, 2016. (Courtesy of Noah Forden)

A major competitive event includes a cross-country gas balloon race called America’s Challenge which was first held at the Balloon Fiesta in 1995, so, this year, Fiesta is also celebrating the 25th America’s Challenge. Gas balloonists come from around the world to participate in this long-distance race which can last up to 3 or more days.

One of the challenges for balloon pilots and their meteorologists (who work from the ground) is to find the best wind track to fly as far as possible, without stopping. Whoever flies the longest (straight) distance from the launch point, wins. Once the balloons are aloft, it is interesting to watch how the pilots and their weather person develop strategies to be on the fastest wind track. Of course, safety is the main concern.

Even though ballooning technology has improved considerably, and communication is advanced, the race remains a real flying adventure. It tests the pilots’ endurance and skills as they fly nonstop at high altitudes for days and nights, often over remote areas and large water transits, harnessing the wind.

This year, the gas balloon race is scheduled to launch at 6 pm on Saturday, October 1, 2022, with inflation starting a few hours before. So far, eight teams representing five countries have registered. This competition can turn into an exciting and tight race, and earthly followers can become involved by tracking the flights in real time.

The America’s Challenge record for distance is held by the duo Nicolas Tièche and Laurent Sciboz from Switzerland — 3670.76 kilometers or 2275.87 miles in 2017; the record for duration is held by David Hempelman-Adams and Jonathan Mason of the United Kingdom —71 hours, 31 minutes in 2011. 

Competitions in hot air ballooning are confined to Fiesta Park and are exciting to watch. These competitions challenge the best pilots’ skills: In “Judge Declared Goals,” balloon pilots must fly to designated targets at least one mile away from the launch field. For “Fly-in Task” Pilots must drop a weighted marker on a specified target within Balloon Fiesta Park. Ranging from drop heights of only inches to 200 feet above the ground, even the most talented balloon pilots are challenged when it comes to fly-in tasks. “Ring Toss” is another difficult competition, but very popular. Balloons launch from at least one mile away and fly to the field. Once there, pilots must navigate to one of the five tall poles and place a ring over one of the poles. Each ring is worth a fabulous prize if the pilot can place it.

The many exciting and colorful events also include the Fiesta’s second annual remote-control balloon rally with dozens of tethered balloons, which are scale model balloons, about 30 feet tall. The mini mass ascensions will take place at Fiesta Park, from 7:30-11 a.m. on October 2, 5, and 7 and the glow during the evening session on October 8. Most evenings conclude with spectacular fireworks show (October 1, 2, 6, 7 and 8).

This year, balloon pilots from these countries will take part in the Fiesta: the United States, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom.

For artists, these graceful giants floating on nature’s canvas is a favorite topic for their paintings. It’s also the photographer’s wonderland, and the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta remains the most photographed event in the world, besides being the largest event in the United States. Over the years the Balloon Fiesta has hosted millions of guests and thousands of pilots, representing 56 different countries. In 2019, the event generated $186.82 million into the New Mexico economy. Visiting the Fiesta is a unique and joyful experience, and for most people, taking a balloon ride during the most celebrated ballooning event in the world is truly a once in a lifetime experience.

By Sitara Maruf

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