Fiesta! A Novice's Guide to Ballooning

If you’ve ever wished to savor the thrill of hot-air ballooning, no place on earth is better suited for that experience than Albuquerque, New Mexico. For 10 days each year during early October, balloonists from all over the world gather to celebrate and share their extraordinary sport. It's Fiesta!

Fiesta! A Novice's Guide to Ballooning

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by BawBaw on October 10, 2004

The Southwest is a region that knows fiesta like the rest of America knows football and baseball. And of course, the word fiesta (Spanish for festival) has many applications — religious, secular, social, and even culinary. But for 10 days in early October in the city of Albuquerque, fiesta has but a single association — one that coalesces and transcends all other possible meanings into a giant celebration of the art and sport of ballooning. The skies above the desert explode with color, and the merely curious observer is sometimes swept away into a whole new culture, one of risk, camaraderie, trust, and just a hint of excess.

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is all that its formidable name suggests. The 2004 Fiesta attracted 750 balloons, with pilots representing 16 countries on five continents (six if you tally New Zealand with the Australian continent). Having just completed its 33rd year or "journey," Fiesta is now the major international ballooning rally. Thus, it is an eagerly anticipated annual happening that attracts thousands of enthusiastic followers, not to mention a growing number of vendor concessions, advertisers, and corporate sponsors, all the trappings of a major sporting endeavor. Accordingly, it requires extensive planning, hundreds of volunteer and paid staff, and (like other world-class events these days) a high measure of security.

Like football and baseball, Fiesta can be enjoyed on many levels: as an active or passive observer, as a participant on or off the field, or as a competitor. Unlike most other sports, however, fans are able to move directly from observer to participant simply by volunteering to "crew" — that is, by providing part of the large reserve of personpower needed to inflate, chase, and re-pack the balloons throughout the rally. Indeed, joining a Fiesta balloon crew feels a bit like making the leap from fan to team player smack in the middle a World Series game! It is, quite honestly, a rush beyond description.

Ballooning is a sport that manages to transcend age, gender, and class. Crewing provides the ultimate rite-of-passage into that special world, requiring nothing more of the novice than the willingness to follow instructions and to work hard. In return, the newbie balloonist is offered hospitality; companionship; and, if circumstances and conditions permit, an incredible ride on the gentle arms of the wind in a wicker gondola suspended from the not-so-fragile envelope of a hot-air balloon.${QuickSuggestions} With events spread over 10 days, often in the evenings as well as the mornings, Fiesta represents a serious challenge in terms of prioritization. Some Fiesta-goers solve the problem by committing to the entire 10 days. If that’s not for you, consult the website maintained by the organizing committee. Schedules and associated information are posted well in advance.

Morning activities begin at 5:45am with Dawn Patrol, followed by a Mass Ascension or by competitive flying events. Pre-dawn desert mornings in October are chilly, with the temperature rising steadily as the morning progresses. A typical morning on the balloon field will range from the low 40s into the 70s, so Fiesta-goers should dress accordingly. Warm jackets and layers are recommended. The temperature drop for evening events, balloon glows and fireworks displays, is comparable.

Afternoons at Balloon Fiesta Park generally belong to the balloonists themselves, with crews engaging in tailgate parties and socializing. Concessions close shortly after noon and re-open in time to serve the crowds attending evening events. The whole scheme provides balloonists and public alike with an opportunity to observe another Southwestern tradition—siesta, the all-important afternoon nap.

Admission: $5 per morning or evening session
Parking: $5${BestWay} Parking at Balloon Fiesta Park is a burden, especially on weekends. To avoid parking gridlock, the general public has a number of options:

(1) Take a shuttle from one of the designated shopping centers. Shuttle fees are low, and they are guaranteed to minimize the psychological trauma caused by trying to secure on-site parking.

(2) Arrive early, and given that dawn patrol begins at 5:45am, we’re talking very early indeed. Vendors serving coffee, breakfast burritos, and variety of other tasty treats will help early arrivals wile away the time in reasonable comfort.

(3) Even if you avoid car pools in all other aspects of your life, car pool to Fiesta. Take as many passengers as will fit safely in your vehicle. Better yet, combine this with item number two above.

Once on the field, access is a matter of walking from one place to another. The launch field and concessions area are largely unpaved, but the grounds themselves are reasonably flat and accessible to visitors in wheelchairs. Visitors are welcome to wander the field during inflation and launch, though safety requires that instructions from crew members be followed at all times.

Mass Ascension

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by BawBaw on October 13, 2004

Mass Ascension is the alpha and omega of the Fiesta experience. It is the grand beginning and the grand finale. It is the event that paints the colors and shapes of all the assembled balloons onto the canvas of the New Mexico sky. It is the phenomenon that made Fiesta grow from a small rally of a few balloonists gathering in the Rio Grande valley into an international spectacle. The onlooker who can witness a Mass Ascension without being awestruck simply has no heart.

Mass Ascensions are conducted from Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta Park, usually beginning around 7am, right after Dawn Patrol. Each ascension occurs in waves, with the general order of flight specified during morning pilot briefings. Zebras, the field officials who manage Mass Ascension, give each pilot final clearance to launch. When all is said and done, hundreds of balloons fill the sky; upwards of 750 during Fiesta 2004.

Because onlookers are allowed to wander the launch field, Mass Ascension is a full spectator sport conducted in three dimensions. Within a matter of minutes, a balloon envelope can move from being a horizontal line of fabric laying on the ground to being a fully inflated aerostat aircraft, ready to fly. Walking among the inflating balloons makes one feel a bit like an insect in a forest of mushrooms. The overall effect is a sensual assault, including a myriad of colors, forms, and changing shapes.

Given the unusual level of access by spectators during inflation and ascension, it’s important to remember a few common-sense rules:

(1) Do not touch the fabric of the balloon envelope with your bare hands. You’ll notice that virtually all crew members wear gloves. Over time, the natural oils found in skin can damage a balloon’s envelope.

(2) No matter how tempting the photo op, do not come between the gondola and the throat of the balloon during inflation. Crew members are busy attaching rigging, and they are in general proceeding from the cold phase of inflation to the hot phase. Your intrusion into this space interferes with the rhythm of required safety checks. Moreover, an unfortunate convergence between a quick dash to take advantage of a world-class photo op and the first burn of the hot phase could ruin your whole day.

(3) As a matter of personal safety as well as courtesy, follow any instructions issued by crew members or field officials. Most balloonists are eager to share their passion, but their first concern is always for safety.

(4) Don’t smoke on the field. Propane is flammable.

In the end, the natural order of a Mass Ascension moves from wave to wave and down the aisles of the launch field, filling the sky above and the field itself with a chaos of vibrant and colorful forms — not to mention excitement. The senses of ordinary mortals simply cannot fully cope, and the photos brought home, no matter how wonderful, can’t begin to compare with the real thing.

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Balloon Fiesta Park
Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87113
(505) 821-1000

On Crewing for Fiesta

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by BawBaw on October 12, 2004

Every hot-air balloon requires a crew to assist the pilot during launch and recovery activities. Most conventional "round" balloons need five to seven people to manage this process efficiently. Special shape balloons, which tend to be more complex, often require much larger crews, whereas a single-seat "hopper" may need only the pilot and one other crewmember to manage operations on the ground.

For novices, crewing is the gateway into active ballooning. During Fiesta 2004, we quite literally took advantage of family relationships to attach ourselves to the crew of the Enchanted, a balloon owned and piloted by Harold Connell of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Our duties were relatively light as our experience was limited, but when push came to shove, we were expected to dive in to do whatever was necessary to help stand the balloon before launch, to chase and recover the balloon at its landing site, and to re-pack the balloon in preparation for its next flight.

Within the hierarchy of a balloon crew, key personnel consist of the pilot and the crew chief, in that order. Balloons are aircraft governed by local, national, and international regulations, and their pilots are licensed aviators who must complete a course of training specified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Crew chiefs are senior crewmembers who generally have in-depth experience with ballooning. Given the nature of ballooning with its inherent risks, it is vital that novice volunteers be willing to take instructions from senior crewmembers. Although rank is not generally obvious within a balloon crew, a volunteer’s unwillingness to respond to instructions or to share the workload as requested will ensure a short career in ballooning.

At Fiesta, out-of-town pilots often depend on support from local volunteers for the simple reason that bringing along their usual crew would raise the cost of participation. New Mexico in general and Albuquerque in particular boast a large ballooning community, and many experienced local crewmembers volunteer to help visiting pilots on either a full- or part-time basis throughout the rally. Recruiting for a crew occurs on both an informal and a formal basis, which means that onlookers suddenly bitten by the ballooning bug can volunteer their services through the Balloon Fiesta website, by telephone at 505/821-1000, or in person at a booth maintained on the south end of Balloon Fiesta Park.

Typical crew tasks for standing the balloon include manning the fan used for the cold stage of inflation, holding open the throat of the balloon to facilitate inflation, and anchoring the crown line at the top of the balloon envelope while inflation is in progress. During Fiesta, crowd control is often added to the task roster. Onlookers are encouraged to wander the launch field, but they are asked not to interfere with the work of balloon crews or to touch the envelopes with their bare hands. (Gloved hands are OK, but bare hands will leave behind natural oils and residues that can damage the fabric of a balloon's envelope.)

Once launch has occurred, the crew's key tasks shift to spotting and chasing the balloon until it returns to earth, which typically entails hopping into the back of a pickup truck and dashing off in whatever direction the balloon has taken. I have to admit that, especially at my age, speeding through the streets in the back of a pickup has its charms, despite the toll exacted in aching joints. Communication between the pilot and the chase crew is facilitated these days with cell phones, though radios and walkie-talkies are also still in use. Having a driver or passenger-seat navigator with intimate knowledge of local highways and byways is crucial to a successful balloon chase, which is why finding a local volunteer to participate in the chase is often a highly placed item on the Fiesta wish list of out-of-town balloonists.

Recovering the balloon from its landing site is often the most challenging responsibility of the crew. Despite the skill of the pilot, balloons often set down in inconvenient places. At Fiesta 2004, our crew had to lift the Enchanted over a fence topped with barbed wire, then walk it through a field of desert brush to set it down in an area less likely to damage the envelope. That meant coordinating with and responding promptly to the verbal instructions of the pilot. I found myself hanging onto the towline and pushing though chest-high tumbleweeds. Once a suitable location was found, the pilot pulled the crown line to deflate the balloon, and the chase crew proceeded to lay out and re-pack the envelope. With recovery complete, the crew loaded the balloon into the chase vehicle and piled in for the return trip to the launch field, which, of course, was where the post-flight party began!

Up and Away! The Joy of Flight

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by BawBaw on October 31, 2004

May the winds welcome you with softness.

May the sun bless you with his warm hands.

May you fly so high and so well

That God joins you in laughter

And sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

—The Balloonist Prayer

Despite the discouragement offered by too many mediocre experiences on commercial airliners, part of my psyche still regards flight as a very special form of magic. So when the crew of the balloon Enchanted selected Himself and Yours Truly to be the gondola passengers for the flight of Wednesday, October 6 (my birthday), it was no small gift—not for us and not for the crew.

The gondola of a standard balloon is relatively small, typically holding only three or four people, one of whom is always the pilot. Most sport balloons average only one flight per day—and then only when weather and winds permit. Even given the 10-day span of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, only a handful of passengers will actually be flown by any one balloon. Selecting us to fly quite literally meant that two other members of the crew—that is, members with frankly a stronger claim to the opportunity—would likely not have the chance.

A typical balloon flight begins with the pilot’s briefing to passengers. Our pilot, after many years of experience, has reduced his briefing to three key points:

(1) No matter what happens, stay in the gondola until the pilot instructs you that it’s safe to climb out.

(2) Always be aware of your surroundings. Keep both eyes open for anything that might interfere with either the balloon’s flight or its landing—including power lines, radio towers, other nearby balloons—and tell the pilot, even if you think he’s already aware of what you see.

(3) Follow any and all instructions from the pilot without question or delay.

As a passenger, it’s comforting to remember that balloon pilots are accomplished aviators with training and skills that meet rigorous standards established by the Federal Aviation Administration. A pilot must be able to handle emergencies as well as routine activities, and his expertise constitutes a passenger’s most effective guarantee of safety.

With all these practical matters in mind, the magic begins. Taking flight in a balloon is literally to float on the arms of the wind. Because the craft is carried with and by the wind, the only discernable sense of motion is provided by your balloon’s movement over the landscape below and by other balloons adrift nearby. Being suspended in air inside a wicker gondola feels a bit like standing still at the center of a 360-degree panoramic projection. The higher the balloon ascends, the more profound the illusion.

The world beneath the gondola is a patchwork of patchworks. First comes the launch, with its focus on friends and crew waving and shouting encouragement. Very quickly, the launch field diminishes into a green rectangle, colorfully dotted with other balloons preparing to fly. As the balloon moves higher and is caught by the wind, the field recedes into a far larger pattern. In Albuquerque at Fiesta time, that pattern includes the sharp, straight lines of streets and highways against the desert landscape, the tiled and graveled roofs of residential neighborhoods, the pavements and flattened commercial rooftops of shopping areas, and the green-brown shards of parks scattered throughout the city.

The view finally enlarges to include spectacular views of the Rio Grande Valley, with the river occasionally sparkling through the early-autumn tints of cottonwood groves along its banks, the rugged outlines of the Sandia and Manzano mountain ranges to the east, and the softer, warmer contours of the West Mesa, with its long-dormant volcanoes.

And during a Mass Ascension event at Fiesta, the view roundabout also includes hundreds of other balloons of all colors and many shapes—all drifting with a current of air or darting under their pilots’ direction to higher or lower currents. During our flight, the special shapes who were our neighbors included Airabelle, the flying cow; Little Angel and Little Devil, two brand new balloons based in Brazil; Azul, the blue monster; Smokey the Bear, who made the national news on the last day of Fiesta by snagging a communications tower; and an oversized American flag, sighted off in the distance and viewed against the backdrop of the Sandias.

A good pilot wants a smooth voyage and generally provides passengers with information about what to expect throughout the flight. Our pilot showed us how the propane burner is used to increase elevation, shared bits and pieces of his technical knowledge, discussed the rules of courteous flying to encourage safety awareness, and told us well in advance where and when he planned to land.

Himself and I have ascended and landed twice in a balloon, and the two experiences have been very different—that difference being best defined by the landing. Our first flight in 2002, with the same pilot, ended in a soft hop of the gondola against the desert floor, with lots of helping hands to assist us in climbing back out to Mother Earth.

The second time around, our pilot was given a last-minute signal from an official spotter at his chosen landing site, effectively being asked to re-ascend. The pilot tried to comply, but he was simply too committed to the planned landing and would have been unable to clear a nearby fence. In a split second, he chose to land rather than risk the possibility of being snagged on barbed wire while trying to clear the fence. The slight delay meant that our gondola drug across the ground for about 50 yards before coming to rest against the fence.

We had a rough and exciting few seconds, but our pilot’s skill meant that neither the passengers nor the balloon were damaged. I ended up tumbled in the floor of the basket, under Himself’s long legs. Though the gondola hit the fence, the pilot retained enough control to ensure that the envelope itself cleared the barbed wire. As with our first, less eventful landing, we were again quickly surrounded by the chase crew, who walked the balloon back from the fence and helped us out of the basket. We were a tad rattled, but safe.

As an encore to this experience, we all joined forces to pack the balloon, load it onto the chase vehicle, and head back to the launch field for the post-ascension party. We had a joyous flight to celebrate—and more reason than usual to be grateful for a safe landing. It was indeed a very special birthday.

Fiesta! The Launch Field Tailgate Party

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by BawBaw on November 25, 2004

A working slogan for hot-air ballooning might well be summed up as "Work Hard, Fly High, and Party Hearty." Certainly, that’s how many, if not most balloonists approach their sport. And the party begins early in the day -- immediately after the balloon has been safely landed and packed. That means that alcohol rarely touches the lips of balloonists (or least those who are not designated drivers) before the hour of 9am -- a bit less shocking when you consider that by that time, most crew members have been up and about for five hours. After an impromptu toast (usually beer) to the balloon’s safe landing, the crew gathers itself into the hands of its designated drivers and returns to the launch field, where the serious partying occurs. Consequently, Albuquerque’s annual International Balloon Fiesta can fairly be described as a 10-day-long tailgate party.

To their credit, balloonists take the word fiesta back to its roots and turn the world’s largest annual balloon rally into a festival of merrymaking. The tradition of fun is so high that, in addition to the official calendar of events, many balloon crews have developed their own rituals. Our crew, for example, proclaimed a series of theme days for which all and sundry were encouraged to dress to type: Celtic Day with plaids, kilts, and bagpipes; Hawaiian Day with floral-patterned shirts, sarongs, and leis; Mardi Gras Day with beads and masks; and Pirate Day with eye patches, three-cornered hats, and plastic rapiers. Coolish weather is not considered an impediment to wearing, say, a sarong. Layers of warmer clothes beneath more colorful outer garments are key to the art of the workaround, with unneeded layers being discarded as the desert sun warms the air.

The most sacred ritual for the launch field party is that of initiating "newbies" -- welcoming those who have just completed their first balloon flight. The rite begins when either the pilot or the crew chief recounts a brief history of ballooning’s origin and pops open a bottle of champagne, while the young and agile (or sometimes those who merely wish they were!) on the crew position themselves to catch the cork and thus ensure that the next landing will be soft. In the absence of an initiate, the ceremonial popping of the champagne cork will almost certainly find another focus -- someone’s birthday, a personal goal achieved, or happy news of any sort that can be shared and celebrated.

During the distribution of the champagne, the newbie is instructed to kneel on a rug, hands to the side. The new balloonist is then told to take the rim of the cup between clinched teeth and tip the head back to imbibe the bubbly -- without spilling any, of course. Meanwhile, other crew members circle behind the newbie -- the better to douse the initiate with water, more champagne, beer, or all three -- at Fiesta on a cool October morning, and this all amounts to a wet, cold baptism filled with laughter and fun. A toast to flying with fair winds follows, or rather accompanies, the dousing. Finally, the new balloonist is "pinned," a ceremony surrounded with great mystery and replete with many variations (most pilots keep a supply of pins representing their balloons -- the better for pinning, trading, advertising, and just plain giving away); thus is one welcomed ritualistically into the larger company of balloonists.

As with any good party, food, drink, and music are essential. Our adopted crew’s party provisions tended to appear on a potluck basis. Loose networking within the crew and between crews who party together also produces easy pop-up canopies for shelter against the sun, folding camp chairs for basic seating comfort, and camp tables as needed. Individual crew members also have a habit of finding special roles for themselves that they fulfill each year. Within our adopted crew, one member (our son-in-law, as it happens) selects music for each year’s festivities, two sisters coordinate to prepare Jell-O shooters for at least one day of merrymaking, the pilot stashes away several bottles of champagne (for ritual purposes only, of course), and yet another member brings a steady supply of edibles to ensure that food, as well as drink, is in ready supply.

Balloonists have found some ingenious ways to accommodate those needs they regard as most dear. A married couple within our crew provides margaritas made fresh-to-order in a gasoline-powered tailgater blender. One crew we encountered launches a flea-market search each year for a comfy sofa to include as part of their ballooning gear. The sofa is stowed in their chase van and brought out to provide a touch of class and comfort during the launch field party. Another crew with loose ties to our own brings along large pop-up canopies for substantial shelter, generators to power small refrigerators, and a literal menu of sandwiches, finger foods, and beverages -- some of which are even healthy!

Social networking between crews makes for parties that are simultaneously small and intimate, as well as large and widespread. The ballooning community itself is small, and regular participants are generally known to one another, with hospitality between crews occurring routinely. Thus, the launch field party is the perfect venue for discussing all manner of serious issues -- who’s selling a balloon or related equipment, who’s in the market to make a purchase, who may need extra hands at the next day’s launch, what practical matters need to be resolved before next month’s rally, where to get the best deal on a particular type of gear to be purchased, what major sponsor may be looking to lease another balloon, and so on and so forth.

In the past, a launch field party might continue until late afternoon or, if no evening events were scheduled, into early evening. In this day of heightened security, partygoers are expected to vacate the field by 2pm. Revelers can then remove themselves to another location, or they can go to home to practice yet another time-honored tradition, the afternoon nap -- or, as we say in the Southwest, the siesta. Thus is it that ballooning runs the gamut from fiesta tosiesta. Ritual, after all, demands its full course.

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