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Enthusiasts gather at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. Click here or on the image above for video report
Photos by David Bear
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Our liftoff was so smooth it was almost imperceptible, as we floated a few inches off the grass. Then when the ground crew positioned us in the right spot, Michel Auzat, the pilot of our balloon Piko, opened both blast valves. Twin jets of propane-fired flame billowed into the huge cobalt blue bag, and we shot straight into the chilly New Mexican morning sky.
Less than a minute later, we had reached an altitude of 5,850 feet! Of course, Mr. Auzat acknowledged coyly, because Albuquerque itself is more than a mile above sea level, we were actually hovering a shade more than 500 feet above the 72-acre balloon park on the northern edge of New Mexico's largest metropolis.
Still it was a stupendous sight below, with a multitude of tiny people on the field all looking up. I could almost see the oohs and ahhs on their faces.
No wonder. We were floating amid a colorful profusion of more than 50 eclectic and imaginatively shaped hot air balloons.
There was a huge smiling daisy and a grinning sun face. A fire truck, a railroad engine, a moving van, a stage coach and the space shuttle. Matched pairs of chipmunks and bumblebees, a clownfish, a ladybug, a giant white milk cow, a pig in sunglasses, an elephant, a panda, a monkey, Pooh Bear and an animal-filled Noah's Ark. Even Darth Vader and Uncle Sam. It was not a panorama one sees every day.
For nine days in early October, the 38th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta took flight over this wide dry valley on the upper Rio Grande. Claiming to be "the world's most photographed event," the fiesta lures "balloonatics" from around the world to share their passion with like-minded folks and enjoy the superb experience of floating through this azure atmosphere.
Getting high in the sky has been popular in these parts since July 4, 1882, when P.A. Van Tassel, the flamboyant keeper of a saloon called The City of Albuquerque, filled a huge bag with hydrogen and rode it more than 14,000 feet over the Rio Grande valley before landing safely in a corn field. Subsequent hot-air balloon enthusiasts came to appreciate the area's favorable climatic conditions, especially the "Albuquerque Box," an occasional bi-level wind pattern that lets balloonists take off and land from approximately the same place.
But it wasn't until 1972 when a 13-balloon rally was organized to celebrate the 50th anniversary of radio station KOB and the following February, when Albuquerque hosted the first World Hot Air Balloon Championship, that the tradition was under way.
This year's edition, labeled "Mass Happiness," attracted more than 550 hot air and gas balloons from 37 states and 17 countries. And more than 800,000 spectators filed through park turnstiles for early morning and late afternoon mass ascensions, various competitions and evening balloon glows. From well before dawn, the park's midway took on a carnival atmosphere, with vendors of food, drink, balloon gear and souvenirs and a raucous panoply other paraphernalia.
Of course, hot air ballooning can be more problematic than baseball when it comes to weather. If the wind kicks up or there's rain, everything is called off.
That's what happened the morning my flight was originally scheduled. A drizzle greeted us as we arrived at the field, and an hour later the morning's activities were scrubbed. No matter, we used the opportunity to visit to the nearby International Balloon Museum and other Albuquerque attractions.
The prospects were more promising when we returned at 6 a.m. the next day.
There was no Albuquerque Box in operation that morning, but the skies were clear and blue after the rains of the previous day.
As gentle winds carried Piko southeast over the city, Mr. Auzat said he and his support crew had made a four-day drive from Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu near Montreal to take part, the fourth time he'd made the pilgrimage. This reporter felt fortunate to be along for one of the flights Piko would make that week.
Having ridden in hot air balloons several times before, I had a sense of the experience and spent my time aloft enjoying the view and chronicling the event with photos and video.
Of course, I also knew takeoffs and landings in hot air balloons could be problematic, even dangerous. (Stephen Lachendro, 49, of Butler County was killed at last year's fiesta when the basket of his balloon got snagged in power lines and caught fire. This year two participants were injured when their balloon drifted into a tent at takeoff, and several other balloons were damaged in rough landings.)
Indeed, the need to find a safe place to land was on Mr. Auzat's mind from the first moments of what would be a 45-minute flight covering six miles. Constantly assessing where wind currents were taking us, being mindful of other balloons, watching for open areas to maneuver his huge and un-steerable craft safely back to earth required a combination of concentration and conjecture, but he accomplished the task with panache and aplomb.
Spotting the single tract of undeveloped acreage amid several dense subdivisions, he brought Piko down slowly, landing so smoothly on a stretch of dirt road that the basket barely bounced, the ballooning equivalent of a three-point landing. After letting out enough hot air to keep the balloon down but the bag inflated, Mr. Auzat told us to hop out until the chase crew arrived.
In the 30 minutes it took for it to reach us, deflate Piko and get the bag and basket stowed back in the trailer, I counted 11 other balloons landing in the same area, not all as smoothly as we had. Although it was just 9:30 a.m., the champagne toast for our successful flight was certainly in order.
At 6 p.m. we were back at Fiesta Park to enjoy the Special Shapes Glowdeo. As dusk fell, the field filled as some 85 whimsically conceived forms were inflated and tethered. Thousands of spectators thronged around the balloons, marveling at their size and the interior intricacies that gave them shape. They chatted with crews and collected commemorative pins and trading cards.
It made for one big happy party. After periodic countdowns, the balloons were fired simultaneously, creating such a splendid spectacle that the fireworks that followed seemed anticlimactic.
The 5th Dimension so tunefully asked in the band's 1967 hit song: "Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?"
That evening, "Take me up up and away" was the answer on everyone's lips.
The 41st Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta will take place Oct 5 - 13. 2013 www.balloonfiesta.com/.
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