Albuquerque Int’l Balloon Fiesta 2021

October 3rd, 2021

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta – an event on many people’s Bucket List – including ours.

After a missed year due to COVID, the fiesta was back on.  When we left Canada last month, we had to be in Rapid City, SD for September 27th for our annual physicals then we had to be in Las Vegas to meet the kids by October 13th.  The fiesta for 2021 runs from October 2nd to October 9th – didn’t give us a lot of time to leisurely drive from Rapid City to Vegas but Fran got us on a waiting list for RV camping on the site but neither of us was optimistic.  Then when we managed to move up our appointments ten days, hope began to spring up a little.

The final decision maker was that our friends Geneva and Mike, had invited us to come spend a couple of days with them south of Albuquerque so Fran got online and looked into tickets for the first weekend.  Saturday, opening day, had no park and ride tickets for the morning at any of the four lots; we did not want to drive to the fiesta amongst the traffic and maybe get in too late.  She did find tickets for Sunday morning at the furthest away lot from Bosque Farms where we were staying but we still felt that was worth it.

Tickets are $15 per session (with no in and out privileges) and the park and ride cost $22 including entrance fee.  They had hundreds of school buses to ferry everyone to the grounds and you didn’t have to pass through the ticket gates – just go right in.

Of course, with the pandemic still around, there were safety guidelines: masks had to be worn on the bus and we did hear that proof of vaccination may be asked for but we never did get asked.

The History of Hot Air Ballooning

On September 19, 1783 Pilatre De Rozier, a scientist, launched the first hot air balloon called ‘Aerostat Reveillon’. The passengers were a sheep, a duck and a rooster and the balloon stayed in the air for a grand total of 15 minutes before crashing back to the ground.  The first manned attempt came about 2 months later on November 21st, with a balloon made by 2 French brothers, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier. The balloon was launched from the centre of Paris and flew for a period of 20 minutes. The birth of hot air ballooning!!!

Just 2 years later in 1785 a French balloonist, Jean Pierre Blanchard, and his American copilot, John Jefferies, became the first to fly across the English Channel. In these early days of ballooning, the English Channel was considered the first step to long distance ballooning so this was a large benchmark in ballooning history.

The next major pivotal point in balloon history was on January 7th 1793. Jean Pierre Blanchard became the first to fly a hot air balloon in North America. George Washington was present to see the balloon launch.

In the late 1950s, Ed Yost took on the challenge of reviving the manned hot air balloon. While early hot air balloons flew due to heating the air in the balloon on the ground, or with an on-board fire, Yost’s key engineering insight was that a hot-air balloon could be made to carry its own fuel. The invention of relatively light burners fueled by bottled propane made it possible for the balloonist to re-heat the air inside the balloon for a longer flight. Yost’s invention improved modern hot-air balloons into semi-maneuverable aircraft. Yost took the first modern hot air balloon flight on October 22, 1960 in Bruning, Nebraska flying for one hour and 35 minutes.

In 1983 Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand were the first to cross the Atlantic in a hot air balloon, rather than a helium/gas filled balloon. They flew a distance of 2,900 miles in a record breaking time of 33 hours. At the time, the envelope they used was the largest ever flown, at 2.3 million cubic feet of capacity. A year later, Lindstand set yet another record, this time for highest solo flight ever recorded in a hot air balloon – 65,000 feet!

The great team of Richard Branson and Lindstrand paired up again in 1991 and became the first to cross the Pacific in a hot air balloon. They travelled 6,700 miles in 47 hours, from Japan to Canada breaking the world distance record, traveling at speeds of up to 245 mph.

In 2019 there were 524 balloons on the second day of the fiesta rising – it was a Guinness World Book record for the “greatest mass hot air balloon ascent”.   This year, 2021, is the 49th celebration of the event in ABQ.  This year 548 balloons are registered with pilots from Brazil, Canada (8), Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Czech Republic and Mexico (we also saw a Peruvian flag but maybe the pilot was American) invited to rise.  Balloonists apply to be a part of the event, but only those invited, attend. Even pilots or their crew break any rules or do anything dangerous, they can be ejected from the event.

The fiesta’s grounds have grown over the years and today it is the size of 56 hockey rings or American football fields!  The launching grounds are grass with paved roads making the way through for the crew vehicles very easy and accessible.  The rows of balloons are marked by a letter and a number and balloon rise after being given the “all clear” by not only the FAA but the “zebras” on the ground.  Zebras are launch coordinates on the ground all dressed in black and white with loud whistles.

Each balloon has a pilot and a launch crew as well as a chase crew.  The pilot is responsible for the balloon and its crew.  The pilot attends a briefing before each session and the crew does not prepare the balloon for launching until he/she returns.

The field is rectangular in size, with the main entrance at the south end and park and ride entrances along the southeast end.  There is a Hot Air Balloon Museum  just outside the main entrance.  All along the east side of the venue are food and souvenir tents – tens and tens of them selling all kinds of fair food and many types of souvenirs and local ones as well – like alpaca items as well as Native American items.   There are groups of porta potties set up in about 8 places around the fields and about 4 beer garden/tequila venues that do not open until 5pm.

If you wish to go up in a hot air balloon during the mass ascension, there is only one company on the field that has the rights to do this:  Rainbow Riders.  They have about a half dozen balloons that seem to hold about 16 people.  They are often among the first to go up after the Dawn Patrol.

Other activities that take place during the day, are chainsaw wood carving competitions and auctions, classic car displays, remote controlled hot air balloons and this year only one bandstand of music.  On the Thursday and Friday of the Fiesta there are also special shape mass ascensions in the mornings.  Each day of the mass ascensions there are:

  • Dawn Patrol – about 15 hot air balloons that go up first in the dark to test the conditions
  • Morning Glow – several balloons on the ground light up on and off – apparently to the National Anthem but we never heard it over the noise
  • Mass Ascension – wave upon wave of balloons arise
  • A skydiving show takes place around 5 pm and again before the fireworks
  • Evening Glow – Hundreds of balloon participate in lighting up and doing “all burns” at the same time but they do not rise
  • Fireworks once the entire field is empty of balloons and crew.

(During the first three days of the week, the events are just for the morning.)

On the Thursday and Friday of the fiesta, it’s “Special Shapes” Days and many animals and weird shapes take to the sky in their own mass ascension. We do not intend to stay in ABQ that long and know we will see a few animals today.  There will be about 90 on this day.  Some of the old favourites are: Yellow Bird, the Wells Fargo Stagecoach, Tweety Bird, Billy the Kid and Tom Cat.

On Sunday, October 3rd, our day at the fiesta, we were up at 4am, out of the trailer before 4:30, at the Park and Ride shortly after 5 and on the fiesta grounds by 5:35.  The shuttling of people to the grounds was very organized.  You walked to the check in point, showed your tickets on your phone, they scanned them, and pointed you in the direction of the next bus that was being boarded.  Everyone had to be masked and the bus was filled in an orderly fashion.

The buses had some separate bus only lanes when you approached the grounds and we were dropped off past the ticket gates (as our bus tickets included entry) and inside we went!  We were not sure where the best place to situate ourselves was but we knew we wanted to be away from the food and concession area for a couple for a few reasons:  (1) too many people; (2) it was not in the thick of the balloons and (3) we don’t eat breakfast so food was not a major concern for us at this time.

We came across a Zebra and asked about the location of the Dawn Patrol balloons and then headed in that direction (between rows m and p).  Now as the field is mostly grass, making our way to Row Q got our shoes pretty wet and made it get cold being so early in the morning.  Once at Row Q we stood on the side of the paved roadway and watched the event from there.

Some of the rules and regs for being on the field are:  you cannot step on a balloon’s rope or tarp (tarps are used mostly at the morning events as the grass is dewy and the tarp can protect the envelope), and you must obey the whistles of the Zebras and of course, stay out of the way of ascending or descending balloons.

We were on the side of the field where the Pilot Briefing was taking place so we could hear the information they were receiving.  That was kinda interesting and you may hear it on some of the videos below.

By shortly after six, the Dawn Patrol was ready to lift off and we watched as fifteen balloons arose. These balloons and their pilots are a specialized group, taking to the skies in total darkness and putting on a show for the spectators assembled below.  They have all both cold and hot inflated together.  Once aloft they look magical as they flicker slowly across the sky.  They pilots relay information to the ground officials.  They carry GPSs, iPads and other devices to send this information down.  This lets them know which directions the mass ascension will float, how fast they could go and of course, that it is safe to proceed.  These balloons also carry special lights so that they can be seen by aircraft in the area.

The Dawn Patrol gave the all clear for the mass ascension with light winds and clear skies.  AND we were told the conditions were almost perfect for the “Albuquerque box”.  This means that the balloons can rise, catch the southerly winds down the field, then they can rise up and catch the northerly winds back to the field with the possibility of descending again back on the field!  Boy, we were lucky!  (We’d watched the Saturday mass ascent on television at Anita’s the day before and the conditions were not conducive to the Albuquerque box.)

At 6:30 the Morning Glow was supposed to happen after the national anthem and although we couldn’t hear the anthem we only saw about six balloons lighting up.

We watched a cold inflate:

A hot inflate:

After that, the sun began to come up over the mountains in the east and all of the balloons we could see were inflating and the excitement began to build.

We watched balloons of all shapes and sizes rise, float away, return and some floated by a few times.  It was spectacular, awesome, breathtaking and surreal for two whole hours.

We took SO many photos and videos, hope you don’t get bored!

Here are just a few of the cool ones:

Around 8:30 we began to watch a few landing on the field and nearby:

 

 

For those of you who do not watch Big Sky, while the first season was filmed in Vancouver, BC the second season’s filming location has moved to New Mexico.

Even if you are landing on the field, you must receive permission to do so and apparently with the development around the city, landing spots are getting harder to find.  Once the balloon determines where it is going to land, they radio down to the chase crew to meet them and they help with the deflation and disassembly of the envelope (balloon) from the gondola (basket).

By 9:15 there were few left in the skies and lots of people had left the grounds.  As we planned to stay to the Evening Glow, we had the day in front of us.  We wandered to the food concession area which had nearly emptied out and more than half the tents were closed for midday.  We walked north to towards the classic car display and before arriving found a small RV/motorhome display which we checked out but were alarmed by the prices:  over $150,000!

We found the chainsaw carving competition:

And then found the cars.

So we’ve now seen almost everything there is to see and we wander back towards the centre along the east side and find some shade to set up our camp chairs until we were hungry.  We read for a bit and then had a short snooze.  😉

At noonish we took out our egg salad sandwiches and oranges and had lunch.  We decided that now that it was pretty empty around, it might be a good time to go to the museum.  Turns out the museum is outside the grounds and when we reached the ticket booths, we asked about coming back in.  The nice security guard confirmed that the tickets do not have “in and out” privileges but if we got back before 2:30 we should be good as the ticket takers don’t return until about 3.

So off we went.  We also discovered that the museum was not free but without asking the cashier gave us the senior rate (you’re supposed to be 65!) and we spent about 45 minutes exploring this and learning about the history of ballooning.

We returned to the field before 2:30 and got in just fine. We found a place to sit in some shade next to picnic tables there were nearly empty and sat for about an hour reading.  Around 4:30 the crowds were thickening and we moved our chairs into the sun away from others.  It didn’t get too hot today; maybe 24C / 76F with a light wind and by this time, the sunshine was welcome.  A band had set up in the bandstand across the paved road from us and we were disappointed it was a country band but they only played about an hour.

We watched four skydivers put on a show where they carried down an American Flag:

At 5:30 we moved down field where the balloons had begun setting up for the Evening Glow.  We were in more crowds than this morning but continued to move some and keep our distance.

It was LOUD with fans doing cold inflates and then hot inflates with their propane burners.  We wandered around trying to get photos of balloons we’d not see this morning, like Airabelle, the Cow (from Canada) a huge cow that is unbelievable to think of as being able to lift off and float!  She has a crew of 16 and her envelope alone, unfilled, weighs 413 kg / 910 Pounds!

Sunset was at 6:50 ish and the announcers, who had begun to speak around 6:30 began to announce countdowns to “all burns”.

No balloons lift off in the evening but the sight of them lighting up is breathtaking.

We stayed for three “all burns” including their countdowns before making out way to the buses around 7pm.

We had decided not to stay for fireworks as they were not described as anything out of this world or that we’d not seen before and we wanted to beat the crowds and get some dinner!

The buses were lined up waiting and after a short wait, our bus left and we were back home by 8:15 after picking up a veggie pizza for dinner.  It was a long day.  Mario and Anita knocked on our door a few minutes after we got back and we felt bad asking them if they wouldn’t mind waiting until morning for us to fill them in our day but we were hungry and tired.

For many, many, many more pics check out the gallery. 

It was a day that was beyond expectations!  Tick that one off the list but we’d wouldn’t say to going again for sure.  We highly recommend seeing this as well as exploring this underrated state.

Fun facts about hot air ballooning:

·       The Chinese Invented the First Hot Air Balloons – Out of all the interesting facts about the hot air balloon, this might be one of the lesser known ones, even though when you think about it, the connection is quite obvious. Although the first manned hot air balloon flight took place in the 18th century as mentioned above, China has been experimenting with hot air technology for more than two thousand years, with the first documented tests performed as early as the 3rd century BCE. The biggest hot air balloon innovator in China was Zhuge Liang, a military strategist and inventor, who adapted the hot air balloon mechanism to send messages to supporting troops in case his army was surrounded. The type of old hot air balloon that the Chinese used was basically an airborne lantern, similar to those that people still like to launch today at weddings and similar occasions. They were in essence small hot air balloons that could be seen from many miles away, making the ancient Chinese hot air balloon a perfect tool for communicating the need for help and allowing to see the approximate location.

 ·       The Tradition of Drinking Champagne Came About Because of Superstition – One of the more fun facts about balloons comes from the time that they were first invented. As you probably know, drinking champagne is a very popular tradition when flying a hot air balloon – it’s common to take part in the “balloonist’s prayer” before a flight and have a toast with a glass of champagne. But even though it may seem like a traditional celebration of a fun activity, it actually has an interesting story behind it. Back when brothers Montgolfier were performing test flights of their balloons, local farmers weren’t too happy – they didn’t like the balloons landing in their fields, mainly because they were afraid that the balloons were dragons descending from the skies and posed a danger. To ease tensions and allow their experiments to continue, the brothers started offering champagne to the farmers in whose land the balloons would land, soothing their anger and allowing them to continue with their work.

 ·       Hot Air Balloons Played an Integral Role during the Civil War – If you want to learn one of the coolest facts that will impress your Civil War enthusiast friends, here’s one that won’t disappoint. Even though flying hot air balloons is mostly regarded as a fun recreational activity, they actually played an important role during the Civil War, acting as a vital reconnaissance tool for spotting enemy movements and artillery. The balloons could rise to thousands of feet and see far in the distance, providing crucial information that could give an upper hand to those that could use them. The balloonists would provide intel using the telegraph or with the help of special signal flags, and were vital in the Union’s efforts of winning some crucial battles during the war.

 ·       Glass-Bottom Hot Air Balloons Offer an Even More Thrilling Experience – Out of all the facts about hot air balloons, this might be the one that can be the scariest, especially for those that aren’t too excited about heights. Even though there are plenty of stunning views in a traditional air balloon basket, today, you can take the experience to a whole new level by taking flight on a hot air balloon with a glass floor. Although this type of ride is definitely not for everyone, looking under your legs and seeing thousands of feet between you and the ground can be a thrilling experience that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

 ·       Hot Air Balloons Can’t Fly in the Rain – Have you ever wondered why hot air balloons only fly on sunny days? Well, one reason is convenience and pleasure for the passengers, but that’s just part of the story. You see, although balloons are generally very safe and durable, there are restrictions to when they can take flight. One of these restrictions involves precipitation – during rain, the balloon becomes much harder to control, as the accumulating water on top cools down it down and makes it heavier, which not only burns much more fuel but also makes the balloon less safe. So, it’s best to plan your hot air balloon flights for days that are sunny and calm – this way, you’ll not only be able to enjoy the best sights, but will also be able to stay dry and safe.

Monday morning, we got the trailer ready to go, filled our water tank and then went in to sit with Anita and Mario for about a half hour before departing ABQ.  They had been so kind to us and we appreciated all their hints about the fiesta (they had been chase crew for many years in their younger days) and their openness to asking us to stay despite not knowing us.

We drove southward along Route 6 to Los Lunas, found a dump station and picked up a few groceries before heading northwest to the I40.

We made it to Gallup, NM near the border and decided to get a hotel room for hot showers and maybe a hot tub soak.

Unfortunately, the hot tub was closed but we did get good internet and hot showers.  We both went for walks and the next day, decided to do a nearby hike after checking out.  We hoped to get it down before the mid afternoon rain.

The North Hogback trail is about two miles return and as the name suggests, takes you up to a hogback of rock.  The first part of the trail was a series of 13 switchbacks, some with rock stairs and the next part was a mix of flat trail and rocky trail.

It was quite interesting to see so many different coloured lichen on the rocks:

It took us about 90 minutes and it was a good hike, the right distance for the elevation gain.

We actually saw a tarantula!

We saw another at the end of the hike too:

We thought about staying in the parking lot which was for the OHV rec area, but with rain coming and the roads all being dirt/sand, we figured it might not be a good idea for getting out in the morning.  So as it was only early afternoon, and we don’t have to be at our next destination until Wednesday afternoon, we decided to spend a night here in town at the Walmart.

Turns out we didn’t pick the best parking spot as for some reason, this Walmart gets a lot of big trucks parking in their lot so it wasn’t a great night’s sleep.

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