Walter and Sara on the road to who knows where
Tuesday morning October 8th, we got up at 6:15, bundled up and headed the very short distance from our trailer to the north entrance of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. We had a dry camping spot in the North VIP lot which cost us $40 a night. While that is way high for a dry camping spot under normal circumstances for an event like this it was worth every penny. This way we didn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to drive to the grounds by about 4:30 to get a parking spot nearby and then have to sit around in the cold waiting for things to begin at around 6 am.

Being as how I am not a morning person, it was worth having to have the solar panel out (we had a perfect south facing exposure) so that we didn’t have to get up at 3:30 in the morning. We were out on the field (having paid our $10 per person per session entry fee) by about 6:45, just in time to watch the Dawn Patrol make its way northward off the field.

Dawn Patrol

The Dawn Patrol is a group 10 or so balloons who go up in the dark to test conditions for all the rest of the balloons who will follow. Tuesday morning was just a normal morning for the Balloon Fiesta—something that they call at Double Ascension. Already at 6:50 there was a row of balloons with their fans running inflating them to be ready to lift off at 7 am. People pay big money to go up in these balloons at the festival and they march onto the field behind colored paddles and line up at their assigned balloon.

Dawn Patrol

First up in the vertical position was the Lion King with a penguin close behind—there were 3 penguins in a row that morning.
Balloon Fiesta

All around us folks were testing their propane burners to make sure they worked. Whoosh.

Testing propane tanks

Most of the balloons use a wicker basket to hold their pilot and passengers. They leave it lying on its side with the balloon spread out before it. This is at 6:54 just as the crew was starting to get ready to inflate this balloon.

Balloon gondola

Then they turn on big gas powered fans to push air into the envelope (the nylon balloon) while two people hold the mouth open (7:01). In this case, these were ladies who were going to be passengers on this balloon who were recruited to help out.

Inflating a balloon

This takes a while—especially with a big complex balloon. Meanwhile, we had a nice little sunrise going on to the east.

Sunrise Balloon Fiesta

And a row of balloon coming up to vertical in front of us. You can see that the Lion King has already taken off—he’s over there in the upper left hand corner.     

Balloon Fiesta

This is really a pretty noisy business. You’ve got the gas engines running the fans which are whooshing. You’ve got the propane burners being tested and then fired to heat the air in the balloons. You’ve got people yelling instructions and people whooping and cheering as balloons take off. And there’s a sense barely controlled chaos. It’s exciting and really fun.

Walter Cooke Balloon Fiesta

When there’s enough cold air in the balloon (about 5 minutes) they fire the propane burner to heat up the air (7:06).

Hot air into a balloon

And as the air heats the balloon starts to rise bringing the gondola upright into sitting position. The pilot has to be in it when it comes up to put weight in the basket so it doesn’t take off on its own (7:07).

Upright balloon

The zebra (the fellow in the kilt and the black and white striped jacket) came and talked to the pilot after the passengers had climbed in (7:09).

Zebra at Balloon Fiesta

Meanwhile, the balloons along the row had begun to take off. You have to understand that there are rows and rows of balloons all over the field where this same thing is happening all at once. And as one group takes off the row next to it is coming to vertical and the row next to them is filling with air in the horizontal position.     

Balloon Fiesta

I stopped to take a photo for a group of women who asked me to capture their experience and one of them took a photo of Walter and me in return.

Walter Cooke Sara Schurr Balloon Fiesta

The zebra had at last given the balloon the go-ahead and we began to cheer as it lifted off (7:12). Notice the zebra on the lower right. They are blowing a whistle so everyone around can stay clear while the balloon lifts off—that is if they can hear the whistle over all the noise.

Balloon departing

Up, up, up (7:12)

Balloon on the rise

And away (7:13).

Balloon on it's way

From the time I took the photo of the gondola on it’s side and they were still spreading the envelope out on the ground to the time they were fully aloft was under 20 minutes. I suspect it took them less than 1/2 an hour from the time they arrived with their truck and trailer until they were in the air. Now their chase crew will follow them (with the trailer in tow) and meet them (if they don’t come back to the field) so they can pack it all back up and take it back to return their passengers and to fill up their propane tanks for the next day.

There’s a phenomenon known as the Albuquerque Box that was operating really well that morning. The air near the surface was moving south so when the balloons first took off they drifted south along the field. Then they rose a bit and they came back over us again going north. The wind took them out over the Rio Grande where they traditionally drop down, kiss the river with their basket and then rise back up into the southbound wind. Many of them returned to the field after about an hour—but we’ll see that later.

Meanwhile there were balloons filling and popping up in every direction. North of us.

Balloon Fiesta

Southwest of us

Balloon Fiesta  

And south of us.

Balloon Fiesta

There were lots of people but it wasn’t super crowded which I really appreciated. The next two days had lots more people.

Special Shapes balloons like Mr. Frog pop up seemingly out of nowhere.  

Balloon Fiesta

These balloons are tons of fun. I’ll be doing a separate edition with just photos of them including what the Special Shapes Rodeo looked like on Thursday morning when it was too windy for them to take off. Meanwhile there were plenty of regular round balloons taking off.

Balloon Fiesta

I took this panorama shot trying to capture the wonderful chaos of it all.

Balloon Fiesta

You can’t tell, but in this photo the lower balloons are going south and the higher ones are going north—it kind of made me dizzy.

Balloon Fiesta

Here you can see that there were two lines of balloons being readied for launch while the sky way off to the left (which is north) is full of balloons. Balloons have been launching for about 1/2 hour at this point and the sun is fully up.

Balloon Fiesta

It was just so much fun.

Balloon Fiesta

I kept trying to capture what it looked like to have balloons going off into the north for as far as we could see.

Balloon Fiesta  

There were two fractal patterned balloons that I really liked. An orange one.

Balloon Fiesta

And a blue one.

Balloon Fiesta

By 7:45 the sky seemed to be totally full of balloons—including a Keystone cop over on the right. But there were still balloons going up.

Balloon Fiesta

And it was time to try to capture a grouping for one of those iconic balloon fiesta shots.

Balloon Fiesta

We settled down at a picnic table over near the midway (get your breakfast burrito here). And watched as balloons began to return.

Balloon Fiesta

Here’s a panorama shot of them starting to land. There was a competition at 8 am where a group of balloons came in over an X on the field and dropped a small sandbag trying to hit the center of the X. But aside from them there were tons of balloons who had just navigated “The Box” and made it really easy for their chase crews to find them.

Balloon Fiesta

It was a much less frantic process and I really enjoyed watching them come gently to earth (sometimes with a hop or two).    
Walter spotted this single-man balloon. One of the folks sharing our table said that it was a balloon for a disabled pilot. It’s really challenging to get up and into the regular basket so they’ve developed a chair like they use for hang gliding that folks with disabilities can use.  

Single man balloon

It’s now 8:21 and we’ve got a ton of balloons back on the ground. The average flight is about an hour.

Balloon Fiesta

By 8:30 most of the crowd had dispersed but you can see off in the distance that there are still a lot of balloons out and of course we’ve got this group ready to land.

Balloon Fiesta

The New Mexico Mounted Search and Rescue clopped past as we were getting ready to head home. They were camped in the same RV parking area as we were. They show up at 6 am and pose for the folks on the group tours and then stand at salute in the middle of the field for the National Anthem and then are prepared to head out and rescue any folks who land in places their chase crews can’t reach. As far as I know, they weren’t needed while we were there.

NM Mounted Search and Rescue

We wandered through the midway—lots of food of all kinds in addition to all those breakfast burritos and coffee and churros. And of course there were booths selling all sorts of balloon-themed stuff.

By 9 am, most of the folks had headed home and we had a quiet day (except for the chain saw carving demonstration that was just down the hill from us). We had partly cloudy skies but we still got enough solar to keep our batteries charged up and my computer recharged after having processed the nearly 300 photos I had taken that morning.

Thursday through Sunday they have an evening event called Evening Glow where they inflate balloons and you watch them light up as they fire their burners and then there are fireworks. But Monday through Wednesday evenings there are no evening events. So it was just quiet which was fine with us.

Okay, it’s time to go to bed early now. We’re going to get up before 6 am so that we can be on the field at 6:30 am to watch the Morning Glow followed by the Flights of the Nations Mass Ascension—500 balloons here we come.