More than 550 balloons will rise in mass ascensions at the world’s largest ballooning event at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. The nine-day long festival from October 1-9 will take place at Balloon Fiesta Park and is expected to attract about a million visitors. Now in its 45th year, the festival brings fun, adventure, and a huge economic boost to Albuquerque.
Presented by Canon, this year’s theme “Desert Kaleidoscope” will be reflected in its full glory during the five signature mass ascensions which will take place on two weekends (October 1-2, 8-9) and midweek (October 5).
The festival that began in 1972 with only 13 balloon launches from a parking lot has grown into the world’s premier balloon event. Besides mass ascensions, it also features many favorites like races and competitions, Balloon Glows, Dawn Patrol, Special Shapes Rodeo / Glowdeo, laser light shows, fireworks, entertainment, and chainsaw carving demonstrations.
With a 45-year history, the Fiesta has many firsts on its list. And this year, together with the Balloon Federation of America, they introduce the US Women’s National Hot Air Balloon Championships, in which sixteen outstanding female pilots will compete. The Championship launches Friday, September 30 and concludes on Wednesday, October 5.
“We are honored to be chosen to host the event this year and proud to support competitive ballooning,” said Paul Petrehn, Balloon Fiesta event director.“It’s a good time to recognize and celebrate the achievements of the women competitors on the field.”
International balloons will also enjoy their moment in the spotlight on Wednesday, October 5 during “Flight of the Nations.” Balloon pilots from 20 countries, including Lithuania, Thailand, and New Zealand are taking part, and this year the Dominican Republic makes its debut. Either one or two balloons from each country take off to tunes of their national anthem and carry their country’s flag to begin the Mass Ascension. The tradition began in 1997 to honor the countries represented at Balloon Fiesta and has become very popular with international balloonists.
In the history of ballooning, gas balloons (filled with hydrogen or helium gas) have made their mark in long-distance journeys. While a hot air balloon ride can last for few hours, a gas balloon flight can last for several days and needs more preparation. In 1981 gas balloons became part of the Fiesta, and cross-country races have been hosted here, including the Gordon Bennett Cup, and America’s Challenge which was introduced in 1995.
This year, six teams representing the United States, France, and Poland will take part and launch on Wednesday, October 5. The team that flies the largest distance will win. As part of the competition, some balloons have flown as far as Canada and the US East Coast and record for the longest flight was set by the brothers David Levin and Alan Levin in 2000. They piloted their gas balloon over 1,998 miles and landed near Portland Maine.
Though Albuquerque weather is ideal for ballooning due to a wind pattern known as the “Albuquerque box” which makes it easier to maneuver the giant balloons, last year’s America’s Challenge was scrubbed due to high cyclonic winds.
Other competitions this week will challenge even the best pilots’ skills and accuracy, with games like the ring toss, fly-in-task, and judge declared goals during morning flying events.
Opening the ceremonies on Saturday, October 1, is the Dawn Patrol show which is beautiful and also serves a practical purpose. As the name suggests, a team of balloon pilots take off before sunrise and fly until landing sites become visible. This gives other balloonists an idea of wind speed and direction at different altitudes. On Mass Ascension days, the Dawn Patrol puts on a spectacular show, with choreographed balloon inflation and launch, set to music.
The festival also has a morning glow on October 1 and 2 at 6:50 a.m. Soon after the Dawn Patrol takes off, the Krispy Kreme morning glow will light up the field with the Baker’s Dozen. This tradition began in 2010. The Laser Light show introduced last year will take place every day in the morning and evening balloon launch sessions. Just before launch, straight beams, choreographed to music, shoot out across the 78-acre launch field projecting images on the balloons.
The Fiesta, however, is not just about races and competition. It is also a showcase for balloons designed as works of art. Balloon aficionados come from all walks of life and many of them love to see their favorite craft fashioned into an amusing shape or fun character or icon. So it’s hardly surprising that the Special Shape Rodeo is the most popular event, since it began in 1989.
This year 108 balloon shapes including the penguin, Bimbo Bear, lovebirds, aquarium will take to the air during the Special Shape Rodeo on October 6 and 7, creating a delightful display of marvelous models and fun characters. In the past, famous shapes have included a milk cow, a wagon coach, a castle, a pair of handholding bumblebees, soda cans, and even Noah’s Ark.
Special Shapes also participate in two evening events; known at the Special Shape Glowdeo. The balloons remain tethered to the ground, lighting their burners to create a spectacular glowing effect. “We’re always excited to announce the new additions to our Special Shapes roster, and this year guests can expect 17 new special shape balloons they’ve never seen at Balloon Fiesta before,” said Paul Petrehn, Balloon Fiesta event director. This year, the new twist is groups by themes, and some themes are pirate ship, love, sports, fireman, police, space, and ocean. While many of the Special Shapes fly all week, October 6 and 7 are devoted to flights of these balloons.
One of the reasons the Fiesta is always held in the first week of October and has been such a success is the “balloon flying” weather in Albuquerque. According to the National Weather Service, Albuquerque’s wind currents and cool air temperatures in the morning and at dusk are ideal for flying in October, thanks to the “Albuquerque Box” — a set of predictable wind patterns that make navigating a balloon fairly simple. At lower elevations in the Rio Grande Valley, where the city sits, winds move South. At higher altitude, winds move North. So balloon pilots take off from Balloon Fiesta Park, drift into the valley, catch the opposite wind current and float back to land near the place they started.
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.
More than one-hundred-thousand people visit daily and are spread across the 360-acre park with blankets and chairs. The largest crowds are seen at dusk to watch the balloon flights, laser show, balloon glow, and spectacular fireworks.
For the glow, 200 balloons are inflated and tethered just before dusk. The Balloonmeister then orders ignition. Pilots start off their propane burners simultaneously creating a magical night landscape for spectators to walk around and take in the brilliance. When special shape balloons put on their illuminated show, it’s called the Glowdeo.
Additionally, if you are interested in looking at impressive artifacts and memorabilia, and want to know more about the history and science of ballooning, it’s worth visiting the well-known Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Museum located just outside the Balloon Fiesta Park.
The Albuquerque metro area has about 900,000 residents and during the festival, the influx of tourists doubles the metro area’s population. The Fiesta has made Albuquerque the hot air ballooning capital of the world.