To Fly a Balloon in a Mass Ascension

AIBF 2016, Credit: The Balloon Journal
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta 2016-Morning Mass Ascension; Credit: The Balloon Journal

In the 1970s, a small fraternity of daring balloonists used to make their Dawn Patrol ascents by launching in the pre-dawn hours. Balloon pilot Tom Gough, who then did pay rides for Fiesta founder Sid Cutter, was one of them.  “Fiesta didn’t recognize us [Dawn Patrol] in those days. We had to go off the field as we couldn’t launch from the field. We’d go by Honeywell to launch and fly. It was a great time,” said the Idaho-based pilot, in an interview at this year’s Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (AIBF).

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta 2016-The Dawn Patrol; Credit: the Balloon Journal
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta 2016-The Dawn Patrol; Credit: The Balloon Journal

Doug Gantt, another veteran pilot who has also been a Dawn Patrol pilot, flies the world’s largest pig balloon “Hamlet for President” at the fiesta. He explains: “Though balloons are a registered aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), we can only fly under VFR (Visual Flight Rules), that is between sunrise and sunset. Typically, with Dawn Patrol we launch an hour before sunrise — we have a strand of aircraft lights that we hang off the side of the basket which makes us legal and then we takeoff and fly into the dark sky.” Two California balloonists came up with this position lighting system for balloons to fly in the dark.

The Dawn Patrol became a part of the Albuquerque fiesta in 1978. Until then, it was not considered safe and pilots were prohibited from taking off from Fiesta grounds.

Balloon Pilot Tom Gough
Balloon Pilot Tom Gough

Gough also had the honor to fly in the first Dawn Patrol at Fiesta. “I’ve been coming here since 1978. Maybe that was my first year. I don’t remember well,” says Gough, who also took part in the first Glow. “I used to fly special shapes; I was the first one to fly the “Cow” and the first one to fly the “Tyrannosaurus.”

The Dawn Patrol pilots are a relatively smaller group — about 12 to 24 — that take off before sunrise and fly until landing sites are visible. The hundreds of balloonists scheduled to take off in the morning mass ascensions, appreciate the Dawn Patrol as it gives them a clear idea of wind speeds and directions at different altitudes.

All pilots say that in a Mass Ascension you have to be aware that balloons are below you, around you, and also be aware that somebody could be above you, so you have to be very careful.

About his experience in the mass ascensions now, Gough says, “Having all the balloons around you is the fun part.” In this festival, he has flown his balloon “Gypse Rover” in almost every direction and going Northwest has been the easiest. “The hard part is finding a place to land in Albuquerque. Sometimes it’s a real challenge. We have not been back to the field this week, because it is pretty congested,” he says.

“There are always lots of balloons taking off, so we don’t like to get in their way. Then on the competition days, the balloonists who are competing want the command, so we don’t want to get into their space and we stay out of their way.” Gough, however, is very mindful of not flying into the red zone or landing in one. “If I were in trouble, I would land in the red zone, but we try our best not to do that,” he says.

Balloon Pilot Frank Campanale
Balloon Pilot Frank Campanale

Michigan-based pilot, Frank Campanale has been ballooning for 37 years and has also flown in the Word Balloon Championships. He has been at the Fiesta 30 times and flies the “Carousel” which holds 90,000 cubic feet of air.  “It stands between eight and nine stories and the weight of air and the balloon itself is about two tons. When you’re trying to land and you are trying to stop it, it’s a tremendous amount of weight that you’re trying to stop,” he says.

AIBF, Balloon Carousel, (USA); Pilot Frank Campanale; Oct.5, 2016; Credit-The Balloon Journal
Balloon Carousel, (USA); Pilot Frank Campanale; AIBF Oct.5, 2016; Credit-The Balloon Journal

On Saturday, October 8, at 6:15 a.m., Laura LiAnne Adams is among the 500 pilots attending the pilot briefing, all bundled up against the bitter cold and wind. Adams flies the balloon named “girl,” if you speak English or “wife,” if you speak Dutch. The “girl” or “wife” always flies with her companion “boy” or “husband.”

Laura LeAnne Adams' balloons "girl/wife" and "boy/husband"
Laura LeAnne Adams’ balloons “girl/wife” and “boy/husband”

“It’s pretty windy this morning,” says Adams, an Albuquerque pilot who has been ballooning for 45 years. Balloon pilots from their experience know, in advance, whether the launch will take place or will get delayed. And that morning it was clear that the launch would not take place as scheduled. “Sometimes the wind does not cooperate, but you are not here just to fly. If you don’t launch, you have all your friends from around the world, to see and be with.”

Adams says the mass ascensions tests her abilities as a pilot. “It makes you hone in on your skills and be a better pilot as well, and it is the most fun you can possibly imagine.”

When the flag goes green, launch directors dressed in black and white zebra stripes and matching comical hats (for easy spotting by balloonists and their crew) serve as traffic controllers. They regulate the launch so that hundreds of balloons takeoff in a safe and orderly manner within minutes.

Balloon Pilot Nick Donner
Balloon Pilot Nick Donner

One Saturday, balloonists got a very short flight window and only one-third balloons took off. “I’m not flying, today” said 32-year-old Nick Donner as he kept firing his burner to keep his balloon “A.B.O.” upright and inflated, and posed for photographs with the constant stream of spectators. Looking into the clouds not far away, he admitted that pilots are allowed to use their discretion whether or not to fly.  Sure enough, it started drizzling within 45 minutes and the very few balloons that were still up descended quickly.

Donner, who has won the US National Championships five times and the World Championship once, admits that it is challenging to fly in a mass ascension. “You have different pilots at different skill levels and experience and so many balloons going in various directions toward the “box” [a box-like wind

Nick Donner's balloon "A.B.O."
Nick Donner’s balloon “A.B.O.”

pattern]. So we have to be very cognizant of the balloons that are flying around us.”  He says the best way to deal with inexperienced pilots and to avoid mishaps is to fly defensively.

The first weekend of the fiesta, two balloons had hit power lines during an off-site landing. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries. Seventeen-year-old Victoria Vertrees is the second- youngest pilot at the fiesta. She got her balloon pilot’s license at 16. “I try to keep a respectful distance from the power lines. If there is a lower wind that’s taking me in the direction I want to go, I choose to ride that. If there is a wind that keeps me hovering over the lines, I’ll try to ascend and get away from them.”

L to R "Victoria Vertrees, Peggy Watson, Sandy Gram, and Flight Instructor Dale Wong" Vertrees also trained with Watson and Gram to prepare for the the women's nationals.
L to R “Victoria Vertrees, Peggy Watson, Sandy Gram, and Flight Instructor Dale Wong.” Vertrees also trained with Watson and Gram to prepare for the the women’s nationals.
Victoria Vertrees's balloon "Gummy Bear"
Victoria Vertrees’s balloon “Gummy Bear”

Vertrees also took part in the Women’s National Championships. She flew her 54,000-cubic-foot balloon named “Gummy Bear” by herself. And for spectators who enjoy the vibrant scene of balloons floating effortlessly in the sky, little do they realize how many tasks can preoccupy a pilot. “When I’m in the basket up there alone, I have to make sure I’m having a level flight; I have to navigate the winds but then I also have my iPad and computer with the map telling me where to go, so it’s hard to have focus on one thing– my brain is all over the place, making sure I’m at a safe altitude; I’m staying in the wind direction I want to be at and that I’m going toward the right direction of the target, and I’m staying away from any red zones that I shouldn’t be flying near.”

Gantt, also a commercial pilot, explains that according to FAA regulations an aircraft in distress or in an emergency has the right of way, but balloons have a right of way over all other aircraft. “All we can do is go up and down, we can’t maneuver left and right,” he says. “In a big crowd like this, we are always aware of the traffic, and balloons that are above us, below us, and beside us. The balloon below has the right of way because we can see it coming up. Its pilot cannot see us.”

Victoria Vertrees with her brother William, who is also a balloon pilot
Victoria Vertrees with her brother William, who is also a balloon pilot

Is there any balloon color that is a strict “no”?

According to Pilot Gantt, the FAA does not have any restrictions about the color, but safety is a primary concern. “A pale blue balloon is likely to blend with the blue sky; whereas, a black balloon will blend in the night sky but stand out against the morning sky.” Gantt says one should choose accordingly, but whatever the color of the balloon it should be a “gaily decorated balloon” means that you should be able to see and be seen.

Doug Gantt's pink flying pig balloon is "Ham-Let for President" Credit: The Balloon Journal
Doug Gantt’s pink flying pig balloon is “Ham-Let for President.” Credit: The Balloon Journal


Pilots are welcome to share their ballooning experiences and tips, either in comments below or by submitting an opinion, or account of an experience, on “Your Page.” You may also email:

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