Up, Up and Away
cow balloon flying at Balloon Fiesta. Yes, even a cow can fly at the Balloon Fiesta. NASA Photo / Tony Landis. If you saw a frosty beer followed by a pink elephant, blue dragon, an astronaut in a spacesuit, a flying cathedral and Darth Vader, you might think you've been working too hard and need a vacation.

In fact, you might have been a spectator of the Albuquerque, N.M., International Balloon Fiesta. About 621 hot air balloons representing 24 countries and 42 U.S. states attracted about 800,000 visitors during the nine-day event that wrapped up Oct. 12. The event had something to offer any fan of the unusual airships, as an army of more than 1,000 volunteers helped make the event fly.

Some of the other eye-catching and unusual balloon shapes included a cow-shaped balloon representing a dairy, Humpty Dumpty, Wally the Clown Fish (he looks like a relative of Disney's Nemo), a watermelon, and bees that were holding hands - two separate but connected hot air balloons. There also was a seemingly endless supply of multi-colored hot air balloons with rainbow colors and unusual patterns.


Propane flames heat the air inside a hot air balloon to prepare it for flight. The mass ascensions are one of the favorite events at the Balloon Fiesta. NASA Photo / Tony Landis. The warm, orange glow of crackling propane brightened the darkness as hot air balloons ascended early on the opening Saturday morning of the event. Hundreds of thousands of people saw about a dozen balloons that comprised a "Dawn Patrol" light up the first event. The "Dawn Patrol" was a warm-up to the opening day mass ascension of hot air balloons.

Standing on the field, people saw bright, flattened canvases - commonly referred to as a bag, or envelope - moving under pressure of gas-powered fans. The bag is constructed from reinforced fabric called rip-stop nylon, although polyester and other fabrics are sometimes used. The materials are lightweight and strong and coated on the inside to prevent leaks. The fabric toward the lower portion of the hot air balloon is a fire-resistant material similar to Nomex, which is used by fire fighters and racecar drivers.

The bag was flattened and spread out, usually by crews of four or more people, and attached to the wicker basket that carried the hot air balloon's crew. The basket was on its side until inflation, to allow the crew to board it. Once the gas fan completed its job, the propane burner was lit and as it warmed the air inside the bag, the balloon began to rise. The smell of the propane permeated the field, while the flame also warmed people standing within 20 feet. The sound of the propane flame was like that of the ocean washing up on the shore.

The multi-colored behemoths expanded to about 70 feet high when fully inflated and then the hot air balloons were ready for launch. The hot air balloons were right next to each other, seemingly pushing and straining against each other for space until one balloon became fully inflated and rose above the other hot air balloons to claim a piece of sky.

Ready to Fly

The mass ascensions are one of the favorite events at the Balloon Fiesta. Propane flames heat the air inside a hot air balloon to prepare it for flight. NASA Photo / Tony Landis. Just as the balloon is fully inflated and ready for launch, skilled crews steadied the wicker basket in which people travel into the sky. Other crewmembers held onto ropes that tethered the aircraft to the field until the crew climbed aboard and the aircraft was ready for departure.

Most hot air balloon flights are between 500 and 1,000 feet high and depending on how much fuel is onboard and the number and weight of people, the average flight is about two hours. The hot air balloons essentially go where the winds blow them, but at different altitudes winds blow in different directions. That gives the pilot an opportunity to take the aircraft in the direction he or she had chosen.

Once the aircraft landed, the chase crew came to round up the crew and pack up the balloon. The chase crew includes people in a vehicle that follow the aircraft from the takeoff spot to the place the aircraft has landed. Directions to the chase crew usually are given from the pilot in the sky, who can see the best routes to follow.

A Number of Activities

Rain brought moisture, but it didn't dampen enthusiasm for the event. Despite rain on the second day of the festivities and intermittent gusts that led to cancellation of some events on Monday, fans had other things to keep them occupied until better weather allowed hot air balloons to resume flights. In a carnival-like atmosphere, 170 concessions including 45 food and 105 merchandise vendors were arranged along the eastern edge of the field. Ranging from breakfast burritos and tasty treats to Balloon Fiesta pins, shirts and posters and psychics, there were a number of things for event attendees to see. Another unusual activity was the chainsaw woodcutting contest. As the name would (wood) imply, people started with huge hunks of wood and carved them into pieces of art. Car shows, concerts and fireworks also were on the schedule.

History Lesson

The Balloon Fiesta began in 1972 with 13 hot air balloons that launched near a popular Albuquerque shopping center.

This year's 37th annual Balloon Fiesta marked the 225th anniversary of the first hot air balloon flight and the 30th anniversary of the historic first trans-Atlantic flight by the Double-Eagle II, flown by Ben Abruzo Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman. The Double-Eagle II, a Helium hot air balloon, was aloft for 137 hours and six minutes. It departed from Presque Isle, Maine, and landed in Miserey, France, near Paris.

The Balloon Fiesta also captured a Guinness World Record in 2000, when 1,016 hot air balloons took off from the event, marking the most hot air balloon launches in a set time frame.

Jay Levine
X-Press Editor