Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta: Part II – Albuquerque, NM
As great as our experience of being on a balloon chase crew was (detailed in Part I), the Balloon Fiesta had other fantastic events that made the week in Albuquerque at Balloon Fiesta Park so special. From dazzling balloon glows at night, to the expert skills exhibited by pilots during key grabs and other competitions,to the dawn patrol to gas balloon launches, the week was filled with exciting ballooning action.
Another fun aspect of the event was the special shapes. The special shapes are any balloons that aren’t your typical balloon shape. Some of the special shapes we saw included: flying pigs, bumble bees, a Wells Fargo stagecoach, a butterfly, Uncle Sam, Smokey the Bear, a Bud Select 55 bottle, a zebra, a cow, Spider Pig, and our personal favorite, Darth Vader. Although the special shapes rodeo and balloon glow were both cancelled due to excessive winds and some rain, we were still able to awe at these shapes during the mass ascensions and regular balloon glows. Check out our video from the balloon fiesta, which includes parts from the balloon glows:
We were also lucky enough to take a ride with our pilot one morning. At first we thought Jackie would be going up alone, but Mark was summoned into the basket shortly thereafter. The feeling is going up in a hot air balloon is unlike any other feeling in the world. You’re in the basket, being held down by the crew, before being let go and slowly floating up into the air. You have more feeling of motion in the pit of your stomach when riding an elevator than you do in a hot air balloon. Before you know it you’re 2,000 feet in the air without having felt a thing.
Then it’s up to the wind, as the pilot can only control the vertical movement of the balloon. The pilot’s mentality quickly turns to searching the horizon for good landing spots, as water, power lines, and buildings are the enemies. Meanwhile, we’re taking in the beautiful landscape around us, admiring all of the different balloons that we can see, and admiring the fact that we don’t even feel like we’re moving. The flight lasts around 45 minutes, and we start to make our descent. We can see our crew vehicle as we’re coming down, but with about 200 feet to go, we get a burst of wind that speeds up the balloon. Our pilot decides that we’re coming in too hot, and hits the burner a couple of times to lift us over the oncoming houses. Just over the houses is a desert like field with some brush in it, but enough space to land. We have a bit of a rocky landing, as the wind speed drags the basket through the brush for a short while. Once the basket is on the ground, we try our best to keep the basket from moving any more. We called out to a nearby family, who was watching us land, to come and help us put weight on the basket before our crew arrives. Then the pack-up routine starts again as the family helps us take the balloon down and put everything away, before the champagne is popped once again. We were thankful for having the opportunity to take a ride in the balloon, and even more thankful that we were back on the ground after a great flight. Here’s some videos from our flight:
By far the running subplot of the week though, was our crew and the people that we met in Albuquerque. We clearly didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into by being on a chase crew, and we surprised by the generosity and interesting personalities of everyone in our crew. We got to know them not only during our rides chasing after the balloon, but also during the breakfasts after packing up the balloon.
Our pilot, Wes, is a personal injury lawyer from Panama City, FL who was one of the nicest people we’ve ever met. He’s the type of person that sincerely thanks you for some of the smallest things, and who continuously tried to include us in everything. He was also lauded by the crew for being a very safe pilot, as well as for having great piloting skills.
Then there was chef-turned-businessman Steve, who was the crew chief. Steve drove the chase crew truck, and had a knack for figuring out the balloon’s direction so that the crew could be there to greet the pilot as he landed.
Next was Richard, who was a real estate agent as well as an avid hang glider and hand gliding instructor. He was also the crew’s resident weatherman, as he had a keen eye for wind patterns and changes in weather that would effect the flight of the balloon. He was also gracious enough to give us our first hang gliding lesson (which we’ll post about soon).
Last, (but NOT least!) there was John, whose nickname was “Chief” due to his striking resemblance to the character from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Chief has been helping out with the Balloon Fiesta since its second year, and knew just about everything concerning balloons and flying them. He could pick out the maker of balloon envelopes based on its shape, and knew nearly every good landing spot in the area. He also taught us a simple technique to see the flight direction of your own balloon by using your hand as a spyglass. This proved effective, as it became difficult to track the flight of the balloon at times with some many other balloons around it going in different directions.
We feel fortunate to have been a part of the famed International Balloon Fiesta, a spectacle worth all of the attention it gets. Perhaps even more memorable, however, was being welcomed by such a personable, humorous, and knowledgeable group of people that kindly helped us learn more than we ever expected. Every one of them asked us to come back next year to crew again, which we feel is the biggest compliment we could possibly receive.