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When Elephants Fly

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta


When Elephants Fly: The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta


At the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, 700 hot air balloons launch in a mass ascension at dawn. I arrived at Balloon Fiesta Park at 5:30 a.m. to watch the Dawn Patrol launch 15 balloons to verify wind conditions prior to the main event.

Despite the frost-covered grass on this brisk October morning, there was an illusion of warmth all around. One could feel the radiating heat as huge fans blew hot air into the balloon envelopes held open by flight crews. Burners roared as the pilots threw flames into the balloons to superheat the air. When the air inside the envelope grew warmer than the brisk morning air, the balloon would rise into its upright position, secured by ropes until given permission to launch. Each balloon emitted an orange glow as the fire burned within its belly. The pre-dawn chill was forgotten.

The 15 balloons illuminated the darkness like enormous paper lanterns. Then, eager anticipation erupted into cheers as the Dawn Patrol ascended into the sky. As the balloons alternately ignited burners or drifted quietly, the intermittent glow was like fireflies appearing and disappearing in the dark. The Dawn Patrol seemed to beckon the sun to rise and shine, for the first hints of light brightened the sky, preventing the balloons from disappearing into the darkness.

Mesmerized by the balloons, I wandered south across the 78-acre launch field, following their trajectory. Suddenly, I snapped back to reality. Trucks and trailers began racing across the field to their designated launch sites as the first wave of balloon teams began to line up in rows. Like hundreds of drill teams doing what they had been trained to do, each team unloaded its gondola basket, spread a huge tarp on the ground, and unfurled its balloon across the tarp.

Thirty feet away from me a truck and trailer came to a stop, and a team in pink jumped out of the super-cab. They scurried around, throwing open the doors of their trailer. The inside of each door was decorated in pink, with the personal memorabilia and flourishes of each team member. It reminded me a bit of a Hollywood dressing room as each lady opened her respective door, checked the mirror, and donned a pink feather scarf. Their attire alone caught my attention, but then one of them poked her head in the cab for a moment and the stillness of early morning erupted into booming techno pop.

The entire team began to dance around for the duration of the tune, celebrating their anticipated liftoff with great exuberance. After their personal pep rally, they were all business as each performed her task to prepare for launch.

Intrigued by this display, I lingered to find out more about this team wearing grey camouflage pants with pink baseball caps. Pilot Peter Van Overwalle and the ladies on his Nelly-B Balloon Team traveled all the way from Belgium for this world-famous event.

Balloon teams from around the world converge upon Albuquerque for nine days every October for the Balloon Fiesta. During the two-hour event I attended, I spoke to teams from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, and Brazil. There were many others, to be sure.

The Nelly-B sported a sign on the gondola basked that read: “Beware of attack elephant.” I wondered if that was some sort of inside joke as I watched the bright pink Nelly-B inflate. When the heat lifted the balloon upright, I understood: The special-shaped balloon sported enormous ears and an elephant’s trunk.

As the first wave of balloons departed, the flight crews quickly packed their rigs and a second wave of trucks occupied their assigned launch sites to keep the process going. For two hours, the balloons were launched. In every direction, as far as the eye could see, balloons peppered the sky.

Balloon Fiesta is more than the sights and sounds; it’s the people. It is one of the only aviation events that allows you to wander the field and talk to the pilots and crews as they prepare to launch. Watching the crews unpack, a 10-year-old boy asked his father if he could help. The pilot nearby heard the question and told the boy to grab a handle and help spread the balloon out on the grass. The pilot gave me a nod, so I grabbed a handle too. Four of us pulled the balloon out like an enormous flat kite.

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is fun for all ages. If the grandkids come along, be sure they ask each pilot for his card. Most of the pilots carry trading cards with a photo of their balloon on the front and some interesting facts on the back. Some pilots, however, only hand out cards during the Friday and Saturday evening Balloon Glow events, which attract the most families.

A single event at the Balloon Fiesta may draw crowds of 100,000 people, with as many as a million people attending the fiesta each year. Even so, the crowds are not overwhelming since Balloon Fiesta Park consists of 365 acres. The launch field alone is about 78 acres, the size of 54 football fields!

Launching more than 700 balloons in two hours is a sensory experience unparalleled by anything I’ve ever encountered. While focused on the spectacular array of colors, shapes, and sizes on the launch field and in the air, I suddenly became aware of the tingling thrill of hearing hundreds of burners roaring as pilots fill their balloons. After an hour I gave up trying to view it threw a camera and just stared wide-eyed at the astonishing scene, hoping to etch the details in my memory.


I'm Full of Hot Air But I Look Pretty in Pink


Time-Lapse of Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta by National Geographic