The Greatest Balloon Event in the World!

FOR nine days each October, Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S.A., faces an unusual traffic problem. Drivers slow down or stop to view vast flotillas of brightly colored balloons filling the clear autumn sky. This is the annual Kodak Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and more than 800,000 visitors come to experience it.

It is easy to understand why traffic slows down. Imagine the spectacle! Hundreds of balloons​—usually from 50 to 80 feet [15 to 25 m] tall—​ascending together in the crisp morning air, then floating on gentle winds across the Rio Grande River and out over the city of Albuquerque. In the background, the picturesque 10,000-foot Sandia Mountains complete the stunning panorama.

The festival has enjoyed phenomenal growth since it began in a parking lot in 1972 with just 13 balloons. By 1978, with 273 entries, it had already become the world’s largest balloon event. For the year 2003, over 720 balloons were entered. Balloon teams came from many U.S. states and from some 20 other countries. Media representatives from scores of organizations along with countless other photographers contributed to the fiesta’s reputation as “the world’s most photographed event.”  In the year 2000, in celebration of the new millennium, over 1,000 balloons participated​—about 20 percent of all known balloons in the world.

How the Balloons Work

The great majority of the balloons at the fiesta are lifted skyward by hot air heated by propane burners at the balloons’ mouth. Balloon envelopes, or bags, are made of synthetic fabric coated with polyurethane to reduce leakage. A basket, or gondola, that carries the pilot and any passengers, is attached to each balloon. A balloon is inflated in two stages. First, a large fan blows cool air into it as it lies spread out on the ground. Next, a propane burner blasts hot air into the partially inflated envelope. The hot air lifts the balloon upright, but it remains firmly tethered to the ground until the pilot is ready for liftoff. Once the balloon is airborne, the pilot can make it ascend by turning the burners on and adding more hot air. To descend, he just lets the air cool off, or he can open a vent in the top of the balloon to let hot air escape.

At the festival, hot-air balloons normally carry only enough propane to stay aloft for a few hours, usually at an elevation of less than 2,000 feet [600 m]. Therefore, the balloonists​—including a chase crew who follow them on the ground—​must keep on the lookout for safe landing sites. The pilot and crew look for open land free of electric cables and away from busy streets.

Some of the balloons at the festival are filled with helium or hydrogen. Unlike the hot-air variety, these gas-filled balloons can remain airborne for days. Gas balloonists compete to see who can fly the farthest, traveling at altitudes of 10,000 to 15,000 feet [3,000 to 4,500 m].

Balloons cannot really be steered. Rather, they drift at the whim of the winds. But an experienced pilot can control his course by ascending or descending to pick up air currents flowing in the desired direction. In this respect, Albuquerque is ideal for ballooning. The surrounding mountains and river valley form the Albuquerque Box​—a combination of wind patterns that causes lower-level winds to push balloons one way and upper-level winds to bring them back in the opposite direction.

An Exciting Event

More than 2,000 volunteers cooperate for the success and safety of the festival. Coordinating the complicated event is an official called the balloonmeister. His job of directing the liftoff of hundreds of balloons is somewhat like managing a busy airport. Just imagine the scene! At liftoff, the kaleidoscope of color and imaginative shapes thrills both the adult spectators and the wide-eyed children. Look! There’s a balloon shaped like a frog, another shaped like a bear, and another like a rabbit! There goes a baby dinosaur, a giant floating cow, two flying pigs, a goldfish named Sushi, a jack-in-the-box, a huge airborne soda can, a cowboy boot, a bunch of red chili peppers, and many, many others.

Seeing such a multitude of colors and designs set against the bright blue sky, a photographer can really get carried away! And evening brings another magnificent sight​—the darkening sky is strewn with hundreds of balloons, each one’s burner glowing like a candle in a paper lantern.

Few of us may witness the balloon festival or have the exhilarating experience of riding in a balloon. But as you contemplate these pictures, you can at least allow your imagination to soar​—up into the autumn sky over Albuquerque.

 [Pictures on page 18]

1. Each balloon requires a ground crew, usually of four to eight people

2. A propane burner blasts hot air for the ascent

3. At night the balloons emit a warm glow

4. A variety of balloon designs

[Credit Line]

Photos 1 and 2: Raymond Watt/Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta