Attending the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque is a double bucket list item for us (well, me). It’s an event sponsored by Canon, and it is a photographer’s delight. It is also a major stop for RVers, since being parked right on the festival grounds gives RVers unparalleled access to the event. So we signed up for the whole enchilada, arriving before the official start and attending the festival for 9 straight days.
We came for pretty balloons, and we found them. The festival featured over 500 different balloons ranging from sleek competition balloons to colorful hobby balloons to corporate promotional balloons to huge tour balloons carrying up to 10 paying passengers to wildly creative shaped balloons. Mornings start off with a Dawn Patrol launch of 5 to 10 balloons into the darkness to help identify wind patterns, followed by mass launches of hundreds of different balloons as the sun rises. If weather conditions didn’t allow launch, many balloons would simply be inflated but kept anchored to the ground for the crowd to appreciate. About half the nights also featured “glow” events, in which balloons are inflated (but not launched) in the late afternoon and kept up until after sunset, lit up from within by their powerful propane burners. The diversity of balloons is probably best illustrated by photos. I took hundreds every day.
The fiesta is also the start of a major annual distance race, the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, which features sealed gas balloons filled with lighter-than-air hydrogen that compete to travel the greatest distance before losing buoyancy (usually after about 4 days). Unfortunately we didn’t see the filling of the balloons or the launch of this race. There are also some hot air balloon competition events, which Ken was able to take in while I was working. These events generally call for balloons to launch off-field, fly to Balloon Fiesta Park, and come in low over a target without touching the ground, all in order to drop a bean bag on a target to earn prizes. Considering how little steering exists on hot air balloons, the accuracy of the top competitors was remarkable.
Balloons are not even the end of the story here. Many sessions opened or ended with acrobatic demonstrations by skydiving teams, and evening glow events were followed by spectacular fireworks shows. Musical performances filled in some of the time between balloon sessions, including an impressive lineup of popular country musicians on the final Saturday’s Music Fiesta. There was a huge vendor area filled with booths selling food, souvenirs, crafts, clothing, RVs, and other items. Various local dance groups roamed around the festival performing flamenco dancing and Native American dances. There were informational booths from science organizations like NASA. There was a team of talented chainsaw carvers from Colorado making cool wood sculptures, because what could be more endearing at 5 am than the buzz of multiple chainsaws? When an event attracts close to a million people over the course of nine days, there is obviously going to be a lot to do there, and the array of entertainment was dizzying. But the balloons are the main attraction.
The most popular balloons are the special shapes, and there are several sessions during the week focused on special shapes when some truly imaginative balloons are inflated. These special shape sessions draw even bigger crowds than normal, to the point that moving around on the field becomes slow and painful. This is especially true on the east side of the field where most entrance gates are located. The ABQ Balloon Fiesta is one of the only ones in the world which allows random spectators to mill around on the field as balloons are being inflated or pulled down, and it’s pretty remarkable that there are have never been significant safety problems. I was very impressed by the crew members holding ropes on huge balloons who had to run through throngs of camera-wielding people, and no crews were more challenged than those on the special shapes.
In addition to just seeing the balloons inflated and launched, we were also fascinated by some of the extremely elaborate rigs used by some of the balloon crews. Some teams have large enclosed trailers with detailed graphics advertising their balloon(s) and even vehicles with custom paint jobs to match the balloons, which were as interesting as the balloons. The sheer size and complexity of the whole festival is truly breathtaking, as is the mind-boggling attendance.
Unfortunately, all this visual delight came at a pretty steep price in terms of our comfort while camping here.
“Nope Nope Nope Nope Nope”
Ken’s assessment of our camping situation on the very first night was, unfortunately, completely accurate. This is without a doubt the worst location we have camped in our entire time on the road. RV parking is literally in parking lots. The “rally style” parking means that RVs are parked tightly in rows in the order in which they arrive, creating a fairly random situation. We were not lucky in our neighbors.
On one side was a gigantic Class A with some sort of battery issue; they apparently needed to run their generator constantly to maintain power. Quiet hours in the RV parking areas at the Fiesta are from 10 pm to 5 am, so our neighbors ran their generator from 5:01 am to 9:59 pm. The ceaseless generator drone was unbelievably annoying as well as puzzling — how could a rig even hold enough fuel to run a generator for seventeen hours a day, seven days in a row? The only saving grace was that the rig departed after seven days. But even after their departure, the dozens of other giant rigs around us ensured a fairly constant chorus of generator noise because apparently they were all content to be on generator power for many hours each day. The result was that our entire RV parking area was incredibly loud and completely saturated with diesel fumes. It was truly terrible. Meanwhile, we sat silently and fully powered as our solar panels cranked out far more electricity than we needed in the strong New Mexico sun.
On our other side was a much smaller rig, an ancient pickup with a dilapidated partially home-made truck topper that somehow managed to hold five people including three fairly young children. Those kids only had one volume, and it was screaming at the top of their lungs. Without pause. And whenever they were “home” they were outside, directly under our windows, because of course there was no way they could actually sit inside the rig. Joy. Oh, and did I mention that all the roads leading into the fiesta park are lit up by generator-powered flood lights that come on at 3 am every day? This was not the place to come for restful sleep, that’s for sure.
On the other hand, being camped just steps from the launch field meant that we could see balloons drifting over our rig during launches and even had some landings directly in the RV parking area. During evening glows we could see the closest rows of balloons right from our rig. We were also directly beneath the impressive fireworks shows that took place on about half the nights of the Fiesta. Most important, having a 5-minute walk onto the field was ideal when I needed to show up by 5:30 am every day for my volunteer gig.
Chase Crew Volunteering
The Balloon Fiesta has many different volunteer opportunities which typically come with some sort of price concession or other benefit. I signed up to assist a chase crew to get an insider perspective on the event, and also to score free entry passes for us. Yes, we are that cheap, but I also wanted to learn more about ballooning. The balloon I was assigned to assist is Blue Magic, and she is a beauty! The pilot is a professor of aviation at Purdue University — a renowned program that produced many of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts — and most of the other crew members were friends and family from Indiana. They were friendly, welcoming, and eager to chat with me about ballooning and show me the ropes (literally). I could not have been more happy with my pilot and crew assignment. And while all the balloons were gorgeous, I was pleased to be on a unique and easy-to-spot blue balloon; blue is a surprisingly uncommon color here.
The job of the chase crew basically has two parts: helping unpack and inflate the balloon for launch, and then driving out to retrieve and repack the balloon when the pilot lands somewhere in the Albuquerque area. The balloon vehicles (typically a 4WD truck pulling either an open or enclosed trailer) pulled onto the field each morning between 5 and 5:30 am, going to an assigned square on a giant grid (think A1, A2, B1, B2, etc.) marked by pylons in the field. The pilot and crew chief then attended the morning pilot meeting to find out about wind conditions while the rest of us got started with setting up.
There are three main components involved in getting a balloon assembled and launched. One part is the basket (gondola) which holds the passengers and propane tanks and is outfitted with the burners at the top. The basket uprights and burners are typically stowed for towing so those needed to be assembled daily. The assembled basket weighs several hundred pounds and it took 4-6 of us to muscle it off the trailer and into position. The envelope (the balloon itself) is made of rip-stop nylon and packs into a fairly small bag but needs to be spread out over a large area to be inflated. Our envelope weighed about 170 pounds so 2-4 people could move it around when packed. Lastly, we used a mega-industrial fan to cold inflate the balloon on the ground before adding heat to lift it to a vertical position. The fan was on wheels and powered by a tiny gas generator, so one person could pull that off the trailer and maneuver it into place.
My tasks included helping unpack everything, holding open the mouth of the balloon during cold inflation, helping spread out the fabric of the envelope during cold inflation, and serving as dead weight on the basket once the balloon was vertical. Balloon launches at Balloon Fiesta occur in an organized manner under the supervision of the launch directors — AKA “zebras” — wearing black and white attire. The zebras gave the go-ahead to turn on burners and go vertical on a row-by-row basis, then individually directed the launch of each balloon when it had enough clear airspace to get aloft.
After the balloon launched, I rode in the truck with the rest of the crew as we tracked our balloon among the hundreds that were floating above Albuquerque. Once the balloon landed, we tried to get to their location as quickly as possible. Our pilot generally made an effort to land in open fields or parking lots with nearby roads, but at times it was hard to figure out exactly how to get the truck close to the balloon. The pilot and crew chief used various GPS-based apps to automatically communicate locations to each other, which made things easier. Once the balloon cooled down, it was time to help bring it down in a controlled way, squeeze out all the air, and pack the envelope back into its bag. If the landing spot was rocky or had cactus, we had to be particularly careful to keep the envelope away from sharp objects. Then the basket was loaded back onto the trailer and we returned to the Balloon Fiesta Park for a propane refill.
Crewing made the festival experience significantly more interesting, especially because we got on well with my crew. Even though Ken wasn’t crewing, it was fun for him to have a specific balloon to trace and of course he heard all about our chasing adventures (why yes, we did drive straight over tall sagebrush to reach the balloon) when I returned home mid-morning each day. The work wasn’t too physically demanding since we had plenty of people to help, though it did involve a lot of awkward movements. Most reasonably fit people would be able to handle the duties, and balloon teams seemed to be good about assigning tasks appropriately based on skill level. Signing up for chase crew was very easy — I signed up online in advance, but there is also a volunteer table set up every day during the festival and they are always accepting new volunteers. I was lucky to be assigned to a very friendly crew that I immediately meshed with, but I understand that if there is a personality conflict or if the crew already has enough people it’s easy to be reassigned to a different balloon by stopping by the chase crew registration table.
We Are Not Rally People
One of the long-standing traditions of Balloon Fiesta is the Airstream rally. The official Airstream owner’s club brings together 150+ Airstreamers and is generally assigned a prime parking area in the VIP West RV parking lot next to the Balloon Museum. While it is a cool sight to see rows of shiny silver trailers with legions of hot air balloons floating overhead, we have never been interested in joining the Airstream owner’s club, and our experience here at Balloon Fiesta really cemented that view.
I have always thought the idea of clubs built around consumer products is a little strange. I mean, I have wide feet and love wearing comfy New Balance sneakers, but the idea of joining a club of “New Balance Wearers” would be totally weird. There may be some small comfort in knowing there are other people in the world with appendages shaped like ping-pong paddles, but I would never expect to automatically have a lot in common with other wide-footers. Similarly, I don’t expect to automatically strike up friendships with other Airstream owners. This was confirmed when every single other Airstream owner in our entire lot made their way over uninvited to introduce themselves to us, banging on our door (not when we were sitting outside) in what we consider a major breach of RV etiquette. They were pleasant enough for short conversations, but I am sure it quickly became obvious to them that we were not interested in having protracted conversations about Airstream purchasing and remodeling. After one day at the Fiesta Ken was ready to fabricate some sort of “Do Not Disturb — Baby Sleeping” sign just to keep these people away. I can’t imagine we would have fared well in the Airstream rally.
More important, I really don’t want to be judging people — by assuming they will be compatible with us — simply because they purchased the same shiny toy that we did. There is a certain snobbishness to that approach that we want to avoid. We have friends on the road in Airstreams, but we also have friends in Class A motorhomes, vans, fifth wheels, and many other brands of travel trailers. We didn’t strike up these friendships because our friends have expensive rigs that look like ours. Instead, we have forged friendships based on qualities like their love of the outdoors, sly humor, appreciation for art, kindness, great advice on cool places to visit, and passion for preserving public lands. In other words, we pick our friends based on shared values and interests, not based on their preferred shoe brand or the rig they drive. And we plan to keep it that way.
All that being said, we stopped by the Airstream rally to meet some people we follow online, and the environment there (also a parking lot) was a huge improvement over our parking lot. Our fellow Airstreamers have energy-efficient rigs like us, so generator use is not needed more than a few hours per day. Even better, a large percentage of Airstreamers have solar panels and don’t need to run a generator at all. My three impressions of the Airstream rally: (1) it looks a lot like a huge Airstream dealership and I would have trouble finding my rig in the dark, (2) since all rigs have no slides, rigs appeared to be much better spaced and less crowded even though their parking spaces were the same size as ours, and (3) it was SO QUIET. So while rally attendance is not for us, I can certainly understand the attraction of being camped with that crowd.
Balloon Flight Experience
Deciding to assist with a chase crew was the best decision I made. Not only did I meet some great people who shared decades worth of ballooning knowledge and experience with me, but I also received free all-session passes for the festival. The very best part, however, was that my pilot took me along on one of his morning flights! It’s considered good pilot etiquette to offer crew members the opportunity to fly, but since the basket on my balloon only holds the pilot and one passenger — and because there is never a guarantee that a flight will actually launch — I wasn’t sure whether I would have the chance to fly.
As a passenger, I still participated in all the setup routine that I helped with during other flights, but I just hopped into the basket shortly before launch. Unlike launching a motorized aircraft like an airplane or a helicopter, the balloon launch is virtually silent and free of jerky movements. Since the initial loud propane burn happens on the ground, on the ascent there is no need to burn again until you reach your cruising altitude. It’s like taking the world’s quietest elevator up in a smooth, floating experience.
Once aloft, it was truly magical to be at eye level with hundreds of other balloons as we proceeded out of the Balloon Fiesta field and spread out across the skies over Albuquerque. There is of course no feeling of wind, since the balloon is carried along at the same speed as the wind. The basket is securely attached to the balloon via four points of contact and felt completely stable when the two of us moved around to shift positions. Other than periodic propane burns to maintain elevation, the ride was eerily quiet. Our relatively low elevation (not more than 2,000 feet above the ground) meant I could easily pick out roads, structures, and vehicles below us. The truly birds-eye view from a quiet, cloud-like, smoothly moving perch was a profound experience.
We spent about 40 minutes in the air before landing in a field of sagebrush that many other pilots also targeted. My pilot had a very controlled landing; he accurately described the impact in advance as “like jumping off a three foot ledge.” There was a little bit of a hop and then the basket came to rest in an upright position as we waited for the chase crew to arrive. Our chase crew found us within minutes, and after the balloon cooled down we worked together to disassemble and repack everything.
I had never really been all that intrigued by ballooning, but after this experience I can see how someone could easily get hooked. Humanity’s first flight technology — ballooning predates the Wright brothers by over a century — is not the fastest or most predictable way to travel but I can confirm that it’s one of the most enjoyable.
Balloon Fiesta Park is home to the Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum so of course one afternoon I made time to check it out. The main section of the museum has displays on the history of balloon technology and artifacts from important record-setters like the first balloons to cross the Pacific and to circumnavigate the globe. The area devoted to use of balloons in warfare was fascinating. Among other things, I learned for the first time in my life that Japanese gas balloons carrying incendiary devices were successfully deployed over the US using the jet stream, and a small number of American citizens were actually killed in the continental US as a result of these very long range weapons. The US government effectively implemented total censorship over the events, leading to several outcomes: the Japanese stopped launching them after 6 months, believing them to be ineffective, and Americans who saw strange balloons flying above the Pacific Northwest believed they were UFOs.
The museum’s special displays were the best part. I particularly enjoyed a section focused on new/alternative ballooning technology like solar balloons, which are hot air balloons heated solely by the sun’s rays. Failed polar expeditions are one of my very favorite types of disaster story (Earnest Shackleton is a personal hero), so I absolutely loved a detailed installation about an 1897 effort by three Swedes to reach the north pole by hydrogen balloon. The museum is pretty small, so it was easy to see everything in a few hours and the $6 admission price was fair.
Tips and Recommendations
Even though we hated just about everything about our camping experience, it was still the right move to stay on site in one of the RV parking lots. Traffic coming in and out of the festival is horrendous, and since morning sessions start so early it would be hard to get there timely if it were necessary to drive and park. Plan to use your black-out shades and earplugs, and take plenty of naps to make up for disrupted sleep.
I also think we made the right choice to stay for the entire festival instead of just a few days. There were multiple sessions that were cancelled because of poor weather (fog, wind, etc.) but we still had the chance to see everything by attending other sessions during the week. For me, crewing over the course of the festival gave me a chance to delve deep into the mechanics of ballooning and develop a richer understanding of how it all works. It was hard work and required keeping strange hours, but it was far more engaging than just watching pretty balloons while munching on fair food. The free pass to all sessions meant we could wander around and take photos during sessions when my pilot wasn’t scheduled to inflate and take in the normal spectator experience as well.
We felt that we experienced everything the festival has to offer, and then some. Overall, the Balloon Fiesta is an unforgettable experience, but also one that is probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing for us.
Next: we stay in Albuquerque for a few days to recover from all the excitement (I NEED TO SLEEP), take care of necessary life tasks, and see some of the sights of the city.