Kodak Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta

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What is almost certainly the world's most breathtakingly beautiful aviation event is held in early October at Albuquerque, New Mexico, and it's an absolute joy to watch. In a departure from his usual Eye Of Experience role, AVweb's Howard Fried shares his observations and some magnificent photographs he took when he attended the fiesta as a spectator.

Places To FlyI don't fly balloons. I did fly balloons, but I gave it up. Not because it isn't a lot of fun, because it is. I don't fly balloons because, like flying flingwings, it is too much work for a lazy guy like me. With an airplane, you take off, point it where you want to go, trim it out and let it take you there. With a helicopter, you've got both hands and both feet going all the time, and with a balloon, you're totally at the mercy of the wind, and when you land, you have to squeeze all the air out of the envelope, fold it up, stuff it in the basket, and then drag that heavy thing out of the field where you landed to the road where (hopefully) the chase car is waiting.

Early bird gets the calmBalloons are, however, a joy to watch. The designs and colors are breathtaking in their variety and beauty, and if you want to see balloons, the place to do it is Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the time to do it is the first or second week of October. It is then and there that the largest balloon convention in the world is held annually. This event is to ballooning what Airventure at Oshkosh is to airplanes. The 1998 Fiesta was the 27th edition of this annual event and it has grown every year since the inception. It started out at the Fairgrounds with less than a score of balloons (thirteen total) until today there is a 355-acre park area set aside for the launches and over 850 colorful balloons in all kinds of shapes. This much space is needed for the mobs of people who attend the event, for parking, booths, food service, etc., as well as for the actual launching of balloons. Attendance has grown from fewer than ten thousand the first year to well over a million today.

International Flavor

Obelisk and BalloonThe balloonists literally come from all over the world. Some sixteen international teams are represented. They come from Argentina, Belgium, Canada, England, France, Germany, Japan, Macao, New Zealand, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, and Venezuela. And there are teams from each of the following 41 states of our own union: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The nine­day event requires year-round work on the part of the Fiesta Board and staff which coordinate the world's largest ballooning event.

Mass Launch at ABQWith a vehicle — I suppose we should call the balloons vehicles — that can only be controlled on the vertical plane, the determination of horizontal direction is left to the mercy of the wind. Since the wind shifts with altitude, the skilled balloonist does have a modicum of control over the direction his vehicle takes over the ground. I have observed some truly remarkable examples of this kind of directional control, including the flying of a square pattern. With a south wind at the surface, the balloon would take off and fly north, climb a few hundred feet where the wind was from the east, fly west, anticipating the distance covered, climb some more to an altitude where the wind is from the north, go south, again anticipating the right point to start climbing again, and go to an altitude offering a west wind, and fly east until it was right over the starting point on the ground, thus completing a near perfect square, or rectangle.

Effect On The City

As might be expected, the Kodak Balloon Festival exerts an enormous influence on the City of Albuquerque. Throngs of people descend on Albuquerque for the annual Balloon Fiesta. The hotels fill up, the restaurants see a substantial increase in business, and the retail stores make hay selling to the crowds of visitors, although one local restaurant operator complained that his business was down because everybody was having lunch out at the launch site. At the launch site there are booths offering everything from food (including breakfast burritos), pins, buttons, mugs, and t-shirts to equipment and supplies for balloons. I'm sure that it has nothing to do with the fact that Kodak sponsors the fiesta, but this is no doubt the most photographed event in the world. The colorful balloons and the fascinating shapes in which many of them are designed and built make them all extremely photogenic, so as might be imagined, film sales are phenomenal.

Some amazing shapesOn the subject of shapes, here's a balloon in the shape of a grocery bag just being erected!

And speaking of shapes, they had one balloon in the shape of Christ, and one was even a Mountie on horseback.

One deleterious effect of the fiesta is the number and magnitude of the traffic jams caused by gawkers stopping to watch low-flying balloons drift by. The local media urges people to pull over off the roads and streets if they want to watch, but that doesn't seem to stop them from slowing down to watch and causing huge traffic jams, just as motorists seem to do whenever there is a traffic accident. Even so, the economic impact of this annual event on the city is simply enormous.


Mass LaunchEvery day during the weeklong fiesta there are contests for the participating balloonists. There are spot landing contests, beanbag bombing contests, distance-flown contests, and so forth. (The gas­fired balloon distance contest was won this year by a team consisting of Mr. And Mrs. Troy Bradley who covered some 1,700 miles, ending up in Ontario, Canada.)

The most interesting contest (with the biggest reward) is the "key grab" in which a key is suspended from a pole, and if a balloonist succeeds in grabbing it as he or she drifts by, he/she gets to keep the brand new automobile it fits!

If you want to see one of the most breathtaking sights anywhere in the world, and if you're willing to get up early to go to the launch site for the mass launch and pay a modest admission, then you should do what I did last October.