|Photographs by Mary Grady|
It sounds like a flat-out emergency.
It's the deafening din of helium gas, squeezing and squirming and squealing through hoses and valves and connectors, finding its way from a tank truck, across the launch field, and into the inflation port of a balloon. The noise is very alarming, and it's nonstop. It whines and whooshes and roars and whistles, like a giant vacuum cleaner scrambled with a handful of dentist drills and a hundred chainsaws. But the pilots calmly go about their procedures, checking their supplies, loading their sandbags, some of them wearing headphones or earplugs, and watch as their balloons, captive within a web of cables and straps, flap in the breeze and tug at their restraints. The gas ripples the fabric as it flows inside the comparison to a school of sperm squiggling up into a fat, growing belly is inescapable. Slowly, each of the 15 balloons fills out into its proper full, round shape, and finally, after about an hour and a half, the noise subsides. The balloons now stand straight and silent, as the sun sets and the pilots make their final preparations.
Thus begins a gas-balloon race on a Saturday night in Albuquerque, an odd sort of frantic sendoff for a sport known for its tranquillity and grace.
(click photos for
Gov. Gary Johnson and Richard Abruzzo
As the sky grows dark and the stars come out over the wide-open Fiesta field, the gas balloons are carried one by one to a brightly lit launching stage, floating along as a crew holds them within reach of the ground. An announcer tells the crowd about the balloon and its two pilots, and the national anthem of the pilots' home country is played over loudspeakers (Germany, Canada, the U.S. and the UK are represented this year). The balloon is released into the sky with its strobe light flashing below the basket, the pilots wave to the cheering mob, and a gentle stream of sand falls to the ground, barely visible in the darkness. For a while the vague shadow of the round envelope can be discerned, but soon each one merges with the moonless night, and just the flashing strobe remains to show its direction.
"We have a real horse race going here," says Tom Goettsche, a veteran Command Center staffer. Balloonists wander in and out of the trailer, offering their analyses of the racers' strategies ... is it better to fly low and conserve ballast, or get up high and catch the faster winds? How much of a threat is that cold front? Is there enough of a southerly wind to work up the coast toward Maine? But one by one the teams land, either running low on sand, daunted by the weather, or getting down before sunset to avoid another night aloft. At the 48-hour mark, only four of the teams are still flying, with Abruzzo and Johnson leading the pack and approaching Washington, D.C. Somehow they manage to just skirt the southern edge of the TFR, and keep tracking due east across the Chesapeake Bay and toward the Atlantic coast.
What prize do the pilots win for all that time and effort and risk and expense? The right to compete in next year's Gordon Bennett Race, in France, and do it all again.
Many helium balloons fly only once or twice a year, costing about $3,000 and up for each inflation. By switching to hydrogen, pilots can accrue more time aloft, offer more training flights, and get out once in a while to fly just for fun. Although Abruzzo piloted a helium balloon in this year's race, he also flies with hydrogen. He and other pilots in the Albuquerque area worked with local officials and insurance companies to advocate for its acceptance. There were no laws on the books restricting hydrogen use, he says; it was just a matter of overcoming prejudice against it and a lack of familiarity with its safe use. Eventually, says Abruzzo, "Everybody signed off and we just did it." This year's third-place finishers, Mark Sullivan and Cheri White, flew a hydrogen balloon.
At 6 o'clock on Sunday evening, the enormous expanse of soft, green grass at the Fiesta field is spread with swaths and bundles of balloon fabric, reds and blues and greens and yellows. Soon the noisy inflator fans roar to life, and the balloons swell and billow as they fill with the rush of air. The burners blast and the balloons stand upright, their baskets weighted down with pilots and their friends. The sun leaves an orange stripe along the horizon, as the city lights sparkle in the west and the lights from the Fiesta fairway where vendors sell balloon calendars, roast corn, grilled bratwurst, and fried Twinkies on a stick are bright to the east.
The 72 acres of brand-new grass is like a carpet underfoot, the cool air is gentle and sweet, and the faint scent of propane swirls with the mesquite smoke from barbecues. Mothers and fathers push babies in strollers or carry them on shoulders, and steer the elbows of grandfathers and grandmothers. Children rush and wander, waving glow sticks and wearing butterfly wings. Teenagers walk hand in hand, in silent romantic absorption. The crowd swells to 80,000, yet the field never feels congested. The balloons, all inflated now, tower like redwoods overhead. Walking along, row after row, gazing upon each unique design, as the day fades and the night deepens, makes for a fine evening stroll. In every direction, balloons stretch one after another, and they go on and on and on, more than 350 of them. Each one blasts its burner every few minutes to stay inflated, creating a fine display, as the colors are lit from within by the flame. And every five minutes or so a distant announcer counts down to a universal burn: "Get your cameras ready!" he calls. And the crowd joins in: "Five, four, three, two, ONE!" and all the burners blast simultaneously for a loud, bright show, and thousands of camera shutters click, click, click.
The leisurely half-mile walk, which began in the sunset glow, reaches the far end of the Fiesta field under a dark starry sky, the Big Dipper low in the west, the wide "W" of Cassiopeia overhead. The balloons now are starting to deflate; they fall gracefully and silently to the ground as the hot air is released from a vent at the top. Soon the field is quiet, the balloons are flattened, the burner blasts stop. Pilots and helpers then begin the hard work of packing and stowing all of that gear in the dark, under the glow of flashlights and to the booming accompaniment of a fireworks show.
A gray-haired couple, sitting side by side in camp chairs in the dark, shares a kiss as the first flash of the fireworks fades away. There must be worse ways than this to while away an hour or two on a Sunday night. A sudden stiff wind chills the air, stirs the dust, sets flags and tent tops flapping. The grilled bratwurst beckons, but the fried-Twinkies-on-a-stick (with topping!) are left to braver souls than mine.
One mystical element unique to this event is that box wind. "For Albuquerque, the box is normal, but anywhere else, it would be very unusual," says Dennis Anderson, a pilot from Ames, Iowa, here at Fiesta for his 10th year. The box light, low-level winds flowing in various directions allows a pilot to take off from the green Fiesta turf, fly downwind for a while, then climb a thousand feet or so and drift back over the field, setting up a sort of aerial ballet. Sometimes pilots play the winds just right and, after an hour or so of flying, come back and land close to the same spot where they took off. The mountain-and-valley terrain interacts with local climate systems to create the Albuquerque box.
On Wednesday morning, the Mass Ascension is billed as The Flight of the Nations. Five hundred balloons from 24 countries fly together in peace. About 70,000 people watch as they gently drift off to the south. The entire launch operation takes close to two hours, and by then the surface winds have picked up a bit, and the last balloons to lift off race across the field at a fairly fast clip. Then up they climb, slowing to an elegant and leisurely pace, and join in the dance of the spheres.
Note: The Fiesta's web site has mucho information about the event.