Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta: Part 3
Welcome to the final installment of a three part series recounting the adventures of my wife, Maureen and I while visiting the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, the largest event of it’s kind on the planet. The first installment centered on our experiences as novice spectators at this amazing event while the second focused on our adventures as volunteers with a hot air balloon support team (published in previous editions of the RV Times). This final installment details our odyssey as passengers in a hot air balloon as we soar high above the New Mexican landscape. If you’re ready to continue the thrill of a lifetime then, sit down, buckle up and read on!
It’s hard to attend an event like the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta without getting caught up in the romance and adventure of hot air ballooning. After watching hundreds of balloons soar majestically across the New Mexican horizon then volunteering as members of a hot air balloon support crew, you could say we were hooked. My wife Maureen and I really, really, really wanted to go up, up and away in a beautiful balloon.
Our preference would have been a flight during a Balloon Fiesta event called the Mass Ascension, when hundreds of balloons take flight however, that just wasn’t possible. What was possible was a flight on the Monday after the Balloon Fiesta had ended with a company called, Rainbow Riders. Rainbow Riders was the only commercial hot air balloon business authorized to take paying passengers aloft during the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. That seemed like a pretty good endorsement of their proficiency and ability – at least for us. In addition, their advertising was everywhere; on their trucks, trailers, balloons as well as on signs, billboards and pamphlets. They even had a booth at the Balloon Fiesta launch field. While talking with a company representative, I discovered that flights after the Balloon Fiesta were not only cheaper but also longer and in many ways more exciting. So, we took the plunge and booked a flight.
Before dawn on Monday morning, Maureen and I awoke feeling like two kids on Christmas day. We could hardly contain our excitement. After watching them fly, helping to launch and retrieve them, we were now going to soar – really soar – in a hot air balloon.
As we emerged from our trailer however, we noticed a distinct change in the weather. Gone were the clear skies, calm winds and frigid temperatures we had grown accustomed to, replaced by overcast skies, gusty winds and drizzle – totally uncharacteristic for Albuquerque in October. Driving to the Rainbow Riders office, we were filled with a sense of foreboding. This didn’t seem like good (or even mediocre) balloon flying weather.
Arriving at the office, we learned that flying conditions were “marginal”. If they didn’t get any worse we should be okay. Good thing too, because there were more than a hundred other perspective passengers waiting to go aloft. Apparently we weren’t the only ones bitten by the ballooning bug. Before long, we were rounded up, divided into groups of 10, assigned a pilot and crew chief then loaded into several vans. Instead of using the Balloon Fiesta launch field, we headed across town to a large cleared area on the western edge of the city.
By the time we reached the launch field, the wind and rain seemed to have increased. The pilots noticed this too. After holding an impromptu meeting, they cancelled the flights. It was no longer safe to fly. While my wife and I were disappointed with the cancellation, we were heartened by the emphasis on safety. Besides, scattered showers and gusty winds did not seem like the ingredients for an enjoyable balloon ride.
Back at the office, one of the staff members informed us that the unsettled conditions were forecasted to remain until Wednesday but good weather should return on Thursday. Did we want to reschedule? Maureen and I decided we’d come too far to quit now so we rebooked and hoped the weatherman was right.
Thursday dawned clear, calm and cold – flying weather! Once again we made our way to the Rainbow Riders office. This time however, the number of waiting passengers had diminished considerably. Less than half the Monday crowd had returned. Evidently, not everyone had the luxury of a flexible schedule.
We were again divided into groups of 10, assigned a pilot and crew chief, loaded into several vans and driven to the same open field on the western edge of the city. On the way, we struck up a conversation with our pilot, a charming and personable young man named Dar who was both knowledgeable and passionate about hot air ballooning. When we told him of our volunteer experiences as members of balloon support team during the Balloon Fiesta, Dar immediately recruited us to help launch his balloon. No sooner had we parked then Maureen and I were once again helping to unload, set-up and prepare the balloon for flight – jobs we knew all too well. Later, I learned that there was something of a competition between pilots to see who could get their balloon ready to fly first. Having two passengers with support crew experience was a huge advantage so, it was no real surprise when Dar’s balloon was ready to fly before the others. All that remained was to get on board because at last, we were going flying!
Helping With The Balloon Launch
Inside The Balloon Envelope
Our Pilot Dar, Fills The Balloon With Hot Air
Up, Up and Away
I’m not sure what I expected as the balloon left the ground but, I was gripped by a feeling of trepidation. The liftoff reminded me of a scary carnival ride that slowly rises skyward then plummets back to earth. The difference here was – no plummeting. Instead, the balloon continued to rise and as it did, trepidation was replaced by awe and wonder. The view in every direction was breathtaking. To the north and west lay vast plains and plateaus. To the east rose the majestic Sandia Mountains and to the south stretched the Rio Grande River, almost all the way to Mexico, it seemed. Because the balloon moved so slowly (compared to airliners, private planes or even helicopters), there was ample time to look around, drink in the incredible scenery and take pictures – lots and lots of pictures.
Ready For Take-off
First Off The Ground
Our spot in the basket, just behind pilot Dar, allowed us to easily converse, not that conversation was a problem. It was so quiet we could have carried on a dialogue with folks at the back. Other than the occasional “whoosh” of the propane burner, there was nothing but silence. It was so quiet in fact that, when conditions were just right, we could hear people talking on the ground – more than a thousand feet below!
Standing behind Dar, we quickly discovered that he was not only a skilled pilot eager to share his knowledge, but an expert tour guide as well, happily pointing out various land marks, geographic features and points of interest.
View To The North
Looking East Towards The Sandia Mountains
Looking South Down The Rio Grande Valley
Skimming The Rio Grande
As we approached the Rio Grande River our balloon began to descend and kept descending until we were skimming just above the river’s surface, much to the delight of all the passengers. This continued for several minutes until we neared the opposite bank, then Dar “poured on the propane” and once again, we soared high into the sky.
Skimming Along The Rio Grande River
Up ahead lay downtown Albuquerque. As we drifted over the city center, the sound of silence we has so enjoyed was replaced by the noise of the metropolis; sirens, horns, machinery, traffic, etc.
High Over The “Big City”
High Over The “Big City”
Landing Field In Sight.
Back On Terra Firma
Packing Up The Balloon
Past the city center, Dar began descending again, this time in preparation for landing. Our landing spot was another large open area and waiting for us were the crew chiefs, support staff and vehicles. Once again Dar demonstrated his exceptional piloting skills by touching down as gently as a feather in the middle of the field. While the support staff steadied the basket, we all climbed out. Then, several of us pitched in to help deflate the envelope and pack the equipment away.
With the “heavy lifting” done, it was time to celebrate. Most of us were novice balloonist so tradition demanded we celebrate our first flight with a glass of champagne and a toast delivered by our pilot, Dar who recited the “Balloonist Prayer”.
May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that God
joins you in laughter and sets you gently
back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
It was the perfect end to a wonderful experience. Thank you Dar and all the great folks at Rainbow Riders for making wishes come true in such an incredible way.
And so ended our amazing Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Fiesta odyssey. The next day, we were on the road again, eager to see and experience more of the “Land of Enchantment” yet all the while, basking in the warm glow of our incredible balloon adventure memories – memories we’d soon be sharing with friends, family, relations and now you, dear readers. Thanks for joining us.