Facing Technology’s Limits at Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta
It’s the exhilarating miracle of flight, celebrated every year with the latest in special equipment and state-of-the-art accouterments. For half a century, hot-air balloon pilots have been confronting, again and again, the limits of what their technology can’t do, while wildly enjoying what it can at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, a massive balloon festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
But while thrilling spectators, and offering their passengers the experience of a lifetime, the event also shows how one specific technology can evolve into a kind of culture, blending seamlessly into the day-to-day metropolitan life of America’s 32nd most-populous city.
As participants gracefully celebrate the art of ballooning, they also show how it’s gradually transformed into something more — something magical, meaningful, and yet always just as unpredictable as technology itself.
Started in 1972, Albuquerque’s “Balloon Fiesta” is now the largest balloon festival on planet earth. More than 600 hot-air balloon pilots are invited to bring their balloons to a kind of annual “convention,” and each morning of the nine-day festival, they simultaneously take to the skies.
The flights exert an irresistible attraction that fascinates people from all walks of life. Albuquerque local Colleen Perry describes herself as a “stay-at-home mom and dog trainer” — but she now also leads the chase crew for one of the early “Dawn Patrol” balloons. They help inflate the balloons — but then follow its flight path so they can help it land, and then break it down so it can be transported back for a later launch.
In fact, a whopping 800,000 visitors were expected this year, a community of assorted adventurers and fun-lovers which included at least one nomadic couple who’d converted a bus into a dream home. They shared their own video on YouTube of the very first balloons inflating (and lighting their interior) for a pre-dawn flight by the “Dawn Patrol.”
But while watching the first balloons light the morning darkness, the couple also pondered the essential challenge of ballooning: “They don’t know where they’re going to end up all the time.”
At least a century before the Wright Brothers took their first flight, humankind had been experimenting with using balloons to take to the skies, filling the balloons with either hot air or lighter-than-air hydrogen. The technology has always had its limits, and it’s a lesson that plays out at the Balloon Fiesta in real-time every year. Balloonists can only choose when to go up and when to go down — with all other movements determined by the directions of the wind above and below them. And with hundreds of balloons in the air each day, each pilot confronts that essential unpredictability. Thursday local TV station KOB captured footage of a balloon that touched down on a suburban street.
And it’s far from an uncommon occurrence.
Last year WBUR pointed out that local landowners even spread colored sheets inviting balloon pilots to make a landing (or telling them to land elsewhere). But they also noted that in 2021 power went out to 1,200 homes after two balloons accidentally crashed into power lines.
One morning this week that couple in the converted bus discovered the wind had blown a balloonist right into their parking lot. And they later interviewed another balloon pilot who joked knowingly that “It’s pretty easy to land once you run out of fuel,” while remembering another balloon that had actually landed in the parking lot of convenience store.
On the plus side, he pointed out, “I haven’t missed the ground yet.”
Other pitfalls also await. One crew successfully packed up their balloon in a public park — only to realize the heavy gear had sunk their truck into the park’s soft grass.
As one balloon company puts it delicately, “Ultimately, balloons travel with the wind, and don’t always end up at a place we have landed in the past.” But they reassure prospective customers that “New Mexicans love hot air balloons, and most residents and property owners are happy to have us land the balloon nearby.”
“One of the fun things about the actual chase is never knowing where the balloon will end up or how long it will fly,” Perry writes at a blog called Albuquerque Mom.
In fact, unpredictability has become part of the local culture. “One of the best parts about landing in a residential area is getting the people nearby involved,” Perry adds. “As long as the conditions are ok, the chase crew will often ask spectators to help get the balloon down. We also try to let the kids get in the basket for a minute before we deflate if we can.”
Spectators sometimes even participate in a long-standing tradition: balloon pilots always carry a bottle of champagne. Legend has it that the first balloons were mistaken for fire-breathing dragons or demons from another world — and that French balloonists brought champagne to prove they were the usual fun-loving French folk.
To this day, it’s useful for calming irate landowners when you’ve made a surprise touchdown on their property. One chase crew spoke admiringly of their pilot who’d shared the champagne when they’d landed on a commercial tree-growing lot.
“If a balloon lands in your yard, the pilot will share champagne with you as a gesture of thanks and goodwill,” Perry writes.
Perry also adds that “We usually have cheese and crackers to go with it too.”
Thrill of the Chase Crew
Over the last half-century, the festival has gradually accrued and adopted the latest technologies. One on-the-ground “chase crew” told me they’re also using a web-based flight tracker for the balloon they’re servicing, which instantly translates its GPS coordinates into a handy visualized flight path-tracking map. Air-to-ground radios are now augmented with GPS tracking systems and even backup cellphones for communicating with ground crews. And, of course, balloonists are also using altitude-measuring altimeters.
And there’s also an official Balloon Fiesta app which now delivers news and scheduling updates to both Android and iPhones.
But modern technologies continue to find their way into the event’s graceful festivities. One of the parking facilities is even sponsored and named after Intel, with the chipmaker also flying its own balloon in the festival.
The local police department will even pin electronic tags onto children so they can wander the event, and still be located by their parents. In an interview on the festival’s official livestream, a local police officer said the department had tagged “anywhere from 500 to 700 children.”
And when the event began on Oct. 1, the first event was a drone light show.
But technology can only accomplish so much, and the last half-century has also brought the fiesta to a world facing climate change — and the tricky weather patterns that brings.
“The only place in the whole United States that had rain was in New Mexico,” balloonist Scott Appleman grumbled to a local news station. (Or at least the only state where excessive rain could potentially lead to flooding.)
Brad Temeyer, a meteorologist for the balloon festival, told the station that Florida’s hurricane Ian had pinned a low-pressure weather bloc across the Rocky Mountains. “It just couldn’t move because that hurricane was across the East Coast. That low pressure just kind of hung around through the weekend and led to inclement weather showers and thunderstorms.” In addition, low clouds reduced visibility — a dangerous situation for this year’s balloon pilots.
The signature “mass ascension” event — where a throng of the event’s hundreds of balloons all take to the sky in the morning — was canceled twice during the week due to rain. Also canceled was Thursday night’s Glowdeo — a crowd-pleasing spectacle in which air-heating burners are adjusted to brighten the entire balloon, creating a pageant of glowing canvas.
But perhaps the biggest disappointment was the cancellation of the spectacular long-distance race for gas-powered balloons, disappointing eight different teams from five countries, including the father-son team from Germany who currently hold the world record, according to festival webpages. (Past contestants had flown all the way from Albuquerque to Canada or even the Eastern Coast of the United States, adds the festival’s website.)
The event’s organizers had lined up live satellite-based tracking of all the balloons’ positions, preparing to webcast it all through the festival’s website and on the festival’s official phone app for Android and iPhones. But in the end, “The weather conditions made it impossible to conduct a safe, competitive race,” explains the fiesta’s official webpage.
Yet as the event enters its second half-century, the spirit of the balloonists remains undaunted. Dana Seymour tells me their pilot is one of the many who also concludes all his flights with the Balloonist’s 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.”
Enjoying lunch at an Albuquerque hamburger joint, Seymour put it even more succinctly.
“The one thing we found over and over at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta — was joy.”