It was 1995 that we had our chance meeting in New Mexico along the Pecos River near Santa Fe. Since then, we have returned to New Mexico. First a year later to get married in Taos, resign from our corporate lives and to forever look forward. It was the beginning of our SeeLevel life and adventures.
Since our first meeting, we have talked about going to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. A Hot Air Balloon event that is full of mystery for us. What would it be like to watch these balloons, 500 strong, take off. Little did we know that we would not be watching from the sidelines, but right smack in the middle of the field.
After being in Santa Fe for a week before the balloon fiesta, we decided that it was going to be so big that we had better get to Albuquerque early. We made reservations to stay in the VIP RV lot three months before. This was going to be fun for us because we were only steps away from the balloon fiesta field. It was also going to be interesting to see how the Grizzly would do being off grid for 5 nights. Would there be enough water and how would the hybrid power system do? Quiet hours were good from 10:30p to 5:30a. Could all the systems, our computer network and creature comforts hold up?
We were total newbie’s and we acted like it. What we did not have experience with became a big deal. What would the RV Park be like when we got there? How did our passes work? Rumors of record crowds caused us to wonder where we would stand. Would we be able to see anything?
We arrive on Wednesday before the Balloon Fiesta was to open. We drove down from Santa Fe early in the morning. We drove by the balloon field headed for Flying J to fuel up. Then we headed back to the fiesta. We began to see signs on the freeway that said, “No parking!”…on the freeway???
We exited to follow the signs to the VIP RV parking. The signs directed us past the Balloon Museum to a small road that said Balloon Pilots Only. Down the road we went.
A few years prior, we attended the motor coach convention and were parked at the balloon fiesta park. When we arrived there, we had to register for the event. Standing in line, we only saw a few coaches. We asked the person at the desk where all the coaches were? They said, when you finish, walk over to the edge of the hill and look down.” We did and when we peered over the edge, there was 75 acres packed end to end with motor coaches. We were blown away then and so here we were a few years later at even a bigger event driving down the road to the RV area.
As we turned the corner we saw the staging area. We thought to ourselves, how long would the wait be? Well, no wait, no delays and no motor coaches. We were one of the first to arrive. How funny was that and it was the beginning of a great week full of major experiences and a world of fun.
We befriended the volunteers working the RV park registration and they helped us with the ropes. They told us when, where and how to go through our few days. That Friday, they told us that balloons would practice and take other for a ride. At $350 per person, we knew it was serious riding. So, we set the alarm for 4:30 and left the coach well before dawn. As we walked over the bridge from the RV area, we walked past the sponsor tents and saw our first glimpse of the field. Still dark, every lane was marked with a bright blue light spaced about 20 yards apart in every direction. Hundreds of blue lights were in front of us. It was magical.
We noticed balloons down the field at the other end. Seemed like just a few, but when we arrive there were more balloons than we had ever seen before. This was not a fiesta day, but a trial for the balloonists. Turned out to be a great education for us because we were able to strategize what we would do when the Fiesta opened.
Opening day came and we awoke and were on the field at 5:00a for what is called the “Dawn Patrol” event. Twelve handpicked balloons take off in total darkness to see how the winds are at different altitudes to report back to the other pilots.
Standing on the field in total darkness only lit be those blue lights, it was impossible to tell that there was 100,000 people on the field with us. Amazingly with all those people, it was almost silent as people waited for the first burners to fire.
A small weather balloon was released with a laser affixed to it so that the Dawn Patrol had an idea of the direction they would be traveling. Then suddenly burners were test fired. The darkness lit up with a dozen three story flames. These were the tests of just the burner and it was an awesome experience by itself. Then the baskets were hooked to their respective balloon and laid on their sides. Gas fired engines with small propellers inflated the envelopes. As they filled, these 100’ tall giants began to take shape. Then the burners fired hard to inflate the balloons. As they grew full, the basket was pulled upright and the crews struggled to hold the balloons on the ground.
The announcer, a twenty year veteran, had the Dawn Patrol fire their burners in a show that was amazing. Still dark, they fired hard again and lifted off. We cannot describe what it was like, so we are working on a video that we will add here when it is finished.
They lifted off and rose to different altitudes to change direction. This field is well-known in ballooning for what is called the Fiesta Box Wind. Lift off and go up 300’ and the balloon goes south. Go up another 300’ and the balloon goes north. Drop 100’ and it goes east. Looking up to the sky, balloons crossed back and forth for over an hour. All seemed so close you felt like you could reach up and touch them. As the sun rose, dawns early light greeted the Dawn Patrol.
The next thing we knew, it was dawn and balloon team after balloon team started to drive on to the field. A string of headlights poured into this 75 acre open field. It seemed like every square inch of the field was covered with baskets and balloons.
We had wondered how we would be able to see what was going on. We expected as these balloons showed up that they would clear the field so the balloons could inflate and fly off. To our surprise, there was no such order. Could it be true that we were going to be allowed to stand right here and watch. You bet! We talked to some experienced attendees and they confirmed that the balloons inflate around us and take off in a tight sequence.
The balloons assembled and like the dawn patrol, they fired their burners to test. Then the field filled with the sound of a thousand gas engines to inflate the balloons to a point where they could fire their burners again to fully inflate them prior to launch.
Row after row stood up and awaited the launch command.
Why we are able to stay on the field, stand next to the balloons as they lift off and why this event has a great safety record is because of a group called the Zebra’s. As the story goes, these launch directing team had a hard time getting the attention of the balloon pilots because there was so many people on the field. Even though they had police whistles, the pilots found it hard to see them on the field. So, someone had the idea to wear striped referee shirts. Well, things got a little out of hand and the zebra’s got their name because of the flamboyant added featured that they wear on their striped shirt uniform.
We heard that there were 550 balloons this year. Someone told us that the record a few years back was 1000. Today, some of the balloons could not be here because they had been held in China after some big event there. The New Jersey promoter that caused these balloons to be trapped in China was nowhere to be found. I wonder why. Drama at the Fiesta!
It was now 9:00a and we were exhausted. Overwhelmed exhaustion. Wendy has already shot 10 Gigabytes of video and Bob about 1500 still pictures.
We looked around and all the balloons were gone into the air. The skyline was dotted with balloons. As we walked back to the coach, other balloons sailed by us. The big pig looked as if it had landed on the Grizzly. It just looked that way, but these balloons were everywhere. Silent and beautiful.
By 10:00a we were back in bed catching a nap to regroup for the evening events.
Now around 5:00p, we headed back to the field for two major events. The first was the international gas balloon race and the other, a night glow of 550 balloons.
As we walked over the bridge we were greeted with eight white round balloons. The noise was deafening as helium gas was filled into each balloon. The winds were high and the balloons rocked back and forth. People hanging on as the pilots struggled with last minute preparation. The premise of this race is to see how far that they can go. Last year’s winner went as far as Madison Wisconsin before landing.
The balloons are supposed to lift of at 6:00p. Still on the ground at 6:00p we heard the announcement that the balloon glow was cancelled for the evening. The winds are too high. The plan was that all 550 balloons would have been erect at dusk. Then at the direction of a balloon choreographer, they would fire their burners causing their enveloped to glow. This was to be staged to music. We would have to wait.
Now 7:00p, we heard that the gas balloon race would be postponed or cancelled. We headed back to the coach, not disappointed, but glad to be part of everything we have experienced.
Sunday Morning October 4th 2009
Now veterans, we slept in a little later this morning. We walked on the field which was still dark. The blue lights lead us to where this morning’s Dawn Patrol would launch. The wind was quiet, but the balloons were not inflating. None of the usual activity was happening. We wonder what was going on, so we talked to a couple of pilots. They were clueless. As dawn broke, we saw why they did not lift off. The wind was light, but the skies were turbulent. We could see wind shears and all sorts of nasty looking clouds.
As day started to break, we decided to walk over to see the Bees. This pair of balloons stays together holding hands through launch only to separate later in mid-air. Waiting to see what would happen, we talked to the pilots and owner of the Bees. We noticed that they are a marketing company, so we exchanged cards. Maybe next year Keys will have a balloon. Seems like a good thing to sponsor. Can you imagine????
Now about 9:00a, it was apparent that the skies were clearing. We decided to make the trek up the big hill so we could get some long shots of the launch. Early as balloons began to lift off the weather an light were not so good. Then the sun cleared Sandia Peak and illuminated the balloons in the air. This was a great vantage point that offered new perspectives of this great event.
Back to the coach and another nap, we awoke to the coach being buffeted by high winds. We had never felt this kind of movement since taking delivery of the Grizzly. We have been in 30+mph crosswinds and this was worse. We were happy we were parked. Looking out the front window, there was a dust storm in front of us and all around us. We knew that they evening events were not going to happen and that our first balloon fiesta was over. Tomorrow we were to head for Las Cruces New Mexico.
Again, we were not disappointed, but felt privileged to what we had been able to see.
We will be back!
Click Here to visit our Gallery to see larger and more images of the Fiesta
Ranger Wendy and Smokey
Inflation Art Balloon
Update: Bob & Wendy on NBC…pics that is.
We were contacted by a news anchor from the NBC allifiate asking to air some of our pictures. Subsequently, we were contacted by the Balloon Fiesta as a candidate for next years poster art….film at 11 😉