I’ll try to recap the final three days of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta without being too repetitive. Rather than a blow-by-blow account, I’ll hit the highlights of days seven, eight and nine.
Day seven, Friday, was full of highlights for me. As we prepared the Hearts A’Fire hot air balloon for flight, our pilot, Brad Rice, called out to me. He was standing by the inflator and I thought I was about to have a new job running the inflator fan. As I approached, his wife Jessica came over and handed me a waiver and a pen to sign it. I was going up in the balloon! Brad had decided to pass on the day’s competitive event and take me up in the balloon.
I went about my usual tasks making the balloon ready. The difference this time was once the balloon was fully inflated, I climbed into the basket. I was joined by another passenger, Tia – a childhood friend of Jessica. It was surreal as Brad heated the envelope which added tension to the lines and raised the basket a few inches off the ground. The crew (which included Donna) walked the basket to our designated launch spot and Brad gave the command “hands off” to the crew. With a blast from the burners we were airborne!
In the basket
Burner blazing to gain altitude
As we began to climb over the park, I had a new view of the happenings. The crowds around the balloons were larger than I thought. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is not only the largest hot air balloon event in the world, it’s also one of the few events that allow spectators on the field to mingle with the balloonists and crews. It’s like having a pit pass when you buy your ticket.
I saw many people around the launch areas
As we climbed higher, I could see there were tens of thousands people
We started out with a breeze from the north pushing us south over the park. From up high, I saw how many pilots and crews had RVs parked on the south end. I had no idea before.
RVs parked in the south lot behind the hospitality tents
We continued to climb as we passed over the RV lot on the south side of Alameda Boulevard. This is where the various Escapees groups were staying.
RV park – nice landing fields
The ideal situation is when the air flow over the field creates what they call “the box.” This happens when the lower level air moves from north to south with a wind shear at higher altitude moving from south to north. When this sets up, the pilots fly low and head south, then they gain altitude to come back north over the Balloon Park field. I was taking in the unbelievable panoramic views as we flew southwest.
View to the east
View southwest toward downtown
At higher altitude we came back north
We gained altitude and came back north, but the wind was fickle. We were moving northeast, then directly east. This took us over I-25 and over Sandia Indian Reservation land. I posted before about the trouble that comes when you land on reservation land.
Abandoned runway – old airport was deeded to the Indians
Brad was watching other balloons around us, but it was impossible to suss out the winds – we saw three balloons lined up and heading west just south of us. At the same time there were three more balloons a hundred yards south of them at the same altitude heading directly east!
Brad found an air current that carried us south. We were over our chase crew at the reservation border.
Our chase crew in the center of the photo – Indian land on the left
We hoped to put down on the dirt road bordering the Indian land. This plan was dashed when another balloon landed in front of us, blocking our path. Brad had no choice but to climb clear of them and head toward a residential area.
Coming down ahead of the chase crew
As we descended, we were moving in a northeasterly direction at about 7 knots. Brad was aiming for the last road in the development on the edge of reservation land. I saw a barbed-wire fence on the north side of the road and pointed it out to Brad. I’m sure he was already aware of it and calculating our best option. There was a small mound on the south side of the road. Brad opted to stop the basket on the south face of the mound.
With the ground rising before us, the basket stopped abruptly on contact. The seven knot wind blew the balloon over the mound, tipping us on the side of the basket. The crew quickly caught up with us and stabilized the basket. What a ride! My words and pictures can’t adequately describe it.
It’s important for passengers to remain in the basket until the pilot gives the okay to get out. The pilot monitors the air temperature in the envelope. It may be at a point of equilibrium with the payload. If passengers jump out of the basket too soon, the balloon will immediately rise again.
Once we were clear to get out of the basket, I was back to work as a crew member. Over the radio, we heard the day’s competition had been cancelled due to the increasingly variable winds. Brad made a good call to skip it and go out just for fun.
Out of the basket and guiding the deflating envelope
Starting to squeeze and strap the envelope
Envelope ready to pack
Back at the park, it was tailgate time.
Of course, I had to go through the first-timers initiation to the world of ballooning ceremony. I won’t reveal the details of the ceremony other than to say it involves champagne and fun! You’ll have to take a flight if you want to know more.
Brad performs the ceremony for Tia and me
After the ceremony, Brad and Jessica had one more surprise for me. They gifted me with an official embroidered Hearts A’Fire Crew polo shirt! Nice!
Saturday was a mass ascension day – there were no competitions on the schedule. The box set up perfectly with low level wind blowing balloons south and an upper wind taking them back north. After launching, we watched and waited near the RV park.
Mass ascension heading south out of the park
Brad made a full pass through the box, then landed the balloon on the west road of the RV park near Paul and Nina’s RV (Wheeling It). I expected him to land in the field in the center of the RV park, but a low level wind shift had him over the road. I made a mad dash to the road, then slowed to a jog to stay in front of the basket. A couple of other crew members were running behind it. As soon as it touched down we were hands on and adding our weight to the basket to stabilize it. The kids Brad had taken up were offloaded and a couple more kids climbed aboard and Brad went back up. This is known as a “hop.”
Balloons landing in the RV park
We made one more chase and Brad landed uneventfully in an open field.
On Saturday afternoon, Donna and I scootered over to the RV park and joined the Xscapers, a sub-group of Escapees, for their happy hour. We had a good time catching up with friends and discussing possibilities of hooking up again down the road.
Sunday was the final day. I have to say it was a fun-filled nine days, but I had all the fun I could stand at this point. Everyone was tired. We were lucky to come to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in a year where the balloons were able to fly every day. That doesn’t always happen. High winds or thunderstorms are two things that can cancel the day’s flight.
Sunday’s flight took the Hearts A’Fire hot air balloon northwest to the village of Corrales. Everyone seemed to come into the same area at the same time. The pilot next to us on the field ended up with his basket about ten feet to the left of us on landing. Balloons were raining out of the sky all around us. It was a crazy scene as I assisted three balloons touching down without crews in the area and another on our crew assisted five others. What a way to end the adventure!
We’ll pack up today and head out. I need to dump our tanks and take on fresh water after dry camping for 11 days. I’m not sure where we’ll end up tonight.
We’re already thinking about coming back again next year.