You may or may not know this, but Albuquerque has been the home of the largest hot air balloon festival on the planet for the past 42 years. Always held the first full week of October, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta attracts balloonists from all over the world. In its heyday, there were over 1,000 balloons participating in the event. Due to space and safety considerations, there are now only about 550 to 600 balloons involved each year. (Still several times bigger than any other balloon event in the world.) From about 1985 until 2000, I worked on one of several crews responsible for setting up, chasing, and putting away the balloons. I've worked on everything from small traditional balloons (called sport balloons) to huge special shape balloons. (Like a 200' long tennis shoe, or an 11 story tall bald eagle.) Had I not left New Mexico in 1991, I was next in line with the outfit I was with to be trained as a pilot. Even after I moved to California, I would take a week off work every year to go crew on balloons. That all ended when I broke my back in 2001. Crew work is physical, and can be potentially jarring -- not a good combination with the hardware I have in my back nowadays.
Until this past weekend, I'd not been back to the Balloon Fiesta since 2000. Now that I'm back in Albuquerque, I wasn't gonna miss it this year. I went to the event Saturday morning, but the traditional Mass Ascension was canceled due to high winds. They did end up having the Mass Ascension on Sunday morning, but I slept in and missed it. (Didn't feel like getting up at 4:00 AM for the second day in a row.) I had the day off Monday for Columbus Day, so I went out to the field -- for the first time as a spectator since the early 1980s. There were only about 150 - 200 balloons flying Monday, but it was still cool, and I got a chance to snap a few photos along the way.
Here you go, in no particular order...
A pre-dawn shot of the music stage from backstage:
First light as the sun peeks over the mountain. This is about 10% of the crowd that'd be there on a weekend:
(Click here for a higher-res version.)
This is a shot of the nylon tarp one crew uses to lay their balloon out on. It's about 250' x 200'. The balloon is a huge cartoon cow that is the biggest balloon at the event this year. I've worked on a similarly-sized balloon (with a tarp about the same size) quite a bit.
(Click here for a higher-res version.)
This is a poor shot, but underneath the sitting people you can see a large nylon bag holding the cow balloon. The envelope (the nylon part of the balloon) probably weighs between 800 and 1,000 pounds:
By comparison, here's a typical sport balloon, which probably weighs about 150 to 200 pounds:
And one shot of the cow balloon being spread out on the tarp before inflation. The people in the pic give a bit of sense of scale:
OK, enough crew stuff, here are a few balloons...
The first balloon off the ground:
"Sushi", the fish balloon:
The cow balloon never made it off the ground (it can't fly unless the conditions are perfect), but I did get a shot of it mostly inflated:
The Jester, partly inflated:
The fire below the Firefighter:
Just a pretty sport balloon:
An Ice Cream Cone:
I helped write the original proposal to the US Forest Service to get them to sponsor the Smoky Bear balloon. I don't know if they're still sponsoring it or not, and this is not the original envelope. (They deteriorate after a certain number of hours of flight.)
A bunch o' balloons, including Smoky Bear.
This is probably about 1/3 of the balloons that were in the air Monday. The Mass Ascensions on the weekends are a lot busier...about 3 times as many:
And probably my favorite of the day, Darth Vader:
Weather permitting, I'll be back to the event one or both days next weekend, so I might end up with a few more pics. When I was crewing, I seldom got a chance to take photos and digital cameras were just becoming affordable back then. You could burn through a lot of film back in those days. In fact, Kodak called it the most photographed event in the world every year, back in the days when they sold film.