The 48th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta got off to a slow start on Saturday in New Mexico. While inflated balloons strained at their tethers, deflated pilots studied weather reports, hoping for a break in the low clouds and mist that kept all but a few intrepid balloonists grounded.
Joe August, a 59-year-old balloon pilot, said this was his 40th time attending. He lamented the bad weather and said it was unusual. “So we were limited and had to keep the balloons on the ground today because the fog was pretty dense,” he said.
But frustrated balloonists and fiesta visitors were rewarded for their patience. God provided beautiful weather on Sunday. Veteran balloonists and young pilots thrilled viewers with a spectacular mass ascent of hundreds of balloons of myriad colors and shapes.
Elijah Sanchez is one of those young pilots. He has witnessed this choreographed balloon ballet for years. The Albuquerque local grew up in what many consider the ballooning capital of the world. Once a young, wide-eyed spectator, then a teenage crew member, Sanchez is now a licensed balloon pilot.
At age 20, he was among the youngest to launch when the fiesta kicked off this weekend with its first mass ascension.
More than 580 pilots and their teams were registered for the event, representing 41 U.S. states and 17 countries. Organizers expect several hundred thousand visitors over the course of the nine-day event.
“Being up in the air is just the most amazing feeling,” Sanchez says. “It’s a different experience every single time. It’s just amazing seeing the beautiful scenery all around as the Sun is coming up.”
The wind patterns over Albuquerque create what pilots refer to as a box. The wind direction changes with altitude, meaning pilots can head toward the open desert beyond the Rio Grande and then circle back toward the Sandia Mountains and the launch field, literally riding on air currents. Passengers onboard get an unparalleled view. But it just may be as spectacular from the ground, where throngs of spectators surround and are surrounded by the vibrant balloons as they lift off in waves.
From the balloons swaying directly overhead to those floating 1,000 feet in the air, the spray of colors is glorious.
During the event, a team of referees directs traffic on the launch field. They blow sharp whistles to let pilots know when it’s time to go or to warn spectators to clear a path.
This year’s festival hosts more than 100 differently shaped balloons, including a family of giant bumble bees, Darth Vader, outlaw Billy the Kid, and a massive spotted cow.
Albuquerque has hosted the fiesta since its humble inception in 1972. It has grown from a gathering of only 13 balloons to a major production that infuses tens of millions of dollars into the New Mexico economy.
(Elijah Sanchez starts a fan, inflating a hot air balloon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)