Freelance Writer & Editor
By Susan Ladika | High Over Albuquerque | 09-27-2008 | The Vancouver Sun
Gliding over the sere New Mexico landscape, ochre-coloured desert melding with ochre-coloured houses, I envision the first hot-air balloon flight more than two centuries ago. It must have been an otherworldly sight -- a rooster, duck and sheep lifting off in front of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and soaring over the streets of Paris.
It's a far cry from today, when a woman puttering in her back yard pauses to wave at the gaggle of brightly coloured balloons swooping over her Albuquerque home.
For our group, it's a sneak peek ahead of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, when hundreds of hot-air balloons of all shapes and sizes will fill the skies from Oct. 4 to Oct. 12. Try to imagine a balloon with all the colours of the rainbow lifting off next to two yellow-and-black-striped honeybees rising in tandem, next to the menacing helmet of Darth Vader. It's a spectacle that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to Balloon Fiesta Park each year.
On this chilly spring morning of our flight, passengers gather on the barren lots of an undeveloped subdivision, waiting to learn if the winds are calm enough for us to ascend. Yesterday our flights were cancelled because of brisk breezes.
This morning we get the green light, so the groups scatter around the five massive balloon envelopes spread out on the ground. The burner is turned on, and a fan blows hot air into the envelope, which slowly rises from the ground as it fills.
Our group scrambles into a gondola manned by Mike Collins, senior pilot for Rainbow Ryders -- the only hot-air balloon company allowed to take visitors on flights during the Balloon Fiesta.
As the heat from the burner fills the envelope, we slowly rise from the ground, joining the other rainbow-hued balloons already in the air. Floating on the wind currents, we cross over highways and homes, swimming pools and schools. Dogs bark ferociously as we pass overhead, and in one yard a rabbit skitters to safety.
The pilots steer us over the still-brown trees and brush along the banks of the Rio Grande River, skimming over treetops and setting marsh birds and Canada geese to flight. One pilot briefly dips the bottom of the gondola basket into the river's waters, and droplets pour down as the balloon then ascends again.
In the distance we see the ancient volcanoes of Petroglyph National Monument, where we had walked the day before.
Eventually the pilots begin scouting for a place to land, and we touch down in a vacant field, where chase crews from Rainbow Ryders help us disembark.
Albuquerque's roots as a haven for hot-air ballooning stretch back more than a century, when a local barkeep launched a balloon from the center of town, soaring up to 4,300 metres before touching down several kilometres away.
But ballooning didn't move into the mainstream until 1972, when the city's first festival showcased 13 hot-air balloons. These days it draws more than 700.
With ballooning, weather is key, and the city is known for the "Albuquerque Box," where the wind blows north at one elevation and south at another, allowing pilots to launch their balloons, fly, then turn around and touch down near the launch site.
More than 300 balloonists live in Albuquerque -- topping any other state -- and the first flights across both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans had New Mexicans as key team members. Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson -- for whom the local balloon museum is named -- were part of the first team to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, crossing the water in the Double Eagle II gas balloon in 1978. The pair was then part of a team that crossed the Pacific in Double Eagle V just three years later.
The history of hot-air ballooning is on vivid display at the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, which opened in 2005.
One exhibit spotlights that gravity-defying feat of 1783, when the rooster, duck and sheep were sent aloft. The first manned flight came just two months later.
Since those early years, hot-air balloons have been used not only for adventure and pleasure, but also in times of war. Balloons were used to get information out of the city during the siege of Paris in the 1870s, and for observing the enemy during the Civil War.
And museum curator of collections Marilee Schmit Nason shares a fact that perhaps few know. Japan launched thousands of incendiary balloons, known as the Fu-Go, at North America during the Second World War. The balloon bombs, which floated across the Pacific Ocean, were designed to wreak havoc in the United States and Canada. About 1,000 were estimated to have reached U.S. shores, but they landed in winter in places like Washington, Oregon and B.C., and most simply fizzled out.
Other exhibits spotlight death-defying feats, such as U.S. Air Force Col. Joseph Kittinger's jump out of the Excelsior III at 102,800 feet, free falling for four-and-a-half minutes before opening his parachute.
There's also Kittinger's balloon, Rosie O'Grady, used for the first solo Atlantic flight, and the Double Eagle V, which Anderson, Abruzzo and others used to cross the Pacific.
During the Balloon Fiesta, there's also plenty happening outside the museum's doors including a chainsaw carving championship, with artists transforming pieces of wood into astounding sculptures. Two nights are capped off with concerts -- one this year featuring country star Josh Gracin, and the other 1950s rock 'n' rollers, the Coasters.
But the balloons are the main attraction. Each morning, they ascend en masse, and competitions are held throughout the festival, such as balloon races and tests of ballooning skills. As night descends, there are balloon glows, with all the tethered balloons illuminated against the dark, and fireworks to cap off the daily events.
And of course there's always the chance to be part of the sea of balloons sailing through Albuquerque's crisp blue skies, waving at the tens of thousands of spectators gathered below.