We arrived in Albuquerque in late afternoon and received a warm welcome from Gentry and her family. There was not much time for hanging out. We had a full schedule. Shortly after our arrival, we all headed out to register for the Balloon Fiesta, the world’s largest hot air balloon venue. Because of our blog and website history, Gentry suggested that we apply for Fiesta media credentials and amazingly, we received them.
The media tent was bustling when we registered and received our passes for free entry and parking throughout the nine days of the fiesta and were even offered dinner and drinks. We were psyched to say the least. We checked out the schedule of events and planned our days. We didn’t want to miss a thing.
All Fogged In?
When the alarm sounded at 0330 the next morning, it took a bit of discipline to wake ourselves up. We drove to the Fiesta Park with Gentry’s husband, Eric and our niece, Jada. We left the house by 0415 and endured 1-1/2 hours of stop-n-go traffic getting to the Fiesta. Once parked, the lines for Security and ticket validation were long as well. It was near 0600 when we finally reached the Media Tent and slurped down our first coffee of the day. Once revived, we signed up for a balloon ride. Only one person per organization and David signed me up.
From an adjacent observation deck, we could see the first balloons inflating. A ‘green flag’ was hoisted to indicate the mass ascension was a ‘go’. The earliest ascenders are called Dawn Patrol and a few balloons volunteer to ascend and check out the winds aloft, reporting to the officials below. The morning glow of balloons was delightful and when I heard my name called over the PA system, I was thrilled to know I’d be going up today.
I signed the waivers (there’s an outside chance you could die because ballooning is considered somewhat dangerous, but please don’t hold us responsible. Who is your next of kin?) and a runner walked us to my intended ride … a special shape balloon called ‘When Pigs Fly’. The pilot, Doug Gantt, immediately introduced himself and invited me inside the basket.
The weather turned while we were waiting. A misty fog creeped in and settled on the field. Within minutes, the mass ascension was canceled. Instead, a static display with many balloons inflated, but tethered instead of ascending. The Pig did not even inflate and disappointed, I climbed from the basket and headed out among the inflated balloons. Could I get a raincheck for a ride another day? Nobody knew.
Not much else was going on and by early afternoon, we headed back to the house, somewhat let down, but still looking forward to tomorrow.
Up, Up and Away
Another early wake-up alarm. We we were up, dressed and out of the house by 0355. Blue sailed along the route, no traffic and easy parking. There were no lines at security nor at ticket validation. The media tent was bustling as I signed up for a balloon ride and stated my case for another chance since my previous ride was canceled. “We’ll see what we can do” was the best I got in response.
We sat down for a coffee and checked out the day’s schedule. A Japanese couple sat down shortly after and began chatting. The Otakas had been coming from Tokyo to the Balloon Fiesta since 1992. Interestingly, a newspaper article appeared that same day with a photo of Akira Otaka and his history of taking photos at the Fiesta.
We also met Sharon Chischilly, a photo-journalism sophomore at UNM, here on assignment. When the announcement was made for balloon rides, I was thrilled when I found out I would be flying and Sharon would be flying, too, in the same balloon… Whirlaway. We completed our waivers and hustled out to the balloons. The mass ascensions are completed in two waves and our launch was in the first wave. There was no time to dawdle.
Jim Lynch was our pilot, but it was his wife, Nancy, who seemed to be coordinating everything. We completed more paperwork with her and then she whisked us through the crowd where the inflation was completed. Linehandlers tethered the balloon firmly as we climbed inside the basket. Jim’s daughter-in-law, Tiffany, was also flying with us. It was a crowded basket.
Zebras (launch director officals) stepped into view, cleared the area and gave the okay for launch. Jim ignited the burners and we were up, up and away. The crowds cheered as we lifted off. We waved and then we were floating in the air with hundreds of other balloons in close proximity. I happily snapped photos from our bird’s eye perspective. What a rush!
We were up for maybe a total of 15-20 minutes and landed softly and safely in a field a few miles from the Fiesta Park. The chase crew was nearby and steadied the basket as we landed. Sharon & I climbed out first and the crew slowly inched the balloon to a safe spot for deflating the envelope. Jim pulled the “red line” which opened a vent at the top of the envelope, letting all the air out. Crew held lines securely to keep the envelope in place until it was completed deflated. We all helped to tidy and then fold the envelope and stow it in the basket which was then loaded onto Jim’s waiting truck.
We all signed the numbered banner on the basket, then climbed into the very crowded truck and headed back to the Fiesta Field for a celebratory champagne drink and a tailgate party. It was Sharon and Tiffany’s first balloon flight and a ‘newbie’ ritual was performed which included a champagne dousing. I was glad I’d flown before.
The rest of the day flew by in a blur. Though we spent the entire day at Fiesta Park and enjoyed several other activities, I was still high from the flight.
We plan to return for next weekend’s final balloon extravaganza and in the meantime, we’ll be heading north to Bandelier National Monument and Santa Fe. So join us… there’s lots more to come in this Great & Fabulous 70th Birthday Tour. We’re just getting started!