And We Begin: AIBF Opening Day

This is going to be a big post. I’ve got a lot of pictures and a lot of stuff I learned about hot air balloons to drop on you. So I hope you get comfy in your chair and join me on a cold Saturday morning in Albuquerque. Being there was incredible. There are no pictures, videos, or words that can recreate what I experienced. If there is ever any chance of you attending in person, I highly, highly recommend it. It is always held the first week of October.

First, why is there an enormous balloon fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico? Great question. It turns out it’s due to a weather phenomenon called the Albuquerque Box. Basically, during Box conditions, the winds nearest the ground are blowing north to south. But the winds at higher levels are blowing south to north. With a good Box going, you can launch your balloon, fly south for some time, then add enough hot air to the envelope to rise up and catch the winds back to where you started! This phenomenon became known amongst hot air balloonists and in 1972 thirteen of them gathered and launched from a mall parking lot as the inaugural Balloon Fiesta. The event grew and grew, with over 1,000 balloons participating in 2000. However, Albuquerque has grown as well and the landing zones are now much more limited; therefore they have to limit how many balloons come and the size of them. There was no Balloon Fiesta last year due to COVID, so for 2021 they had around 550 registered balloons for the Fiesta.

With the tremendous growth in popularity, AIBF now launches from a 365 acre park dedicated to it. There is a museum about hot air ballooning on the south end of the field. The launch field itself is 78 acres, or the size of 54 football fields.

For a hot air balloon, flight conditions are best in the early morning and early evening hours. At AIBF, the opening day was scheduled to have a mass ascension and then later in the afternoon the launching of long distance flying balloons, which use cold gas (hydrogen) to fly. They were participating in a race called America’s Challenge. This would be the only evening when balloons would launch; otherwise the evenings would feature balloon glows where the balloons stay tethered to the ground but light up with propane.

Day one was scheduled to have a dawn patrol at 6:30 and then the mass ascension start at 7, weather conditions permitting. It was about a mile walk to the gates from our RV sites, but there was also a shuttle service consisting of school buses available. They started running at 4 am. I was on one at that time and ended up being one of only two passengers. However, as we got near the park entrance, the line of cars trying to get in at 4 am was impressive.

I took only my camera and a lawn chair. It was cold, so I was in layers. I did not bring a bag as they have to be searched and I didn’t want to be delayed. That turned out to be a moot point, as the lines were moving fairly well at such an early hour. But make no mistake, there were lots of people coming in. As it turned out, I ran into 2 of my fellow Baloonies right after I entered, Dave and his brother Dan. They joined me as we walked past myriad vendor booths and threaded through the crowd to the launch field.

Slogging through the long, wet grass made me wish I had warmer socks or less leaky tennis shoes. One really unique and cool thing about AIBF is that the public has free access to the entire thing. When I picked a place to put my chair, it was near other people and maybe 50 yards into the launch field away from the vendors. It was still full dark and it was really hard to figure out where to go.

Turns out you can go anywhere. The park launch field is gridded with letters and numbers; pilots are told what part of the grid they’re assigned to that day, then they drive their vehicle/trailer to that area, unload and get set up. As a member of the public I can be right up in there with them; the crew will ask you not to step on the envelope of the balloon as they spread it out, but there are few other restrictions. You’re not allowed to bring animals onto the field and no smoking (there is a ton of propane around after all). Sadly, on Saturday some jackhole took advantage of the free access and sliced about 4 balloon envelopes with a knife as they were being inflated. I have no idea what motivates someone to do something like that.

Since I was there so early, it was nice to sit and talk to Dan and Dave whilst we waited for things to get started. The hours until Dawn Patrol finally passed and activity on the launch field really picked up. Dawn Patrol is basically a handful of balloons that are equipped with some special lights which allows them to fly prior to sunrise. It’s an FAA requirement. It was still quite dark out, but the glow of them inflating and slowly lifting off was awesome. The other pilots get valuable information about wind conditions, etc from the Dawn Patrol balloons, so they serve a special service.

It was a little past 6:30 when they got started. I didn’t know it then, but it turned out there was no Box going on this first day; we were very fortunate to have Box conditions on most of the other days, however. You can see the special lights for Dawn Patrol hanging off the baskets. Other balloons launched during daylight won’t have/need these.

Aren’t they beautiful? There is a reason that AIBF is known to be the most photographed event in the world! My camera and SD cards can attest to that fact! I have a ton of pics where I missed them using gas and they are therefore very dark in the sky. But sometimes they would fire off together and I was able to shoot them lit up like jewels in the sky. Below is a closer view of the lights trailing off the basket.

Dawn Patrol balloons
You can see the Dawn Patrol flying off to the south. The sky is starting to lighten as well.

Now, I had the great privilege to be sitting right next to a balloon launch site. And, it turned out later, the pilot of the balloon I was sitting next to runs a school training other pilots. He came and gave us a talk and demonstration up at the Fantasy tent during an early afternoon. It was really interesting and I learned a lot. As I was watching the Dawn Patrol get going, he and his crew were busy getting stuff for their launch ready.

After the Dawn Patrol had flown off, it was time for things to really get going. Each morning, a balloon or two was selected to carry the flag while the anthem was played. Since this was the Grand Opening and all, we had a special flyover and once the anthem ended, all the balloonists on the field opened up their fuel jets and hundreds of flames roaring out over the field was an incredible sight!

After the anthem, Mass Ascension began. This is done is waves; you can’t launch 500 balloons at once. But you can see below balloons are beginning to be inflated and a few are taking to the air. The ride balloons are in this wave as well. AIBF has a concessionaire, a company called Rainbow Ryders, who are the only ones allowed to sell hot air balloon rides launched from the park. These balloons are allowed to be much bigger than the 105k cf envelopes that everyone else is limited to. This is so they can carry huge gondolas (baskets) with paying customers ($500/person). None of the other pilots are allowed to sell rides. However, if you work as crew with a balloonist you may be able to get a ride that way. More on that in a later post.

See how big the gondola (basket) is on this Rainbow Ryder balloon? They can carry over 15 passengers and pilot.

In the meantime, the balloonist next to me was getting everything ready.

After his crew got the basket out and the burners attached to it, they brought out the envelope. The blanket/tarp on the ground is where he’ll kneel when it’s time to inflate with hot air. They spread out the envelope over the ground in front of me as balloons surrounding us were in various stages of readiness.

Once the envelope is fully spread out on the ground, the basket and burners are tipped sideways in preparation of hot inflation. But, the next step is to use a huge fan for what is called cold inflation. This fan gets air into the envelope and opens it up so that the envelope is partially filled. That way the hot gases fired from the burner won’t burn the sides.

Giant fan put in front of basket (and behind orange cone in this photo) for cold inflation.

As the balloon in front of me filled, my view of the field became very constricted; balloons are huge. But it made for some interesting shots juxtaposing balloons still on the ground and those already flying. Also, it’s important to note not all balloons are round or egg shaped. We had some character balloons there too! Not far from me, a very huge cow, named Arabella, was inflating. She was immense!

Once cold inflation had opened the balloon up enough, the pilot started adding hot air. This really filled out the envelope and eventually got it into an upright position.

Do you see the dude in the picture above with a zebra striped jacket on? This is one of the launch officials. They are actually called Zebras and some of them fully embrace that name. They are responsible for telling pilots when they can launch, etc. It’s a fairly complex process getting everyone into the air without incident, but they seem to have a very good system for doing so. The balloon next to me was nearly ready to go, so there were Zebras in the area directing the timing of the launch. In the meantime, there were a ton more balloons in the air or nearly there.

My balloon is ready to go!

And then he was suddenly flying.

As they cleared my ground vision, suddenly a ton of balloons I couldn’t see before were visible. Man, it was just breathtaking.

The Jedi master himself

Amongst the spectacle, I spotted the balloon below. If you look closely at the pic, you’ll realize this crazy dude doesn’t even have a basket. He’s just sitting on some kind of chair with the fuel strapped to his backside. I was quite shocked at this.

These blue balloons seemed to be pretty identical. I’m not sure what the story is there. But the envelopes were touching; this is ok. A basket, with potentially sharp edges, touching an envelope is bad, but envelope to envelope is fine per our discussion with the pilot.

Arabella, the cow, was finally ready to take off. She looked very happy to be in the air!

And then I spied another cool character balloon!

I tried to get interesting shots. I mean, it’s hard to not get amazing photos out of an event like this, but I hope you guys are totally bored of seeing yet more balloons. There were so many different colors and patterns that I would have a hard time narrowing them down anymore.

I really liked trying to get shots of them using flames. I think they look cool. But maybe that’s just me.

This red, white, and blue balloon had silver metallic stars that sparkled in the sunlight. Loved it.

And then I spied my very favorite balloon! Flip. Flops. What a colorful, fun statement. Just absolutely loved this balloon.

That was my morning!! I’ll be honest: I schlepped back to the RV and had a nap attack. I didn’t end up going to that evening’s session. We were fed again (Fantasy takes very good care of you on their trips) and I did some hanging out with people. I decided not to get up at 3am again for Sunday’s sessions. You’ll see why on the next post!

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