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!

New Mexico!

Well, it’s finally time to get to what you’ve been waiting for: New Mexico!  This post won’t be long compared to what’s coming, so I hope as I start publishing Balloon Fiesta pics you make sure you’re in a comfy chair.  I took A LOT of pictures, and culling them down to a reasonable amount to publish is not easy.

First things first, though: we have to get there.  We left Amarillo and were able to join up at a rest stop with Randy and Mary F, Orin and Linda S, and Chris and Dee C.  We made quite the convoy!  Except I broke ranks as I wanted to get fuel at a truck stop that I have a fleet card for.  So, I kinda took off from everyone.  All for naught, as when I got there the truck stop was backed up 3-4 deep per lane.  I abandoned that idea and moved on.

One thing to know is that we were told that parking for the Balloon Fiesta would be first come first served.  We wanted to be in a group, so we wanted to arrive together.  Therefore, we (the 14 total rigs that were coming) decided to all stay at the same RV park the night prior to our allowed entry to the Balloon Fiesta.  So, on Wednesday, September 29th, we were meeting at the Route 66 RV park in Edgewood, NM.

There were already a few there when I arrived.  The RV park itself was ok; all gravel, and sloped though there was some effort to level each site.  It was convenient from I-40 and had room for all of us, so high marks for that.  It was so great pulling in and seeing a bunch of people that I knew!

Once everyone had arrived and set up, we had a brief meeting that evening to discuss the plan.  One of the guys, Doc, had made signs for our group which was required by Fantasy RV to identify us as RVs belonging to them and that we were in a group.  John R. had come up with our group name after some input (I suggested the Donner party but not everyone understood the reference).  John suggested the Ba-loonies, which was universally applauded.  The weather forecast was for rain the next day.  Edgewood is only about 30 miles from our destination, so we agreed to all leave around 8:00 and hopefully be there just as they were opening the park to traffic.  Before I left though, I had a task: adding New Mexico to my map!

Driving in the next morning was fairly easy.  There was off and on rain and traffic at times was bad, but for the most part people were able to stay somewhat together.   We were headed for the AIBF RV South Lot, which is used just once a year.  AIBF of course stands for Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which is quite a mouthful.  The south lot has no electricity, but Fantasy provides a huge generator for it’s group so we could have 30 amp service.  There were some water faucets scattered about and there was a sewer pump out service provided half way through our stay. 

I was the fourth in line of our group.  The problems started when we got to the south lot, turned in and were waved down a long road.  However, they didn’t seem to know what to do with us and we ended up sitting on the dirt road for nearly an hour while the Fantasy people tried to figure out the issue.  The next sign of trouble came as we were finally moved closer to our parking sites: I was asked how long my fifth wheel was, and truthfully answered 34 feet.  Well, this got me pulled out of the line as they decided to put me in with shorter rigs such that my RV faced the main road.  This decision ultimately led to major issues later, but we’ll get to that eventually.

The main Fantasy tent was on a bit of a rise; I was parked down the small hill and as it turns out I was at the nadir of the slope.  This is also important to remember shortly.  I had help backing into my spot; this was made easier by the fact that no RVs were across the road, so the Fantasy guys just took down the barrier and had me drive over it.  My site was fairly level side to side; I got unhooked and then realized I had no real place to park Rory.  I was next to John and Doris K on one side and Larry and Janet M. on the other; with a lot of discussion (and I mean a lot) we finally got everyone parked so that we weren’t in the road. 

This is how I had to park for the entire Fiesta: in front of John and Doris’ RV.  See the little white lines on the dirt?  Those were the markings that separated the RV sites from the “road”.  You had to be behind them. 

That evening, we had a welcome dinner and some Marimba entertainment.  I had spent the latter part of the night before working on a banner for us.  I brought my Cricut and a bunch of vinyl, so I brought the finished banner to the dinner and had everyone in our group sign it.  Some of the taller guys then helped me hang it up behind us.  I’m not sure the Fantasy people knew what they were getting when all of us Ba-loonies signed up, but we did have fun!

You might notice in the pics of dinner that the tent sides are down and people have coats.  That’s because it was raining and chilly!   And after being up at the tent for several hours (pre dinner drinks, then dinner, then entertainment and chatting) I discovered when I returned to my RV that not only had parking Rory been a challenge, but there was a growing lake beneath my rig!  It was very fortunate I had put out my portable steps, which reach out further than my regular ones.  Otherwise I’d have gotten wet feet trying to get inside!  I had no idea I would have a waterfront site!

Water reaches just up to my landing pads when I returned from dinner.  My electric cord was submerged and there was no way to reach my utilities which are on that side of the RV
My portable steps came out far enough I could step over to them without getting wet.  The poor broom was not happy.

Unfortunately, it rained throughout the night.  I laid awake listening to it drumming on my roof and wondered what Lake Weist would look like in the morning.  Now, we had arrived on a Thursday; the Balloon Fiesta didn’t kick off until Saturday.  Fantasy had arranged for buses on Friday morning to take us to Old Town, which has some nice shopping and dining areas.  I got ready to go, as the weather was supposed to clear that afternoon.  Then, I looked out my door.


Lake Weist had grown significantly.  So much that one of the Fantasy crew members had brought a stool for me to step onto in order to get past the lake.  They eventually called in a pump truck to suck it down. 

I headed off on the bus; once we arrived, my first stop was to visit the church, San Felipe de Neri, which was built in 1706.  It was open to the public and very interesting to see.  I then wandered around some shops and a few art galleries.  It’s obvious that COVID has severely impacted businesses in the area; many restaurants are closed and some shops weren’t open.  But it also seemed they were eager to welcome back tourists.  The only unfortunate experience I had was at a gallery; I really liked some art photography printed on metal and was trying to decide which to buy, but couldn’t find a single person who wanted to help me.  It was busy, so I left.  I later went back after eating a nice lunch with Janet and Larry M.  However, though it was much less busy, no one in the gallery deigned to help me again.  It was very annoying and they lost my business after I patiently waited over 20 minutes for someone to acknowledge me.  Not a single worker ever said a word to me.  Their loss.

I ended the afternoon enjoying some mariachi music from the small bandstand across from the church.  Then I hopped on the bus back to the RV lot and felt it was a day well spent (and my credit card thought so too!).

We were fed dinner again that night.  And while my site was very, very muddy, Lake Weist was much reduced on my return.  All in all it was a great day, but the very best would start the next morning, with the kickoff of the Balloon Fiesta.  Hope you’re ready to see some pics!!!!

Chis and Dee C. and Jerry and Wendy H. enjoying the evening with me.

Day Fifty: Homer to Anchorage

Moving day.  We were heading to Anchorage, which meant driving back up the same route we’d come down.  Fire haze, smoky smell and overcast skies.  We were one of the last rigs to head out from Homer.  I took this picture after several had already left.  I knew I’d miss this park and the views quite a lot.

Sayanora, Homer.

Our destination was an RV park in Anchorage called the Golden Nugget RV park. Amanda, Jeff, and Jackie had already arrived in Wasilla, which is a northern suburb of Anchorage. The drive north from Homer was hazy, but uneventful. I did stop briefly at the Fred Meyer in Soldotna. Grabbed some lunch stuff and drinks. We basically retraced the route down to back to the junction that either goes south to Seward or north to Anchorage. Back around the Turnagain Arm and finally got close to Anchorage.

While there are no true interstates in Alaska–obviously–the roads approaching Anchorage widen out and there can be quite a bit of traffic. It is a very easy town to navigate, and I really didn’t have any trouble finding my way to the park.

I will say that the Golden Nugget was a tight squeeze for many. I suppose any urban location for an RV park is going to be a bit tight. The Bulls surprised me by showing up as I was being directed into my site. I did the basics to unhook, then jumped in their rental SUV and we headed off to dinner. Now, this was a Sunday evening and not a ton was open. We ended up eating at a Qdoba off the Seward Highway. That was it for day Fifty. The Bulls headed back to Wasilla and I went to bed. We were staying in Anchorage for one more night, and I was planning to take advantage of the day and go down to the Turnagain Arm area to see if I could get some good pictures. It’s really quite a neat area. So, just the one pic above for Day Fifty, but I should make up for that with the next update.

And, just as a preview, our next stop after Anchorage is Denali!!!!

A Bad Day RVing: Comes With the Territory

I mentioned yesterday that I had to leave Charlestown and head west to the Evansville area.  Eville doesn’t have a lot of options for camping, but I discovered a county park in Boonville (yes, Boonville) called Scales Lake a few years ago.  It has a campground with pull throughs and back in spots, and full hookups.  It’s a bit of an RV parking lot, as the sites are pretty tight, almost all just gravel with varying degrees of level to them, and in the summer its packed with families enjoying the lake, which has a nice beach and swim area.  I’ve stayed here 4 or 5 times now, and while it’s about 30 minutes from Deaconess, it’s an easy drive and I get to continue camping! Continue reading “A Bad Day RVing: Comes With the Territory”