I don't know about you, but the first thing I asked myself was: Who in the heck are Anderson and Abruzzo? As it turns out, if you weren't born and raised in Albuquerque, that's a very interesting question. If you were, and you're over the age of 30, you probably think I'm a complete idiot for even asking the question in the first place.
See, back in 1978, two balloonists from Albuquerque, Maxie Anderson and Ben Abruzzo, along with their partner Larry Newman accomplished the first nonstop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by gas balloon. On Aug. 17 of that year, the trio landed in a wheat field near Miserey, France, ending a 3,100-mile flight that many others had attempted and failed.
Their helium-filled balloon, the Double Eagle II, carried a 15' by 7' by 4 1/2' gondola called The Spirit of Albuquerque. Composed of a twin-hulled catamaran, The Spirit of Albuquerque was designed to float like a boat if it landed in the ocean, an important point given that the Double Eagle I, also navigated by Anderson and Abruzzo, had failed the previous year to make the exact same crossing.
Anderson died in a ballon accident in Europe in 1983. Abruzzo died in an airplane accident in 1985. An Albuquerque museum to honor the history and craft of ballooning has been in the design process since Abruzzo's death. It is, of course, entirely appropriate that the new museum, whose grand opening this week coincides with the 2005 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, should be named after this pair of legendary Albuquerque balloonists.
I took a recent tour of the new facility, and I have to say that it looks like 12 million bucks, which is a good thing, because that's exactly how much it cost. Everything about the museum curves like the lines of an unspecially shaped hot air balloon. The outer walls, the landscaping and the über-symmetrical balloonish building itself present a pleasing aesthetic mix of contemporary architecture with hints of earthly Southwesternness. The building looks very comfortable on its site, as if a UFO had floated down from the heavens and its extraterrestrial pilots had decided to permanently call our city home.
The museum was designed by DCSW Architects, a firm also responsible for Downtown's Metro Courthouse, the South Broadway Cultural Center and the soon-to-be-built UNM Children's Hospital. The entry hall seems designed to recall the cathedralesque interior of an inflated balloon. It's an impressive piece of work.
The day I took a look around, there was still plenty of work to be done before opening day, but there's plenty of reason to believe its funders and supporters when they say this will be a one-of-a-kind international center on Albuquerque's favorite pastime.
Approximately half of the 60,000-square-foot space will be used for exhibits that dig into all things ballooning, including one of the finest collections of ballooning equipment and memorabilia in the world. Among these are French wicker baskets from the 1880s, a World War I observation balloon, Double Eagle V (the balloon that made the first trans-Pacific crossing in 1981), a couple stratospheric flight gondolas and lots more. Exhibits mark some of the truly extraordinary events in ballooning history.
"We've got a mannequin suspended from the ceiling representing Joseph Kittinger," says Marilee Schmit Nason, the museum's curator of collections. "This guy jumped from 103,000 feet from a balloon, dropping several minutes before finally opening his parachute. His record still stands today for the highest parachute jump."
The museum is also designed to explore the scientific uses of balloons. "Our collection includes a giant metal orb gondola called Stratolab, a stratospheric balloon," says Nason. "The gondola had a telescope on top to do studies of the atmosphere of Venus. It was also used to test equipment for NASA, including the Gemini spacesuit."
The facility also houses exhibits and artifacts exploring ballooning's military applications, some of which are pretty bizarre. "We've got one of the Fugos," says Nason proudly, "the balloon bombs sent over from Japan during World War II. They were incendiary bombs the Japanese floated over the Pacific by the thousands. The idea was to land them in the Pacific Northwest and burn down our forests. Fugos landed in Washington, Oregon and southern Canada. They were found as far east as Michigan and as far south as northern Mexico. They actually only caused three fatalities. A mother and her two kids were out on a picnic one day. They found one, didn't know what it was and it went off, killing them. Fugos didn't work very well as a military weapon, but, scientifically speaking, they did prove the existence of the jet stream."
The museum also includes a virtual and physical ballooning library, a board room, plenty of office space and a reception area with a jaw-dropping view of the balloon fields and the Sandias that can be rented out for weddings and parties. At some point in the future, the museum will also boast a restaurant.
The various exhibits housed in the museum will expand over time. They're designed to appeal to everyone from those with the most casual interest in ballooning to rabid ballooning fanatics. In other words, you can wander through, glance at all the pretty displays and have a fine time. If you want to dive deep into the culture of ballooning, though, the museum will provide enough information to make you choke.
I'm especially intrigued by a flight simulator with video screens that will allow you to actually experience what it's like to pilot a balloon. "I know people who have used it," says Nason, "and they say it reacts very much like a regular balloon." The simulator wasn't up and running yet when I visited, but I'm definitely ready for a ride.