Park Van Tassell and Sid Cutter aren’t household names to most of us. But to the ballooning community they ring bells like, say, DiMaggio and Jordan. With the 40th Albuquerque International Balloon Festival on the horizon, two books tell how these figures helped develop ballooning in the Duke City—along with insider views into the mechanics, history and evolution of this wildly popular event.
First up, there's Aloft! at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta by Douglas M. Heller. Along the lines of an Idiot's Guide to the Balloon Fiesta, Heller's book concisely breaks down the origins and inner workings of the fest. The 120-page book also has more than a hundred colorful photos, bringing forth some of the event's more inspired aeronautical efforts. Have you, for example, seen the replica balloon of the Abbey of Saint Gall cathedral, first launched in 2002, and its 84-foot tower? It looks like an oversized jumpy castle for wealthy Swedish altar boys. It also speaks to the major heights the sport has reached since its 1783 inception, when a couple of Frenchman propelled a sheep, a duck and a rooster into the air in front of Marie Antoinette at the Court of Versailles. (For the record, one of the primary fuel sources on that first luftballon was horse manure.)
Heller also does a nice job of breaking down the mechanics of the balloons—hot air vs. gas, why gondolas are usually made of wicker materials, why the average balloon costs about $40 grand ... and what to do if you get caught in power cables. He also highlights some of the event's more eccentric activities, such as a tournament that’s basically aerial disc golf and the ever-popular Special Shape Glowdeo, which fills the Albuquerque night sky like some eerie, suspended carnival.
It speaks to the major heights the sport has reached since its 1783 inception, when a couple of Frenchman propelled a sheep, a duck and a rooster into the air in front of Marie Antoinette at the Court of Versailles.
Heller's book includes an intro from Gov. Susana Martinez. But if you ask me, it's just a bunch of hot air.
More of a historical scholarly account, The World Comes to Albuquerque tells of the humble beginnings of ballooning in Albuquerque, which started with a Fourth of July spectacular staged by Prof. Park Van Tassel in 1882. Launching from Second Street and Central, Van Tassel's vessel—fueled by a dated mixture of hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide—was touted vociferously in the local media. "Albuquerque is to have an attraction that will throw everything else into the shade," wrote one paper. While the first launch had its complications (the vessel couldn't fully inflate and the first sandbag Van Tassel dropped hit a bystander, who sued for damages), it was the beginning of a local phenomenon that would eventually draw more than 20 countries on a yearly basis.
Aside from an in-depth history of ballooning, The World Comes to Albuquerque shares some colorful asides—like the guy who got eaten by sharks after a failed mission in Hawaii. Some of those tales come from Balloon Fiesta founder Sid Cutter, who died in May. The fest expanded from a lowly 13 balloons its first year to 138 balloonists representing 13 countries in its second, thanks to Cutter’s visionary World Hot Air Balloon Championship. From there, the fiesta set a Guinness World Record in 2000 by flying more than 1,000 balloons, which led to restrictions on how many participants can be involved in each year's nine-day ceremonies. This year’s fest will feature more than 600 balloons.
The World Comes to Albuquerque is also chock-full of photos, including images of that maiden voyage made by Van Tassel, as well as posters from the inaugural 1972 fiesta.
Depending on whether you're looking for a layman's guide to the fest or an involved account of its past, you can take your pick between works that pay tribute to Albuquerque's loftiest tradition. And of course, both volumes provide pictures of KOB-4 weatherman Steve Stucker in his wonderfully ridiculous Balloon Fiesta pin collection ensemble.