A History of Balloon Fiesta
How media marketing transformed the autumn sky
“The world's a nicer place in my beautiful balloon/ It wears a nicer face in my beautiful balloon/ We can sing a song and sail along the silver sky/ For we can fly …”―“Up, Up, and Away” by Jimmy Webb
Jimmy Webb’s romantic anthem to the joys of ballooning, popularized by The 5th Dimension in the late 1960s, piqued America’s interest in an aerial activity that had previously been classified along the same lines as fencing and cricket―clever but ultimately too complex for the American sports and leisure palate. Within a matter of years, balloons and ballooning became a notable part of our popular culture.
Albuquerque, N.M.―a place with a big blue sky, favorable wind currents and a storied history of involvement in aviation—played a big part in the expression and sustainability of airborne cultures. While Lindbergh skipped Burque, settling instead on Lordsburg and Santa Fe on his Spirit of St. Louis tour in 1927, other flyers followed in his wake.
Even as Lindbergh snubbed Burque for its lack of adequate aviation facilities, the city was quietly developing a world-class flight center for civilian and military use. All kinds of human flight practices, from ballooning to space travel, grew up in the shadow of the Sandia Mountains. Randolph Lovelace―the dude that Lovelace Health System is named for―was an aviation surgeon who came west to research and develop the first reliable pressure suits needed to take humans higher and higher into the air.
Before him, William and Virginia Cutter―her dad, Richard C. Dillon, was governor―founded Cutter Flying Service here in 1928. Besides bringing modern air travel and shipping to Albuquerque, the Cutters birthed a son named Sid. As a cargo pilot with thousands of hours under his belt, young Cutter returned home in 1960 to carry on the family business. Along the way he provided the vision and know-how required to bring the balloon craze to Burque. Indeed, he was the first person in the state of New Mexico to own a hot air balloon. The hot air balloon―with its altimeter, burners and blast valves―is flight technology at its most thrillingly human, as mankind’s first successful foray into air travel.
Sid Cutter’s balloon was procured in celebration of his mother’s birthday in 1971. That may seem like a reasonable human expression of sentiment, but the balloon he acquired for commemorative purposes was anything but typical. It was large enough to take a man aloft, and it was powered by propane. The hot air balloon soon became pilot Cutter’s preferred form of flight. When the Los Angeles Times asked him why, he answered, “It’s like floating through the air on a magic carpet ride.”
Cutter’s promotion of all things balloon garnered the attention of local media. In 1972 representatives of a high-watt, popular Albuquerque AM radio station approached him with an interesting idea. They wanted to know how many hot air balloons Cutter could assemble at the local mall.
Coronado Mall―then situated across from St. Pius X High School and up the road a bit from the slightly more glamorous Winrock Shopping Center―was chosen as the site of a live remote broadcast intended to celebrate the 50th anniversary of KOB (now known as KKOB 770 AM) with a few balloons thrown in for sauce.
Twenty-thousand people attended. Thirteen balloons and their crews, hailing from all over the continent, enthralled and entertained the spectators with a form of flight many had heard about but few had actually experienced. The radio station got its celebration that day, playing The 5th Dimension’s rendition of Webb’s flighty classic over and over.
But more importantly, sparks flew; the roar of propane burners, the vibrant spheres in the sky, and the carefree yet focused pilots ignited the town’s collective culture. After that fateful day in April 1972, ballooning was here to stay. Cutter oversaw the expansive growth and success of the Balloon Fiesta until his death three springs ago from cancer.
During and after the second World War, the US Army Air Corps and Air Force ran an advanced flying school on the air base south of town. Cutter Flying Service provided some of the instruction. Among the aviation aces who passed through the expanding air base was another Fiesta prime mover, Ben Abruzzo, an Air Force veteran and entrepreneur.
After his service at Kirtland as a squadron leader was finished, Lieutenant Abruzzo stayed in Albuquerque. Author Pamela Salmon wrote that a report on Abruzzo by his commanders cheerily noted, “He was a risk-taker of the highest degree.” Active in the ’60s Albuquerque economy, Abruzzo applied his acumen to projects that included local legacies. Development of the toney Sandia Heights neighborhood and Sandia Ski Area and construction of the Sandia Tramway all sprang from the minds of Abruzzo and his collaborators.
In the ’70s Abruzzo's interest in high-tech ballooning expanded. He was a frequent race and contest winner in his “Union Gas” hot air balloon at early versions of the Fiesta, but he began to set his sights higher. Abruzzo’s fascination with high-altitude gas ballooning led to his exploration of its lofty and dangerous possibilities. Fellow pilot Maxie Anderson and Abruzzo planned an adventure that would place Albuquerque at the epicenter of the ballooning world and give faces and narrative punch to the growing sport and its rapidly developing fan base.
Abruzzo, Anderson and professional pilot Larry Newman attempted to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the Double Eagle in 1977. They didn’t like, totally succeed, but their harrowing journey thrilled the press and the people. Their second attempt in the Double Eagle II a year later yielded triumph, and Abruzzo and his mates returned home as heroes. After winning several more endurance records, Abruzzo signed on as captain of the Double Eagle V. In this pressurized, helium-lifted, spaceship-like vehicle, Abruzzo successfully traversed the Pacific Ocean with teammates Larry Newman, Ron Clark and Rocky Aoki in 1981.
Abruzzo, his wife and three family friends died in a plane crash on the outskirts of Albuquerque in 1985. That happened shortly after takeoff from Albuquerque’s Coronado Airport, a medium-sized landing strip bordered by Sandia Pueblo. News reports revealed that Abruzzo had been distracted by a faulty cargo hatch, causing the Cessna 421 to crash onto I-25 near the Alameda exit. Abruzzo’s passion for ballooning, his embrace of the sport’s extreme possibilities, and his outright bravery as a flyer brought the event a profitability and mystique that contributed to the Fiesta’s permanent place in pop culture consciousness. The Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum adjacent to the Fiesta’s massive launch site was named in his honor.
The world-famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta begins its 42nd iteration on Saturday, Oct. 4, and continues through Sunday, Oct. 12. Its evolution from a clever marketing adventure into a global phenomenon drawing balloonists, media and tourists reflects back the creativity and resourcefulness of nuevomexicanos past, present and future.
The event, like its visionary founders and participants, has seen a fair amount of progress over the decades. The KOB publicity stunt raised public awareness and interest in the sport, and the event moved to the State Fairgrounds for a while. For a few years, the nascent Fiesta continued each spring on an upward course.
In 1973, 138 balloons flew around Midtown. The next year’s event only hosted 113 floating orbs, but it made two things abundantly clear. One thing was that the Balloon Fiesta had a future in this dusty town. The other thing was that the Fairgrounds was not the place to make that future happen. Too many urban obstacles―electrical poles, buildings, cars, the airport and a nearby, top-secret nuclear weapons laboratory/
A third issue: Springtime weather was rarely favorable by ballooning standards. Hard work from its organizers, a partnership with the city, and the opportunity to host the 1975 World Balloon Championships in October 1974 resulted in movement north, as the entire event moved to Simms Field, on what was then the northern edge of town. Oddly, there were two fiestas that year, one at the Fairgrounds in February and the new, improved, world sport-sanctioned event that happened out by where Jefferson and McLeod intersect today.
Simms Field lent an arcadian touch to the proceedings and was a much safer site for mass balloon flight. Sid Cutter and collaborator Tom Rutherford turned control of the fiestas over to the city. A nonprofit corporation called Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Inc. (AIBF) was formed to steer the yearly tradition into the future. The world championship angle was dropped in favor of a more progressive marketing model. The event would now focus on balloon culture as much as on competition.
The October version of things was a hit. The Rio Grande Valley boasts great ballooning weather in the fall. High stakes championship races were out, and more spectator-friendly events came into focus. Over the next 20 years, the Fiesta continued to flourish, becoming a lucrative economic engine for the city and embedding itself in Albuquerque’s culture. The Balloon Fiesta is as integral a part of autumn in the high desert as is the aroma of roasting green chile.
During part of those two formative decades, the Balloon Fiesta went through a period of corporate sponsorship. During this mini-era, it was known as the Kodak Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. This had something to do with the totally awesome fact that our Fiesta is the most-photographed event on planet Earth. The millennium yawned open ahead, and the future of the Fiesta began to materialize. The popularization of digital photography weakened the once kingly film company.
Eventually the company withdrew from the event, returning to corporate headquarters to watch tons of Kodachrome curl up meaninglessly in its warehouses. The revolution in personal, digital photography over the past 15 years has encouraged photography at the Balloon Fiesta as well as a diversification of events and activities available for spectators. The Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum helped establish Balloon Fiesta Park as the festival’s forever locus back in 2005. As the site matures, the Fiesta continues to present sublimely entertaining and occasionally tragic events as part of its yearly repertoire.
Besides traditional hot air balloons and their distinctive place in the annals of American civilian aviation, the Fiesta also sponsors the lofty Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race, an extreme sporting event with life-challenging potentials. Ben Abruzzo’s son Richard died in a crash off the coast of Italy during the 2010 race. Despite the danger involved, gas ballooning remains a formidable force at the Fiesta. The advent of special shape balloons, balloon glows and more mass ascensions (as weather permits) have shaped the Balloon Fiesta into one of the more prominent and lucrative tourist/vacation destinations in the continental United States.
For local businesses, this is a yearly boon of consistent and considerable grace. Hotels are booked a year in advance. Restaurants all over Burque are packed for early breakfasts or après landing lunches. Clubs see an upturn in attendance and the redemption of drink tickets. The balloon enthusiasts are, generally speaking, welcome guests in our city. In over 40 years of repeated expression, the participants, sponsors, spectators, vendors, participants and casual observers of Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta have harnessed a distinctive subculture in its annual manifestation.
Complete with its own idioms, favored food and drink and sense of time and appearance, this subculture has become a vital part of Albuquerque’s identity. The Dawn Patrol, champagne and breakfast burritos in the morning, the cheerful barter of metal and enamel pins, a feeling of adventure and freedom―they’re all variations on a hep, quirky niche within the American character. Plus which, the Fiesta's very existence pays tribute to the wonder of a New Mexico morning; the uncommon beauty of hundreds of shimmering orbs rising up at once and floating over the city at daybreak is pretty awesome.