Here at Weekly Alibi, we are going to do with the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta what we do every year with this local and international early autumn ritual: We are going to do our utmost to convince you to get up very early in the morning.
Further, we’re going to ask that, for just nine candy-colored, flight-filled days and nights, you change your breakfast habits a bit. From now until the end of the Fiesta, Breakfast will happen at 10am and include at least one breakfast burrito stuffed with local goodness and accompanied by a glass of bubbling, dry wine. Champagne will do.
Finally, we’re going to ask you the same question posed by Jimmy Webb himself. That goes something like this: “Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?”
Of course we don’t have a balloon over here at Alibi HQ. But we know someone who does. His name is Buzz and he operates a local business called Hot Air Balloonatics. He’s a commercial pilot with over 20 years of experience and hundreds of hours of flight time.
We asked him to let us in on the secret of The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and this is what he told us.
Weekly Alibi: Hello, is this Buzz from the Hot Air Balloonatics?
Buzz Biernacki: Yes, I’m with the Hot Air Balloonatics.
How did you come up with that name?
Truthfully, I liked the name because I am a balloonatic! I wanted a name that came up quickly when people [in Albuquerque] were looking for a ride.
What does it take to be a balloonatic?
You have to be obsessed with balloons. I’m a commercial pilot for balloons, That means I had to go through the FAA process to get my pilot’s license. To get a commercial license, most people have been flying for about a year before they apply.
What’s the difference between a private license to fly balloons and a commercial license?
The amount of time you’ve spent in a balloon, the technical proficiency required of the pilot. With a commercial license, you can charge people for taking them up.
How many flight hours have you logged?
Right now, about 700.
What got you interested in hot air ballooning?
Twenty-three years ago, I started crewing for balloons, just volunteering. I loved the experience so much I ended up buying my own balloon and getting a private pilot’s license.
Could you give our readers an idea of what a day looks like for you during the yearly fiesta?
This will be my 20th Balloon Fiesta [as a pilot]. I get up about 4 in the morning. I get to the meeting place around 5 and we have a briefing at about 6 with all the other pilots. Then we fly until about 10 in the morning. Afterwards, we have breakfast and hang out and have fun for the rest of the day.
How many people does it take to crew a balloon like yours?
The one we typically fly, we have between two and four people on the crew.
Does all of this make you feel like Balloon Fiesta is an essential part of the Albuquerque experience?
I think that Balloon Fiesta is a huge part of Albuquerque culture. It’s significant. I mean, we fly hot air balloons year-round commercially. We have riders from all over the world who’ve heard of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. They get very excited at the thought of seeing more than 650 or 700 balloons flying through the air.
What’s the most notable or memorable experience you’ve had with hot air balloons?
I won the pole grab one time. I pulled out an envelope that had a $10,000 watch in it.
That takes a lot of skill, navigating a balloon within arms length of a 2-inch diameter pole, that’s a really small target, que no?
Yes all of that and a bit of luck!
Is your involvement with the Balloon Fiesta a lifelong thing for you, Buzz?
It gives me a lot of joy. I absolutely love it. When my wife and I go on vacation, I’ll always check out the local balloonists, say hi and introduce myself. I ask then what they’re doing and check to see if they’re doing anything that might be better than what we’re doing. I love meeting balloonists from all over the world; that’s part of the joy of the Fiesta.
Have you ever had a balloon experience you would judge as challenging or even dangerous?
No not really. We’ve had some windy landings, but the training and practice we undergo, you can eliminate a lot of issues. With regards to the wind, we’re very conservative. If the weather is not good, we will not fly. We do our best to minimize the risk to our pilots, crews and clients.
What’s the secret to being a successful hot air balloonist?
I think that being focused and paying attention to what’s going on in the air with balloons all around you, anticipating what they may do. Those are key to flying successfully.
What should patrons and visitors to the Balloon Fiesta do to make the most of their experience?
This sounds kind of weird to say, but I think the first time they see a mass ascension of all the balloons, they should put their cameras down and focus on the amazing beauty all around them. Trying to capture that on your camera—I see a lot of people that experience the whole Fiesta through their camera lens—just doesn’t work. The beauty of the overall situation is overwhelming.
I like to write about that; how the overall environment at the Fiesta—the effect of having all those shapes and colors floating en masse through the New Mexico autumn sky—really is breathtaking.
Film and video just can’t capture it all. After the first day a visitor does that, they can then focus on what makes the individual balloons special—whether it’s a fantastic shape or a balloon with a lot of color.
Why should someone who has never been up in a balloon—like me for example—take a ride?
It is amazing, how different the world looks from 500 to 1000 feet in the air. Being able to drift along while waving to people on the ground, saying hello to school kids gathered to see the balloons pass by—all of those experiences are unforgettably satisfying. To be able to look for miles and miles, up and down the Rio Grande, to see the Sandias from an exceptionally different angle than usual, that’s very personally enriching. We fly over the river a lot and it’s wondrous; you may look down and see a gaggle of geese heading south, just below you. The geese fly below the balloons, absolutely oblivious to the fact you’re floating 500 feet above them. It’s quiet and peaceful. Ballooning is a blast.