Welcome, Balloonists!

Fiesta Provides Time For Reflection, Team Work And Exploration

August March
9 min read
Welcome, Balloonists!
A patriotic moment at the International Balloon Fiesta (Eric Williams)
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It would be scandalous, not to mention sorta gauche, to say Burque’s balloon fest is a bunch of hot air. Really, the yearly Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is a cornerstone of local culture, a marketing powerhouse and a much-needed yearly boost for the city’s economy. All told, the fiesta, now in its 45th iteration as a week-long, world-wide sporting, tourism and community-building event, is very much a part of the city’s civic structure.

Along with the menudo at Barelas Coffee House, a never-all-together-successful
university football program, a Swiss-built tramway that ascends a mountain rising a mile above the high desert or the smell of green chile roasting in autumn, the traditional October occurrence is a definitive aspect of life and culture along the middle Rio Grande Valley.

Instantly recognizable as a brand and as a descriptor of what awaits visitors and citizens who engage the idea and the actuality of Albuquerque, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta colorfully broadens the big blue sky all around us.

The fiesta enlivens the local population by attracting people from all over the world to Burque. These tourists, many who come back year after year, are willing to trade collectively massive amounts of
feria with shop owners, hotel-keepers, restaurateurs—and consequently ordinary citizens—to witness or participate in an on-going airborne romance. That sounds fun, doesn’t it? After all, it is certainly a sight to see.

But where to begin?

Of course there is a history. Over the years, that history has taken on the flavor of legend. The story’s been repeated in numerous publications, on radio, television and social media. Most importantly the balloon fiesta has gained mythic status through tales told in the afterglow of events—by pilots and passengers, families who make a yearly trek to check out the glowdeos with their quickly growing kids. Heck, even the folks in the circulation department here at Alibi central have stories to tell about the huge amount of papers picked up that week, about our blue newspaper boxes dotting the hallowed ground where launches take place.

Briefly, the whole thing started in 1972 when high-flying locals like Sid Cutter —who came from a family of governors and aviation-minded businessmen—got caught up in the nascent national balloon craze of the late 1960s. Cutter bought a propane-powered, two-person outfit in honor of his mother’s 62nd birthday and the flying service’s 43rd anniversary.

Cutter, whose family founded
Cutter Aviation, proceeded to generate interest in his new high-tech toy. Eventually, local businesses and media outlets began to ask him if they could use his floaty object for advertising stunts, live remotes and whatever else they could think of that translated the airy allure and romantic danger of ballooning into cash.

The first Balloon Fiesta, in a parking lot at Coronado Center in April 1972, drew 20,000 fascinated flight fanciers. A tradition began. Along the way, risk-taking, worldly adventurer-pilots from right here in Burque—namely Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson—got involved with the proceedings, lending credibility, mystique and a sense of competition to the growing spectacle.

Over the years, the Balloon Fiesta moved from the mall to the state fair grounds (Expo NM) to Simms Field (near Jefferson and McLeod) to its current location, a large dedicated park and adjacent museum. This happened as it grew from an elite flight championship into a hugely popular, highly public party, a massive economic powerhouse with corporate and local underwriting that is an arbiter of local culture.

Getting the most out of that massive transmission of culture, activities, technology and just plainly described “good times” can be quite an undertaking. That’s because the 2016 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta—whose theme this year, Desert Kaleidoscope, speaks truth to the show—really is a complicated, sprawling, sensory-overload kinda deal when one thinks on it.

But it can be done.

Certainly an obvious starting point, for novices and veterans alike, is the interwebz. Anyone who’s even mildly interested in our yearly skyward diversion can find out just about everything important from history to schedules to merch at
balloonfiesta.com … but that’ll only get you part of the story.

It would also be to one’s benefit to employ the tools produced here at
Weekly Alibi. With a years-long penchant for publishing the most informative and entertaining unofficial Balloon Fiesta Guide this side of the moon, beginning here is good plus, everyone knows how much we like being self-referential.

But to get the real lowdown on our city’s most blessed autumn event, try talking to someone who’s been there. By asking those intimately familiar—with champagne and enamel pins, dawn patrol, chase crews and breakfast burritos—what’s essential about the fiesta experience, it’s possible to discern what may become important and memorable to you, dear reader, as you proceed from the hinterlands and into Burque’s balloon-land.

To get an idea of what’s important, festival-wise, I first did some self-reflection.

I’ve been following the fiesta since the early 1980s, when I was a student at Eldorado High School. Back then, when Simms Field was the locus of the big show, the 600 or so floating objects that launched from there usually headed east, toward the mountains, because of prevailing wind conditions.

It was inevitable that some of the balloons would fly over and land near the school and its adjacent neighborhoods. Dogs would go crazy over the roar of propane burners, students would rush out of class to see the bulbous sky-things sailing overhead and minor automobile accidents would occur here and there around the foothills as traffic ground to a halt under the colorful October skies.

I recall that those encounters created essential memories in my life. My youthful experiences with the fiesta got me interested in going out almost every year after that. That was because it represented something that could be counted on as a marvelously dramatic performance. The fiesta was and still is a phenomenon beyond the scope of the normative but something that somehow still happens within the confines of normalcy. I find such irony deliciously captivating.

Other favorite essential fiesta happenings have been the Glowdeo and special shapes events, parts of October’s Burque balloon-land that continue to appear magical to me, even after the passage of many years. Glowdeos and
special shapes events are surreal in the sense that they confound and overwhelm the senses, lending wonder to the city’s landscape.

A perfect distraction for children of all ages, adults and even the cynics among our citizens who scoff at the yearly parade of chase crew trucks, flying spheres and special shapes, the sight of glowing balloons shaped like cows or houses or any number of other odd objects hold special significance for me and they are among the most popular of International Balloon Fiesta events.

The variety of breakfast burritos available at the launch site is the utmost. Hell, the whole food scene at Fiesta Park is like an early morning dream come true; you know the one where the sun is rising rosy-fingered while an army of roaringly colorful orbs filled with waving aerial sojourners drift against a spacious background of Bosque, river, volcanoes and beyond … all while the smell of good food fills the air. Damn.

Then I talked to a local crew member.
Alibi Calendars Editor Megan Reneau was a member of a flight crew for many years before her tenure at New Mexico’s largest and handsomest news weekly. I asked Reneau to write about her experience, about the essentials of being part of the yearly event from a hands-on perspective. Reneau’s essentials of Burque ballooning focuses on networking and knowledge. Here’s what she had to say:

“Ballooning is a team effort. There’s no way one person can do it alone. You may be okay with two if you’re fine with things going wrong or being really difficult. You need to learn how to look past personal differences and get your job done. You have to be intuitive and learn quickly, or you could get hurt or mess up the launch or landing.

You get to know people really well—chasing a balloon can take hours. You’ll find out things you don’t like about people but also realize that everyone has had to deal with difficult shit throughout their lives. It’s admirable how people take care of themselves.

When you’re on a balloon crew it’s like being part of a family. It can be uncomfortable to see how people act when they’re stressed out by flight-related events. But it’s nice to see curious kids excited to learn about the science behind ballooning.

Ballooning requires a laborious effort that has to be well organized. When you’re done, you can all sit around, have a beer and snacks, and talk and laugh, and by that time it’s still only 9am.

You go home, take a nap, then go back to work, planning to wake up at 3am the next morning to beat the traffic of tourists who get in the wrong lanes around Balloon Fiesta Park. Crew members look forward to Balloon Fiesta all year long to see their friends and be who they really are, from drunks to highly religious folks to comedians. As long as you understand the “American struggle” and aren’t judgmental, you’re welcome here.”

As the word “welcome” comes to define this text, much as balloons have come to define our town, the following bears repeating: Welcome balloonists; welcome citizens and tourists. Welcome to the 2016 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
Welcome, Balloonists!

A day in the life

Eric Williams

Welcome, Balloonists!

Eric Williams

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