ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — Hundreds of hot air balloons are scheduled to take off on Saturday morning, marking the start of an annual party that has drawn pilots and spectators from around the world to New Mexico’s high desert for 50 years.
As one of the most photographed events in the world, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has become an economic engine for the state’s largest city and a rare and colorful opportunity for enthusiasts to be within arm’s reach while giant balloons are unpacked and inflated.
Three of the original pilots who participated in the first party in 1972 and family members of others are among this year’s attendees. That year, 13 balloons were launched from open land near a shopping center on what was then the edge of Albuquerque. Since then, it has become a multi-million dollar production.
Pilot Gene Dennis, 78, remembers the blizzard that nearly caused him to miss that first party. He had to rearrange his flight plans from Michigan in order to get to Albuquerque on time.
The weather was perfect when he arrived in New Mexico, said Dennis, who flew under the alias “Captain Phairweather.” He was quoted at the time as saying that he had brought good weather with him.
It’s hooked again as the drivers hope the predictions for the opening weekend are fair.
“Ballooning is contagious,” Dennis said, describing being in the air as if drifting in a dream, silently watching the field below.
This year will be the first time that Roman Müller flies at the party. He is piloting a specially shaped balloon that was inspired by a chalet at the top of a famous Swiss toboggan run. One of his goals will be to fly over the Rio Grande and get low enough to submerge the gondola in the river.
“This is my plan,” he said with a broad smile, while acknowledging that it is not always easy to fly a balloon.
One thing that helps, he said, is the phenomenon known as the Albuquerque box, when the wind blows in opposite directions at different elevations, allowing skilled pilots to bring a balloon close to the launch point.
Dennis said it took a few years of celebrating the party to realize that the predictability of wind patterns allowed the balloons to stay close to the launch field, giving spectators a great show.
Denise Wiederkehr McDonald was a passenger in her father’s balloon during the first party. She made the trip from Colorado to take part in a reenactment of that 1972 flight on Friday. Her father, Matt Wiederkehr, was one of the top 10 hot air balloon pilots in the US and held numerous world records for distance and duration, and built a successful advertising business with his balloon fleet.
McDonald, who set his own ballooning records before becoming a commercial airline pilot, was wearing one of his father’s faded balloon jackets and holding a cardboard cutout of him as the balloon he was riding in took off.
He recalled a childhood full of experiences centered around flying in a balloon.
“I remember the first time I was in the balloons with all of them standing up and inflating and not being able to see the sky because it was all colored fabric. And then the other thing was the first glow of the globe at night. Oh my gosh,” she said. “There was a lot of firsts that I took for granted back then, but I really look back and really appreciate them now.”
The party has grown to include a cadre of European hot air balloon professionals. More than 20 countries are represented this year, including Switzerland, Australia, Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Taiwan and Ukraine.
It also serves as the launch site for the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, one of the world’s premier distance races for gas balloons.