Full of Hot Air

Not the loquacious coworker but  the World’s Largest Balloon Festival, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

The festival ended Sunday with 800,000 participants and 650 balloon pilots. That’s a lot of activity without sequencing and separation. The Wall Street Journal dubbed it “Extreme ballooning“. It doesn’t seem very scientific given some of the navigational aids:

“I spit over the side of the basket all the time so I can watch which way the spittle goes in the wind, Mr. Kelly explains”

Click for larger image or see the slideshow

In addition to spitting, they usually carry an altimeter; GPS and two way radio. I’m a big fan of the radio. When I was flying in a balloon the pilot mentioned that they like to keep track of who is above or below. It’s considered bad form to land on a balloon , thereby collapsing it. I was a very motivated listener after that, paying close attention to any self announced position above us.

It began with my wife buying the ride as a birthday gift for me. On the appointed day, I could tell that she really wanted to experience balloon flight so I convinced her to take my place. She was excited about the whole thing. Watching as they inflate it with a gigantic fan and completing the work using huge burners belching yellow flame.   Everyone gets in, all smiles. I run back for the camera only to find my wife missing. Running over, I find her huddled in the gondola corner, her hands cupped over her ears. “It’s too hot and too loud” she shouts. “You get in”. OK, but switching places in a gondola ready to launch with cables on the ground is tricky. It’s already achieved neutral buoyancy and once she alights from the craft, it struggles mightily to get off the ground. Strong arms and quick venting prevented an untimely take off (Similar to the ending in “Wizard of Oz”) as I trade places. I best get the record straight. She wasn’t tremendous ballast at only 120 pounds but it’s enough to offset the balance.

Off we float, skimming the trees. I waited for a breeze. There is none. That’s because we’re going the exact same speed and direction as the wind. The next thing I noted was that it was indeed hot when burners are in full blast. 5 to 10 million BTU’s per hour. (A home furnace is more like 12o thousand). It was loud enough to send the deer below stampeding for the tree line. As a lake appeared ahead, the pilot descended until the gondola was touching  the water. Then back up to clear the trees . Basically that’s all you get: the up and down switch. The rest is decided by the wind. After a while it’s time to end the ride and we search for a pasture without, wires, towers, rabid dogs or angry bulls.

It’s not bad if you like hanging from a basket at two thousand feet with the excitement of not knowing how or where you will end up. Personally,  I like deciding where I will land and 25 knots is just a bit slow.


2 responses to “Full of Hot Air

  1. virgil xenophon

    Louisville has a big ballon festival almost (but not quite) as large as the one in Albuquerque in conjunction with the festivities leading up to the Derby the week prior. Was great fun to watch the early am launch and then chase them over the roads across the countryside in cars. They must have SOME maneuverability, because, IIRC, they always had a terminal field as a destination (Based on winds aloft) and a bean-bag toss at a circular tgt to declare the winner. Some guys would bring the basket down to within 5-6 ft of circle to make toss. A sight to see and great drunken fun on our part.
    Lots of colorful pics indeed.

    Albuquerque is a big go-Kart town. Lots of huge tracks and they used to hold national championships there. I raced on those tracks as a visiting teenager back in 1960. “Jimmy T.” who posts over at Lexs is from there, but lives in Pa. now. He has a nice new blog called “Voice from the Noise” Stop by and visit. He has some great sea stories. @


    (BTW-left a note about Barracudas for you down thread)

    • Manueverability seemed to be confined to hunting for a different wind direction aloft. There was no way to guide the balloon other than up or down best I could tell. While they were pretty talented at up / down control, our choices were pretty limited. The other thing: You don’t have the option to “go around” on a botched landing attempt. You’re relegated to the next patch of land ahead which may not be accessible to the chase team coming to pick you up. Still, it was an interesting ride.

      BTW: I checked out JimmyT’s place a while ago and you’re right about the sea stories.

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