October 3, 2011
2011 Hot Air Balloon Fiesta

The 40th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta opened on Saturday, October 1st.

Besides being the fortieth, this year's hot air balloon festival is special to us in other ways. In particular, we lost Sid Cutter — one of the founders of the fiesta — earlier this year.

A special commemoration of Sid's life and legacy was held at the main stage just before the first day's Mass Ascension. That commemoration included a bagpipe performance and songs by the New MexiChords barbershop chorus. There was also a missing man flight in his honor. Two, actually. One was the flight of a squadron of retired military officers (as Sid was) in fixed-wing aircraft. The other was a squadron of hot air balloons.

I had been curious how they were going to do the missing man flight with balloons. The answer was that it was not done in flight as is normally seen. Four world balloons were flight-ready in front of the stage, but just one flew off — to the strains of God Bless America.
Four balloons stand, and are reduced to three, as one is lost.

A portion of the day's festivities begin before any opening ceremonies, as balloons on the ground show themselves to good advantage.

But it's at and after dawn — and the dawn patrol — that the sights get overwhelming. Here are just a few samples.

Even with this introduction, there is so much more to see. Think how it must be, seeing 345 hot air balloons launched from the field in just one hour. (That's being submitted as a new Guiness world record — in past years there has not been a concern for the period over which the balloon launches take place.) And that's not counting the balloons launched before the hour began, and many more launched shortly after the official hour ended.

Just imagine so many balloons in the polka-dotted sky. And imagine the balloons circling about and coming back near the original launch field. That's the result of the Albuquerque Box, which may be unique among ballooning locations. (Albuquerque's prevailing winds are from the south to southwest, but the flow near the ground in the Rio Grande river valley is to the south-southwest at the balloon park. Thus, through altitude control, balloons are able to fly about and return to the near vicinity of the original launch point at Albuquerque's Balloon Fiesta Park.)

Is the Balloon Fiesta a big thing for Albuquerque? Perhaps one should ask the people in the long traffic lines leading to the balloon park before 4 a.m. Saturday. We're told there were well over 100,000 people there long before dawn. All wanted to see the 550 to 600 beautiful balloons — special shapes and normal ones — that are attending this year.

It's spectacular, as always. It has grown from the thirteen balloons at the KOB (now KKOB) radio station 50th birthday party that was the first balloon fiesta in Albuquerque — and the largest hot air balloon race in the country up to that time. And the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta remains — as it has been for forty years — the world's largest hot air balloon festival.