In 1972, Albuquerque, NM, balloonist Sid Cutter organized a small balloonrally in a parking lot to commemorate the anniversary of a local radio station.Thirteen balloonists showed up that day. Over the course of 31 years, the smallballoon rally has become an international event. Now known as theInternational Balloon Fiesta (888-422-7277; www.aibf.org), it attracts about20% of all the balloons in the world.
Albuquerque (800-284-2282; www.abqcvb.org) buzzes with excitement during the 8-dayballoon fiesta, which is always held in the monthof October because of its near-perfect ballooningweather. In 2000, 1019 balloons rose overhead.In 2002, however, the fiesta committee limitedthe attendance to 750 balloons. The mass ascentswere still quite spectacular in October 2002despite the attendance restriction.
At one time, ballooning attracted eccentrics.I've gone up in the past with pilots who worebowler hats, Indian headdresses, and GermanWorld War I helmets (all donned, of course, toprotect their heads from the heat of the flamesbelching above). Interestingly, the sport has settleddown and has become almost serious.
Nowadays, the pilots at the InternationalBalloon Fiesta come from all walks of life. The2002 fiesta attracted balloonists from 41 statesand 25 countries. There are about 9000 licensedhot air balloonists in the United States. Ten hours of flying lessons can cost up to$2500 and a used balloon might set you back$4000 to $25,000.
Just like boats, the balloons ready to ascendover Albuquerque all have names. These namesrange from the enthusiastic, , thehopeful, , the cute, ,the introspective, , and the obvious,, which is the balloon I rode in withpilot Gary Michalek.
Michalek is from Lafayette, Calif, and findshis way to about a dozen balloon events a year."The scenery varies, though often it's the sameballoons and the same faces. But Albuquerque isdifferent. It builds its own momentum. And wecome because we want to be part of it, thebiggest balloon gathering in the world."
It was smooth sailing at the 2002 fiesta. Justbefore takeoff, the weak October sun laboredover the Sandia Mountains and the sky started topink up, glowing like the flames from the balloons'propane burners. Then the pilots openedtheir valves, the envelopes filled out, and, with afinal roar from the burners, the first wave of 250balloons took off.
Two successive waves rapidly followed untilall of us were gypsies of the skies, engaged in anevent first experienced by Joseph MichelMontgolfier and Jacques Etienne in 1783 (220years ago). So, in an age of jet travel, why do wecontinue to go up in an old-world contraption?Are we literally basket cases?
Carol Rymer Davis,MD, a Colorado radiologistwho until recently held the AX5 Balloonhigh-altitude record, says she balloons to escapethe stress of the doctor's day. Norman K. Cohen,MD, a retired Kentucky allergist,once told me he does it "because it'speaceful and exciting to sit on acloud and watch the world go by."
If you're interested in attendingthe balloon fiesta this October, keepin mind that all the hotels inAlbuquerque have special packagesand make sure you book early. Forsomeplace different, check out thenew resort just 15 miles north of thecity. Built by the Santa Ana PuebloIndians on their reservation, theHyatt Regency Tamaya Resort andSpa is first rate (505-867-1234;www.tamaya.hyatt.com).