ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — Hundreds of hot air balloons are due to take off Saturday morning, marking the start of an annual celebration that has drawn pilots and spectators from around the world to New Mexico’s high desert for 50 years now.
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 reach out of hand when the giant balloons are unwrapped and inflated.
Three of the original pilots who participated in the first fiesta in 1972 and family members of others are among this year’s participants. That year, 13 balloons were launched from open ground near a shopping center on what was then the outskirts of Albuquerque. It has since become a multi-million dollar production.
Pilot Gene Dennis, 78, remembers the snowstorm that nearly caused him to miss that first fiesta. He had to rearrange his flight plans from Michigan to get to Albuquerque in 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 he brought the good weather with him.
He’s hooked again, as the pilots hope the opening weekend forecast is right.
“The ball is contagious,” Dennis said, describing being in the air like drifting in a dream, quietly observing the countryside below.
This year will mark Roman Müller’s first flight in the fiesta. He pilots a specially shaped balloon inspired by a chalet at the top of a famous Swiss bobsleigh run. One of its objectives will be to fly over the Rio Grande and descend low enough to plunge the gondola into the river.
“That’s my plan,” he said with a broad smile, while acknowledging that it’s not always easy to fly a ball.
One thing that helps, he said, is the phenomenon known as the Albuquerque box – when the wind blows in opposite directions at different altitudes, allowing skilled pilots to bring a balloon close to the take-off point. .
Dennis said it took a few years of holding the party to realize that the predictability of the winds allowed the balloons to stay close to the launch field, giving spectators quite a spectacle.
Denise Wiederkehr McDonald was a passenger in her father’s balloon at the first fiesta. She traveled from Colorado to take part in a re-enactment of that 1972 flight on Friday. Her father, Matt Wiederkehr, was one of the top 10 hot air balloon pilots in the United States and held numerous world records for distance and duration and built a successful advertising business with his fleet of balloons.
Wiederkehr McDonald, who went on to set her own hot air balloon records before becoming a commercial airline pilot, wore one of her father’s faded hot air balloon jackets and held a cardboard cutout of him as the balloon she was riding in swayed was flying.
She remembers a childhood full of hot-air ballooning experiences.
“I remember the first time I was in the balloons with all of them upright and inflated and I couldn’t see the sky because everything was colored fabric. And then the other thing was the first balloon glow at night. Oh, my God,” she said. “There were a lot of firsts that I took for granted back then, but look back and appreciate so much now.”
The party grew to include a group of European ballooning professionals. More than 20 countries are represented this year, including Switzerland, Australia, Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Taiwan and Ukraine.
It also serves as the launching site for America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, one of the world’s most important distance races for gas balloons.