“We’re gonna hit!”
Those were the last words I heard before the thunderous crack of tree limbs breaking beneath us and the explosion of autumn-leaf confetti burst around us. Everyone aboard the wicker gondola had braced for impact; everyone except for Bandit, the dog lazing happily at our feet during our plummet.
It had been a beautiful flight for all four of us, including Bandit. We traveled nearly eight miles south of Balloon Fiesta Park, where thousands of onlookers had cheered and snapped pictures as we launched along with hundreds of other balloons during the second-day mass ascension of the 45th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world’s premiere annual ballooning event.
Jeff Haliczer had been masterfully maneuvering the 90,000-cubic-foot orb of hot air suspending us high above Albuquerque’s Rio Grande Valley. Now, as our journey was coming to an untimely end just blocks away from my house, Jeff tugged on ropes and yelled at my barely-awake neighbors stepping out of homes in various states of undress. “Everyone down there,” he announced, like the Wizard of Oz in the balloon scene, “jump on the basket as soon as we’re on the ground. We need the weight or we’ll get dragged.”
We were low enough that I could clearly make out the smiling faces of children waiving up at us from their parents’ arms. I could even see the teeth of backyard dogs barking, perhaps sensing a special animal kinship with one of their own aboard.
A groggy man stepped out of a porch, rubbed his eyes and squinted as he tried and failed to cover the hairy, round belly protruding from his haphazardly wrapped robe. Looking up and realizing what was about to happen, he quickly dug his feet into fluffy slippers and began jogging along our trajectory. “What do I need to do?” he yelled, craning his neck up to us like a wide receiver ready for a catch.
I spotted a familiar face in the crowd of people now gathered in the middle of the residential street below, nervously waiting for… something to happen. The teenage girl and her mother had been following us in their car since we had missed the park by a few yards just five minutes earlier. “Are you landing in the park?” The teenage girl had shouted at us. “We’ve been following you, what do you need?”
“We need help!” I replied.
Jeff, attempting to disguise his annoyance at my unhelpful exchange, had calmly chimed in to instruct the good Samaritans. “Looks like we missed that park, we’re gonna need to come down soon, probably on the street,” he said. “Hang onto the basket and put your weight on it as soon as we land, okay?”
“Okay! We’ll follow you.”
I looked around and noticed that we were alone; the hundreds of balloons dotting the sky earlier were all gone. After three near-landings spoiled by the threat of hitting powerlines, and an hour of being in the air, we were the last balloon in the air. The wind had completely died down. We seemed to be barely moving.
“Talk to me, Efraín,” Jeff said. “Where are we?”
“That’s San Pedro Drive right there and that’s Candelaria Road,” I pointed at the streets and honking cars directly beneath us. “My house is six blocks that way.”
Jeff got on the phone with our chase crew, the team of volunteers in the truck chasing us from the ground to assist with the landing and repackaging of the balloon. “We’re just north of Candelaria and east of San Pedro,” he said. “It’s a residential area with lots of trees and powerlines, I need you to get here now. I’m going to bring it down on the street. Oh, and since it’s probably really important that you know, Efraín lives six blocks away.”
Somehow, sarcasm seems to always work its way into every one of my near death experiences.
A Wind and a Prayer
“The flag just turned green this morning, so we’re a go,” the sprightly press attendant at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta notified me. “You’ll be flying on Sin. Chronic.”
“Did you say Sin and Chronic? Is that, like, a 90’s rapper’s balloon?” I asked, intrigued.
“Oh, I am sorry. I meant to say Synchronicity. Your pilot’s name is Jeff Haliczer. Have you flown before?”
“Yes, several times. Last year I was on the Jesus balloon.”
“The special shaped one that was kidnapped?”
“No. Not the Jesus-coming-out-of-the-clouds balloon. The other, regular shaped one. I think it’s called WWJD. We held hands and prayed in the air.”
The attendant stared and blinked at me expectantly.
“Oh, that’s the whole story,” I explained. “It’s just that praying is way weirder for me than flying.”
“Well then. Please follow this young man to your launch site,” she said, pointing to a bearded volunteer.
More than 1,000 volunteers from all over the world travel to donate their time in order make the fiesta possible, and that does not include the two thousand chase crew volunteers that must follow the balloons.
My escort quickly led the way through the pre-dawn lights of the park already crowded with neon trinket vendors and gawking spectators. Phone screens lit up all around us every time one of the gas burners exhaled a loud snore and sent a tall tower of flames into the air. Eight Dawn Patrol balloons flickered on and off in the night sky, like exposed light bulbs. If wind conditions are adequate for flying, indicated by a green flag in the middle of the park, a few Dawn Patrol pilots take off before sunrise to test the wind for the rest of the balloons that will take flight as soon as the sun peaks out over the mountains.
Around the center of the 72-acre field, I paused to snap a picture of a group wearing Viking hats, which was hard to do since I was also simultaneously trying to take a bite out of my giant green chile-cheese-and-papas breakfast burrito, a handheld delicacy that is rumored to have been invented at the fiesta many years ago.
Just as I put my camera and burrito away, I caught a glimpse of my escort ducking out of sight between two zebras. Fiesta is always teeming with zebras; not the Serengeti kind.
Because of their black-and-white striped uniform, “zebra” is the title given to each of the more than sixty volunteer launch directors who help coordinate events on the field. It takes up to two years of training to become a zebra, so many of them go all out in flaunting their status. Some wear giant zebra head hats, others prefer to be more decorous and opt for donning dignified face paint and furry hoof coverings over their shoes.
I started to run after my escort but stopped once again, this time to stare at Darth Vader and Yoda, who were already inflated enough so that their faces did not look like that creepy mask from Scream anymore. I noticed for the first time that Yoda is actually a pretty small balloon compared to some of the other gargantuan special shaped fliers, like the purple dragon that was beginning to bow its head upward behind Yoda’s pointy ears.
“We should hurry to your launch site,” my escort said, snapping me out of my trance.
Having been born in Albuquerque, I have been to dozens of fiestas, but I still get mesmerized by the sight of balloons. As a kid, I remember thinking the popular children’s book James and the Giant Peach was probably partially based on a true story. In hindsight, the child’s logic makes sense even now; after all, what would be so weird about a giant, flying peach carrying humans through the air when, with my own eyes, I had seen a giant, monocle-wearing Mr. Peanut balloon carrying passengers touch down at the playground of my elementary school?
“Is this Synchronicity?” my escort asked a cheery lady standing next to a trailer painted in blue with Humpty Dumpty, shoe, and balloon motifs.
“Yup,” she said, taking off her gloves to give me her hand. “I’m Karalyn Vavra, and that’s the pilot over there, Jeff.”
My escort turned toward me and said, “I leave you in good hands. Have a good flight.”
I went around and introduced myself to the team. Lynn Gunn, a volunteer who traveled from West Covina, California with her RV group, asked me if it was my first time flying.
“Nope, I’ve been high on Jesus,” I replied.
“That’s nice. Here, have some cocoa.”
As the sun peaked out of the Sandia Mountains flanking the city’s east side, balloons began to take to the skies. Jeff happily handed out collector’s cards with balloon images on them and the collector’s pins that have become an integral component of the fiesta experience for many families.
“Should we be inflating the balloon?” I asked.
“Nope. We’re probably going to be in the last wave today, but we won’t know for sure until a zebra tells us,” Jeff said.
This year, there were 108 special shaped balloons in attendance, 17 of them were new to the fiesta. I noticed the cards Jeff was handing out to children had the photo of a colorful, laced-up sneaker flying through the air.
“Is Synchronicity the shoe balloon?”
“Nope. The sneaker is called High Top Flier and this one here is called Off the Wall,” Jeff pointed at a stylized depiction of a flailing, upside-down Humpty Dumpty painted on the trailer; a picture he said was based on children’s drawings that he receives from pen pals. “We’ll be flying on that one,” Jeff said, showing me a black, regular shaped balloon illustration. “We’ll probably inflate High Top Flier and Off the Wall for the Special Shapes Glowdeo, though.”
For the 550 pilots that attend the fiesta, the Balloon Glow and Special Shapes Glowdeo are a chance to showcase some of their more difficult-to-fly balloons, since none of the balloons take to the sky in the evening. Instead, the balloons remain tethered to the ground and illuminate simultaneously, prompted by various countdowns. A “twinkle countdown” indicates the sea of balloons will be flickering on and off, an “all burn” means the balloons will remain lit as long as possible, which is not very long; it takes a lot of heat to make those balloons glow so brightly, and heat makes it harder to keep them on the ground. After the Glow, a fireworks and laser show lights up the sky.
“So you’ll be flying with me and Bandit,” Jeff said, scratching behind the ears of a black dog wearing a vest and sauntering atop a tipped-over gondola with a sign reading, “Dog is my co-pilot.”
“Really?” I said. “That’s pretty cool. I just heard the first balloon to ever fly with living creatures had a duck, a rooster, and a lamb aboard.”
A crewmember looked at me, waiting for the punchline.
“No, seriously,” I said. “It was in France.”
“Oh, I guess that makes sense,” he said. “Ah, the French.”
Once we started inflating Synchronicity, a crowd gathered around us. I asked Karalyn if I needed to have gloves on to help out.
“Not with us,” she said. “Some people think the oils on your fingers get on the balloon and collect dirt. And there are people who say it weakens the fabric. We don’t use gloves on our balloon and it has over 600 hours. You can better manage the fabric with tactile feeling.”
Once the balloon was upright, Jeff walked over to Lynn and asked her if she wanted to fly as a passenger along with Bandit and me.
Lynn was visibly shocked by the invitation. “Are you sure?” she asked, beaming.
It turns out that Jeff gifts flights frequently. “I donate balloon rides to charities back home, in Reno, whenever I can,” he said. “One of balloon rides for two raised $600 for the charity. I give it away because I’m selfish, it takes four people to fly, not counting me, so I then only have to find two of my crew to make it happen. To me it’s all about having fun and sharing it with people.”
We climbed into the gondola. The crowd burst into applause when they saw Bandit would be flying with us. Jeff asked Bandit to look through a tiny window built into the gondola at knee-cap height. When his snout peered through the hole, the small group of photographers that had gathered went wild and rapidly snapped pictures as if Kim Kardashian had just sneezed.
Then we were off. The fiesta is just as spectacular from the air as it is from the ground, and the kaleidoscope comparisons are apt. The strange part for me is how quiet it is up there. It seems like there should be some kind of whooshing sound. It is so quiet, in fact, that you can clearly hear conversations on the ground from surprisingly high altitudes.
We flew over a mega church hosting an outdoor service. The person at the pulpit was saying something about salvation, or maybe it was damnation. I pointed at our shadow on the large stained-glass windows emblazoned with the words: “Crash and Burn.”
“Hey Jeff, look at the words on the windows,” I said. “Hopefully it’s not a sign, huh?”
When you grow up in Albuquerque, you have an instilled, healthy respect for the awesome audacity of man in flight. Along with beautiful images of hundreds of balloons flying over our city, occasionally television broadcasts will feature a balloon tangled up in powerlines as terrified passengers scream in helplessness. These days, that sort of thing is much more likely to go viral on social media long before the networks pick it up.
However, accidents are quite rare. In the last decade, the National Transportation Safety Board has logged 17 balloon accidents taking place in the greater Albuquerque area during the month of October, the month in which the fiesta takes place. Out of those accidents, there were two fatalities.
Thoughts of crashes were the last thing on my mind, though. I have had the good fortune of flying with expert pilots able to land balloons with more accuracy than most people can park cars. I have even flown with pilots who have swooped down and gracefully dipped the bottom of the gondola in the Rio Grande waters for a few seconds before rising again; a tradition known as “splash and dash.”
So when we had first started descending and abandoned the landing attempt when Jeff spotted powerlines, it was a surprise to me how quickly powerline phobia took hold over me.
“So how do powerlines work?” I asked Jeff. “Is the pigeon thing an urban legend? Do you really have to be touching multiple lines to get shocked? Is there, like, a rope ladder on this thing?”
Jeff ignored my questions and spit over the edge of the balloon. “I call it my spitometer,” he said. “See how the spit moves with the wind? It’s a good indicator of what’s happening down there.”
“Hmm, sophisticated. So about landing, we’re heading toward the freeway and malls right now. Will the mall parking lots work for a good landing?”
“Even a street can be ideal if the wind is parallel. I always say anytime you can walk away from a landing it’s a good landing. Anytime you can walk away from it and re-use the aircraft, it’s a great landing.”
I realized just then the importance of discussing expectations prior to putting one’s life in other people’s hands.
When the Bough Brakes
The gondola plowed through the tree, landing smack in the middle of the street. My neighbors quickly ran up and clung to the basket as it tilted on its side. Bandit simply rolled over to use the wall as his new floor.
A man took out his cell phone and asked us to look up and smile as the gondola started to get dragged though the street with us in it.
I tried to strike an I-didn’t-just-pee-in-my-pants pose, but Jeff was not having any of it. “Does this look like a good photo-op time right now, man?” He asked.
The balloon tittered down onto the trees lining the street. Karalyn appeared out of nowhere and suggested to Jeff that the balloon be walked toward an opening with less overhanging branches.
Jeff instructed the group holding onto the gondola to move us down the street as he pumped a few quick bursts of fire into the balloon above. “Is everyone okay?” he asked, visibly concerned.
Lynn and I looked at each other.
“I’m fine,” she said, smiling from ear to ear.
Neither of us had so much as a scratch, and I’m not entirely sure Bandit was even awake for any of it.
“Did you see us crash?” I asked Karalyn.
“Sweetie, that wasn’t a crash,” she said. “That was a rough landing.”
“And a tree pruning,” I said, pointing at the broken bough on the tree.
Only two panels of Synchronicity were slightly damaged by tree branches. People lined up along the envelope, once it was laid out in the middle of the street, to help fold it back up. In the last part of the repackaging process, a procession of people dumped their small portion of the balloon’s folded fabric into the balloon’s container. Jeff then grabbed Bandit and several children and placed them on top of the fabric to tamp it down while parents took pictures.
The teenage girl who had followed us in the car introduced herself as Kiki. She said her mother, who had been driving, had been chasing balloons for forty years. “I’m really glad Bandit’s okay,” Kiki said, petting Bandit’s head.
Jeff passed out collectors cards with Synchronicity’s photo. On the back, it read: “Time spent ballooning is not subtracted from one’s lifetime.”
I’m sure the same thing cannot be said about tree pruning.
If You Go
With nearly one million visitors, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the most popular event in New Mexico and the biggest ballooning event in the world, so advanced reservations for hotels, flights and rental cars are highly encouraged.
The fiesta begins during the first full weekend of October and lasts for nine days; this year it will take place from October 7-15, 2017. There are ticketed events, known as sessions, throughout the day; the most popular ones are the morning Mass Ascensions and the evening Balloon Glows and fireworks shows. Other attractions include concerts, chainsaw carving competitions, ballooning competitions, children’s carnival rides and, of course, the many food vendors and product exhibitors.
Unlike balloon festivals elsewhere, at the fiesta you will be right in the middle of all the balloon inflating action. Morning events begin before sunrise, so an early start is important. If you drive, plan on spending anywhere from a half-hour to an hour (or more) in traffic as you enter Balloon Fiesta Park, where the launch field and the Anderson Abruzzo International Balloon Museum are located. Admission for the museum, a building shaped like a hot air balloon, is $4 for adults and $2 for seniors and children under twelve (children under 3 are free).
There are several options to avoid the traffic congestion. Park and Ride buses leave from several locations throughout the city and include admission. The Rail Runner, a commuter train, offers special rides that connect to the park via shuttles. The area is also served an extensive network of bicycle trails; bicycle valets are on-hand at Balloon Fiesta Park to store bicycles free-of-charge. Uber and Lyft are also options, although drivers should be knowledgeable about the best route to use to get passengers to the parking area. Free trolleys and shuttles to the park entrances depart frequently from the parking lots.
Although Albuquerque usually provides ideal conditions for flying, ballooning events are at the mercy of the weather. A 40-foot flag pole sits in the middle of the park near the main stage tent, the color of the flag on the pole indicating the status of the balloon session. A green flag indicates all events are scheduled to go as planned. A red flag means the balloon session has been cancelled. A yellow flag indicates a decision has not yet been made. If you hear someone mention that the “Albuquerque box is working,” they are referring to a wind phenomenon that allows pilots to navigate a predictable wind pattern in the valley, allowing them to land almost in the same location where they launched.
Last bit of advice, autumn in the high desert means big changes in daytime and nighttime temperatures, dress in layers!