NM Ballooning: Not Just A Century Of Hot Air

Oct 4, 2013


Balloon Glows, when inflated hot air balloons are lit up simultaneously at night, are some of the most popular events at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
Credit Avi Dolgin via Flickr

Since the early 1970s, hot air balloons have taken to the skies en mass at this time of year in Albuquerque. Tom Garrity, with the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, said the local tradition goes back much further.

"Ballooning has actually been taking place in New Mexico since the late 1800s," he said, "with gas balloons."

It's the combination of abundant sun filled days with little to no rain that makes the region so ripe for balloon flight, Garrity explained. Add to that a unique wind formation called the 'Albuquerque box,' and you'll know why for the next 9 days more than 500 balloons from 19 countries will be floating across New Mexico skies.

"The balloons actually launch from the field and if the 'box' is in affect, they'll go south. When they increase their elevation they'll end up going a northerly direction," he continued. "The 'Albuquerque box' is a box formation that balloons can fly when the conditions are just right."

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta brings in $90 million to the New Mexico economy every year, mostly from out-of-state. The fiesta has almost become a trademark for the city- balloons are on postcards, mugs and tons of other tourist items.

In addition to the traditional propane powered balloons, the festival serves as the starting line for a long distance gas balloon race. This year 5 teams are scheduled to take off in balloons filled with hydrogen gas to see who can fly the farthest. The gas balloon flight that holds the record took off from Albuquerque a few years ago and flew over 1400 hundred continuous airborne miles.

"Gas balloons can [fly great] distances, about 1,000 miles," said Garrity.  "They use ballasts in the form of sand bags to help them go up and down. So in this challenge, pilots literally launch from Balloon Fiesta Park and go where the winds will take them."

Almost 100 non-traditionally shaped balloons will also be taking to the skies. "Elvis is going to make an appearance," Garrity revealed. "We have an astronaut and the Darth Vader balloon. From a spectator perspective, it looks like a young child's toy box has opened up and emptied out into the sky."  

Chilly air provides more lift, so the forecasted cold front shouldn't be a problem for balloonists. Officials are keeping an eye on wind currents to make sure they stay calm enough for ascension to take place each and every day.