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Balloon fiesta

World's largest hot air balloon event is an annual thrill in Albuquerque, New Mexico


It all started in 1972 when 13 balloonists got together in Albuquerque to celebrate a passion for ballooning. Nowadays, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the largest in the world, with about 500 balloons convening each year during the first week in October for a nine-day extravaganza that showcases the world's oldest aviation sport. With over one million spectators, that makes Albuquerque the "Hot-Air Balloon" capital of the world.

The annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (www.balloonfiesta.com) takes place in Balloon Fiesta Park, located on the northern edge of the city. It is here where balloon teams from all over the world congregate, and then take flight from a 78-acre launch field. Located at high desert elevations ranging from 1,493 metres near the Rio Grande to over 2,042 metres in the foothill areas of Sandia Heights, the conditions are ideal for hot-air ballooning, especially when the mornings turn cooler come October.

The Albuquerque Box Effect

The reason Albuquerque is so conducive to hot air ballooning has to do with what is known as the "box." This is a situation that occurs when predictable wind patterns at given altitudes create optimal conditions for manoeuvring, since the only way a pilot can navigate a balloon is by changing altitude. It also helps that air is more stable in the morning hours: winds are generally most favourable the first hours after sunrise and the hours just before sunset. If winds are too gusty, launches may be scrubbed, as pilots prefer winds of less than 16 kilometres per hour.

The basic principles of gravity govern how balloons operate. Specifically, since hot air weighs less than cold air, a balloon will rise when air is heated. Conversely, when the air inside the balloon cools, it will descend. Simple: Hot air is lighter and goes up; cool air is heavier and goes down.

Fiesta Highlights

Avid balloon buffs attend events such as the Dawn Patrol and Balloon Glows, while families particularly enjoy the Special Shape Rodeo™ with balloons crafted in unusual shapes such as firemen, bees, butterflies, and even Elvis. Actually, all of the events make for great spectator sports.

The Dawn Patrol consists of pioneering pilots who launch in the dark and continue to fly until dawn's early light permits visuals of the landing sites. The Dawn Patrol can also give an indication to balloon pilots on the ground about wind speeds and directions at different altitudes. Weather permitting, inflations begin about 5:45 a.m. with launching about 6:00 a.m.

The Balloon Glow consists of a Twilight Twinkle Glow™ and a Night Magic Glow™ which are followed by New Mexico's most dramatic fireworks displays. Be sure to bring blankets and lawn chairs to enjoy the world's biggest glow show. Most spectacular is when all the balloons fire their burners and light up at the same time, creating a sensational photo opportunity for all attendees. Because of low light, tripods can substantially help with overall photo sharpness.

The Special Shape Rodeo™ is a favorite for many locals and families. Started in 1989, it features a variety of unusual shapes, bright colours, and cartoonish characters. About 82 special shape balloons are participating for 2013. Some of the all-time favourites are the three bees, the cow with an udder, the Wells Fargo stagecoach, a giant red crab, a happy green dragon, a flying pink pig, and a rotund goldfish. Why, there is even a balloon shaped like a shopping bag! If the weather cooperates, balloons begin to launch around 7:15 am, and are led by a balloon with the American flag and the music of The Star Spangled Banner.

Equally impressive, is the coordinated Mass Ascensions, where all participating balloons launch in two distinct waves and fill the skies with hundreds of colorful balloons all at once. This too is considered to be another one of those premiere "Kodak" moments. Since so many balloons ascending at once make for crowded and perhaps even potentially dangerous skies, traffic cops help coordinate the launches to ensure safe conditions. These launch directors are also known as "zebras" because of their black-and-white-striped outfits.

Music Fiesta Debuts in 2013

New in 2013 is the Music Fiesta scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 12. Four different musicians of the county music persuasion will sing their hearts out and include: Bob Farrell and Brushfire, Derryl Perry and the Lonesome Doves, Charlie Worsham, and the headliner — country music superstar Darius Rucker.

If you plan to attend this bucket list event, (it was exactly that for me), check out www.itsatrip.org for tips on where to stay, play and eat.