Confronting the Limits of Technology at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta

It’s the exhilarating miracle of flight, celebrated every year with the latest special equipment and state-of-the-art equipment. For half a century, hot air balloon pilots have faced, again and again, the limits of what their technology can’t do, while wildly enjoying what it can do at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, a festival of massive hot air balloons in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Screenshot from the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta livestream – special shape ground plan Thursday, October 6, 2022

But while exciting spectators and giving their passengers the experience of a lifetime, the event also shows how a specific technology can evolve into a kind of culture, integrating perfectly into the daily metropolitan life of the 32nd city. the most populous in America.

Flying Saucer Shaped Balloon - Screenshot from the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta livestream - special shapes Thursday, October 6, 2022

Flying Saucer Shaped Balloon – Screenshot from Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Live Stream – Special Clown Shapes Thursday, October 6, 2022

As attendees gracefully celebrate the art of ballooning, they also show how it gradually transforms into something more – something magical, meaningful and yet still as unpredictable as the technology itself.

Surprise landings

Launched in 1972, Albuquerque’s “Balloon Fiesta” is now the largest hot air balloon festival on planet Earth. More than 600 hot air balloon pilots are invited to bring their hot air balloons to a kind of annual “convention”, and each morning of the nine-day festival they take off simultaneously.

Photo by TC Currie – October 6

Flights exert an irresistible attraction that fascinates people from all walks of life. Albuquerque Local Colleen Perry describes herself as a ‘stay-at-home mom and dog trainer’ – but now also leads the chase team for one of the first ‘Dawn Patrol’ balloons. They help inflate the balloons – but then follow its flight path so they can help it land, then break it down so it can be transported for later launch.

In fact, 800,000 visitors were expected this year, a community of adventurers and fun-seekers that included at least one nomadic couple who had turned a bus into a dream home. They shared their own video on YouTube first-ever balloons inflated (and lighting up their interiors) for a pre-dawn flight by the “Dawn Patrol”.

But as they watched the first balloons light up the morning gloom, the couple also wondered about the essential ballooning challenge: “They don’t know where they’re going to end up all the time.”

At least a century before the Wright Brothers took their first flight, mankind had experimented with using balloons to soar, filling the balloons with hot air or lighter-than-air hydrogen. . Technology has always had its limits, and that’s a lesson that plays out at the Balloon Fiesta in real time every year. Balloonists can only choose when to climb and when to descend – all other movements being determined by the wind directions above and below them. And with hundreds of balloons in the air every day, every pilot faces that essential unpredictability. Local Thursday TV channel KOB captured images of a balloon that landed in a suburban street.

And this is far from a rare event.

Albuquerque hot air balloon party - a balloon lands on a street corner

A surprise landing at the intersection of Carmel Avenue and Santa Clarita. Photo by David Cassel

Thursday, October 6 – a balloon lands in the parking lot of a laser eye surgery clinic. Photo by David Cassel

WBUR last year underline that local landowners even spread colorful leaves urging balloon pilots to land (or telling them to land elsewhere). But they also noted that in 2021, power was cut to 1,200 homes after two balloons accidentally crashed into power lines.

One morning this week, this couple in the converted bus discovered the wind had blown a balloonist straight into their parking lot. And later they interviewed another balloon pilot who joked, “It’s pretty easy to land once you run out of fuel,” while remembering another balloon that had actually landed in a convenience store parking lot.

On the plus side, he pointed out, “I haven’t missed the pitch yet.”

Other pitfalls also await you. A crew managed to pack their balloon in a public park – only to find that the heavy equipment had sunk their truck in the soft grass of the park.

Photo by Dana Seymour – October 6

As a balloon company put it down gently, “At the end of the day, balloons travel with the wind and don’t always end up where we’ve landed in the past.” But they reassure potential customers that “new Mexicans love hot air balloons, and most residents and owners are happy that we land the balloon nearby.”

“One of the fun things about the actual chase is never knowing where the ball will end up or how long it will fly,” Perry writes. on a blog called Albuquerque Mom.

In fact, unpredictability has become part of the local culture. “One of the best parts of landing in a residential area is involving the people nearby,” adds Perry. “As long as the conditions are good, the chase team will often ask spectators to help get the ball down. We also try to let the kids get into the basket for a minute before deflating if we can.

Spectators even sometimes take part in a long tradition: hot-air balloon pilots always carry a bottle of champagne. Legend has it that early balloons were mistaken for fire-breathing dragons or otherworldly demons – and French balloonists brought champagne to prove they were the usual fun-loving French people.

To this day, it’s useful for calming irate homeowners when you’ve made a surprise landing on their property. A chase crew spoke admiringly of their pilot who shared the champagne when they landed on a commercial tree field.

“If a balloon lands in your backyard, the pilot will share champagne with you as a token of thanks and goodwill,” Perry writes.

Perry also adds that “we usually have cheese and crackers to go with it.”

Thrill of the Chase Crew

Over the past half century, the festival has gradually accumulated and adopted the latest technologies. A “hunting team” in the field told me that they also used web-based flight tracking for the balloon they maintain, which instantly translates its GPS coordinates into a convenient visualized flight path tracking map. Air-to-ground radios are now supplemented with GPS tracking systems and even emergency cell phones to communicate with ground crews. And, of course, balloonists also use altimeters that measure altitude.

And there’s also an official Balloon Fiesta app that now provides news and schedule updates for Android and iPhone.

But modern technologies continue to make their way into the graceful festivities of the event. One of the parking lots is even sponsored and named after Intelthe chipmaker also flying his own balloon during the festival.

The local police department will even pin electronic tags on children so they can walk around the event and still be located by their parents. In an interview on the festival’s official livestream, a local police officer said the department had tagged “between 500 and 700 children.”

And when the event started on October 1, the first event was a drone light show.

But technology can’t accomplish much, and the past half-century has also brought the party to a world grappling with climate change – and the tricky weather that comes with it.

“The only place in the United States where it rained was in New Mexico,” said balloonist Scott Appleman. grumbled at a local news station. (Or at least the only state where excessive rain could potentially lead to flooding.)

Brad Temeyer, meteorologist for the balloon festival, told the station that Florida’s Hurricane Ian pinned a low-pressure weather block across the Rocky Mountains. “He just couldn’t move because this hurricane was moving across the East Coast. This low pressure lasted all weekend and brought showers and thunderstorms in bad weather. Additionally, low cloud reduced visibility — a dangerous situation for balloon pilots this year.

The flagship ‘mass ascension’ event – where a crowd of hundreds of event balloons lift off every morning – was canceled twice weekdays due to rain. Thursday night’s Glowdeo has also been canceled – a crowd-pleasing spectacle in which air-heating burners are adjusted to light up the entire balloon, creating a glowing canvas spectacle.

Bright balloons at the Albuquerque Balloon Festival

Image by Dana Seymour

But perhaps the biggest disappointment was the cancellation of the spectacular long-distance petrol balloon race, which disappointed eight different teams from five countries, including the father-son team from Germany who currently hold the world record, according to the festival’s web pages. (Previous competitors had flown from Albuquerque to Canada or even to the east coast of the United States, adds the festival website.)

Event organizers had lined up live satellite tracking of all balloon positions, preparing to webcast it through the festival website and on the festival’s official phone app for Android and iPhone. But in the end, “the weather conditions did not allow for a safe and competitive race”, explains the fiesta’s official webpage.

Yet as the event enters its second half-century, the spirit of the balloonists remains unwavering. Dana Seymour tells me that their pilot is one of many who also concludes all his flights with the balloonist’s prayer.

“May the winds welcome you gently.
May the sun bless you with his warm hands.
May you fly so high and so good that God joins you in laughter
And gently place you back in the loving arms of Mother Earth.

Having lunch at an Albuquerque burger joint, Seymour put it even more succinctly.

“The one thing we found over and over again at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta was joy.”

Colorado 2 “Chase Crew” members – husband and wife Dana and Julie Seymour.

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