Ride the Smokey Bear balloon, floating west over Rio Rancho

The crew works to inflate the Smokey Bear balloon, which took off along with two other hot air balloons, at Joe Harris Elementary Friday morning. (photo Heron)

Pilot Beth Wright-Smith and passenger Gary Herron wave to the crowd below. (Photo by Joe Grimando)

I get up at “zero-dark-30,” a Friday that won’t end until after a football game at Cleveland High, for a cool adventure: a hot air balloon ride. any hot air balloon; this one is the iconic Smokey Bear balloon, long a hot air balloon favorite everywhere, and that’s where it flies.

This week, of course, there are nine days at the 50th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Smokey is a huge, special-shaped balloon, with a cap that measures 72 feet in diameter and a head underneath that requires 145,000 cubic feet of hot air to lift off.

Smokey Bear and two other balloons are inflated at Joe Harris Elementary School, where they will take flight to the delight and applause of parents and students below. I was asked to do a story about a ride, and veteran pilot Elizabeth Wright-Smith, who has flown balloons for 44 years, following in the footsteps of her balloonist father, agreed to take me along.

Due to Smokey’s huge size, it takes about an hour to spread the balloon out on a large tarp, get a head start with cold air blown by a large fan, and then Wright blasts hot air -Smith to put it upright. .

Wright-Smith oversees the work of his pursuit team to get Smokey off the ground and, as they say, “It takes a whole village”: men, women, a few kids.

Wright-Smith, born in Minneapolis and raised in South Dakota and Iowa, “before he began moving west.

“My dream job was to be a line boy at the airport; it was my dream in high school, because I knew kids who did it.

“My dad flew airplanes, in addition to balloons,” she added, and his initial interest was piqued when he was asked to help inflate a balloon, which he had never seen. previously.

“He went there to see if he could help,” she recalled, and just two years later was flying or crewing seemingly every weekend. She was around 10 years old at the time and the dream began, although she went to college and later was a teacher.

For the next half hour we drift slowly southwesterly, a breeze of 2-3 knots per hour providing power.

Along the way, Wright-Smith talks more about his life, how balls are viewed in four categories (sport, rider, competition and business); Smokey is “non-profit,” she adds, with its theme: “Going Higher to Prevent Wildfires.”

In fact, on most of his appearances around the country, the area Forest Service and other firefighters are “drafted” to serve on the hunting teams. At Joe Harris Elementary School, there were two tables, one of which was to increase children’s awareness of the dangers of forest fires and wildfires, and the other with pamphlets and other information. (For more, see smokeybearballoon.org.)

Wright-Smith, who trains future balloon pilots and sells Cameron balloons at his Airborne Heat training center in Albuquerque, flew another popular special form, the Wells Fargo Stagecoach, for 14 years.

“This thing was more of a beast than this thing is to fly,” she said, but in 2021, Smokey’s flight took her too close to the Albuquerque Sunport and Kirtland Air Force Base, “and I find out that it doesn’t stop.”

But, she added, “I always have a plan and two or three backups. If I get to plan G, I’m in trouble.

That doesn’t happen on Friday morning, as she spots a wide, welcoming, sandy arroyo in which to drop Smokey.

Two or three rebounds later, he – “Most balls are a her, but this ball is a he,” Wright-Smith said earlier – stops.

She goes on the radio to chat with the chase team, and it’s not long before several vehicles, including the beautiful 1949-built La France Foamite American fire truck, are in the arroyo, with help rushing towards Smokey to allow the pilot and his passenger to disembark.

The air is then released, the envelope rolled up and the basket disassembled before everything is put away in a trailer, awaiting a similar mission the next nine days, but on the grounds of the balloon festival in Albuquerque.