Yesterday morning, my pre-set alarm went off at the unreasonable hour of 2:30 am. For a moment I had a flashback to the Disney races, which also mandated uber-early rising times to make it to the 5:30 am start! But I digress. We each made a quick cup of hot caffeine for the road and shivered our way into the truck for the drive to the Albuquerque balloon fiesta grounds from our Santa Fe RV park. The temperature was in the mid-30’s and the stars were brightly clear. Our truck’s seat heaters felt wonderful.
More than 6 months ago I made reservations with Rainbow Ryders to take a balloon ride during the famous Balloon Fiesta. They are the only concession permitted to take off within the Balloon Fiesta park grounds, and they sell to capacity months in advance. Although normally quite adventurous, Jeff did not want to ride – preferring to keep his feet on the ground! I sprung for the Ryders Club package for both of us, which provided a warm tent and full breakfast while waiting for dawn and the ride to begin. Our pre-paid package also included parking, admission to the balloon fiesta grounds, and tickets to the balloon museum.
Hearing horror stories about terrible traffic tie-ups, I allowed lots of extra time, but our ride in was completely uneventful. After parking, we made our way to the entrance gate, which was just beginning to let folks in. After wandering about a bit, we finally found the Rainbow Ryder check in tent, and were ushered into a haven of light and warmth. We were each given a welcome gift (an insulated lunch tote containing sunscreen and lip balm) and invited to the breakfast buffet. We helped ourselves from the assortment of pastries, breakfast burritos, egg dishes, cereal and hot beverages before sitting down at a vacant table. Thinking of all the others shivering in the pre-dawn chill, I was quite happy to be in the warm tent. We had an hour or so to kill, and spent the time chatting up others and asking questions of the pilots that visited each table. Finally – we were called to our balloons!
Upon check in, each of the riders had been given a “boarding pass” with our balloon assignment. Rainbow Ryders is quite a large concession, with at least 12 – 14 balloons at the Fiesta, seating 10-12 passengers each. They called out each pilot’s name, and each balloon group was escorted onto the still-dark field to their balloon location. The eastern sky was just starting to glow with the coming dawn.
Upon arrival, our pilot (Steve) informed us that we were “on hold” due to wind direction and speed. The Fiesta organizers have established wind speed safety criteria, and surface winds greater than 10 mph are a no-go. However as the sun rises and the ground heats, the winds change, so we were on hold until after sunrise, as indicated by a yellow flag flying from the main building. The northerly wind direction was also problematic, as there are few good landing zones in that direction. Landing and retrieval logistics are major pilot considerations that I had never really thought about.
The field is segmented into rows and sections, each balloon having an assigned space. We all just stood around, chatting and waiting while the sun rose. Helium test balloons were released periodically, to evaluate the wind. News helicopters buzzed around, hoping to photograph a mass ascent. As the sun began to warm the air around us, the wind seemed to die a bit and then – the green flag was hoisted! Cheers erupted around the field as crews sprang into action to begin the inflation process. Multicolored balloons magically began to inflate, rising from the ground all around us.
BUT …. Rainbow Ryders was still “on hold” as they have their own, more-conservative criteria for launch. Their balloons are very large and their logistics are more complicated. Ultimately it’s the pilot’s call whether to launch or not, and after watching the weather for another half hour or so, Steve decided NOT to launch. In his judgment (and 40 years of experience), the conditions weren’t suitable for a good ride experience. Our balloon ride was scrubbed.
Many of the private pilots elected to go and we had an enjoyable time watching the balloon inflation and launch process. The balloon fiesta allows bystanders to get right up close and personal to the balloons. It’s quite involved – first the gondola is placed on its side, tethered to the chase vehicle, and the balloon portion stretched out lengthwise. The balloon is initially inflated with cold air using huge gas-powered fans. Several ground crew hold back the mouth of the balloon and hold the lines, while others attend the blower. When mostly inflated, the pilot clambers into the side-ways basket and engages the propane burner in carefully guided bursts to heat up the inside air while the crew controls the balloon with one or more lines. As the balloon inflates, the basket tips upright – the pilot dancing to keep balance and maintain burner aim. The crew then hangs onto the basket to keep it steady and on the ground, while it is untethered from the support vehicle. Everything then pauses until a fiesta official (called Zebras due to their black and white striped attire) clears the immediate area and gives the signal to launch. Lines are quickly run in and handed to the pilot, the crew releases the basket and away it goes! The balloon must gain initial altitude quickly to avoid hitting anything on the ground, a process made more challenging in windy conditions.
Many of the pilots elected NOT to launch, so we didn’t get to see quite the “mass ascension” that we had hoped for. But there were lots of balloons that did launch, and it was a wondrous sight. Not too long after our flight was scrubbed, the Fiesta organizers hoisted a red flag, halting further launches. The winds were picking back up and veering further north, making conditions unsuitable. Our pilot made a good call.
We weaved our way back to the Rainbow Ryder tent to assess my options. I could either opt for a refund for the balloon ride portion, come back during the Fiesta to “stand by” for a ride, or reschedule for a date after the Fiesta. Coming back to the Fiesta would mean another super-early trip, paying for parking/admission (again), and standing by in the cold and dark for a ride slot that may not materialize. That didn’t sound pleasant, so I elected to reschedule for a sunrise ride next Wednesday, after the Fiesta is over. It’s less expensive than a Fiesta ride, so I’m getting a partial refund anyway!
After that was settled, we wandered around the field perimeter, which was lined with dozens of vendor tents selling food, crafts, jewelry, and other souvenirs. Not long after the remaining balloons packed up, the vendors packed up too and the Fiesta was over for the day. It was about 10 am, but it felt like 5 pm!
I was somewhat disappointed that my balloon ride didn’t go off as planned, but we had a wonderful time experiencing the Ryder Club tent amenities and watching the other balloons launch. The Fiesta really is a fantastic event and well worth getting up uber-early!