It’s hard to believe it’s been three months since the 48th Annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta kicked off the nine-day event. I thought I’d start the series of posts on the bucket-list event with two posts that are a big-picture overview.  

I know sometimes I can geek-out on the deep dive history and background of people, places and things. I’m going to try to avoid doing that here though I want to offer a few resources in case you are interested in more in-depth information. Let’s start with the history of ballooning. This article is on hot air ballooning on the Balloon Fiesta website and isn’t too long. I found it fascinating.

How the Balloon Fiesta Began

The History of the Balloon Fiesta itself I put together with the help of the timeline given in the media guide along with Wikipedia. Currently, on the Balloon Fiesta’s History page, it says, “Coming Soon.”

The event began as part of a local radio station’s 50th birthday celebration in 1972. They invited a man named Sid Cutter who ran a balloon ride service and who was the first person to own a hot air balloon in New Mexico. As they talked ballooning, the radio station manager asked what was the largest gathering of balloons to date. It was 19 at an event in England. Which led to the idea of trying to create something bigger.

They got 21 balloonists to agree to come. Unfortunately, luck wasn’t on their side and bad weather kept many from arriving on time. In the end, they had a gathering of 13 balloonists from 8 states and 20,000 spectators. The event was held in a shopping mall parking lot.

That first event included a game called Hare and Hounds, though to make it more New Mexican they called it the Roadrunner-Coyotes Balloon Race. One balloon was the roadrunner, everyone else were coyotes. Off they go and when they land, the balloon who comes closest to the roadrunner is declared the winner.

And Then It Grew

It was such a success that the following year, Albuquerque hosted the first World Hot Air Balloon Championships, turning the event into an international one. It grew each year until the year 2000 when over 1,000 balloons participated. This prompted the board to realize bigger wasn’t necessarily better and the following year they limited registered balloons to 750. In 2009, due to the growth of Albuquerque resulting in less landing zones, it was further limited to 600 balloons where it remains today.

Over the years, many events and services have been introduced while other things have gone away. Since I attended the 48th annual, there was a lot of talk about the 50th year anniversary event and some suggestions that a few throwback events are going to be added for the celebration in 2021.

Albuquerque Box

You might be wondering, why Albuquerque? There is something known as the Albuquerque Box that makes it an ideal place to fly hot air balloons (technically, I should say to pilot since you don’t fly a balloon). I’d heard the term and even heard it explained before attending. But I have to say, once I saw it in action, the whole concept made so much more sense to me.

Never the less, I’m going to attempt to explain it.

You have the ideal Albuquerque Box happening when balloons are able to form the letter “C” in flight. That’s my non-technical explanation. It means they go up, get on one current of air and go south (starting at the bottom of the “C”). They stay at that level for a while then go up further where the current is heading the opposite (north) direction (top part of the “C”). Thus, sending them back from where they came. What it means, in ideal conditions, is that a pilot has a good chance of starting and landing on the launch field.

In October, it’s estimated that the ideal Albuquerque Box will occur about 30% of the time. During the 48th annual Fiesta, it definitely happened a less. I think there was only one day where I clearly saw the “C.”

Even on days when the ideal box occurs, the conditions (basically, different temperatures at the top and bottom of the “C”) dissipate by mid-morning. It’s one of the reasons, Mass Ascension begins so early in the morning.

Useful Terms

Here are a few terms I had to learn in order to better understand the event.

Regarding the Balloon

The envelope is the balloony part of the balloon, the part that fills with hot air. It can be a colorful balloon, a shape balloon or one with a company logo on it.

The gondola is the part of the that carries the people. It’s also called the basket. They vary in size based on the envelope and most often, they are made of wicker.

The Chase Crew are the group of people who follow, or chase, the balloon after it takes off (using GPS). Once the balloon lands, they help pack it up and then drive everyone back to the starting point. At the Fiesta, the crews are all volunteers.

Piball is a mash up word for pilot balloon. It is a helium-filled balloon (a regular birthday party type balloon) that a pilot releases to see which way the wind is blowing at different elevations.

Hot air balloons inflating against the pale pink sky of dawn. In the foreground is a yellow, red, blue balloon laying on ground before inflation starts.
Mass Ascension just beginning as balloons inflate. The envelope of this balloon is laid out on the grass. First big fans blow air into it to inflate the envelope. Then the propane burners are turned on to make the envelope lift.

Regarding the Fiesta

The Dawn Patrol happened at 6 a.m. each day unless conditions prevented them from going up. The people on dawn patrol are a handful of experienced pilots who go up first to test wind currents and temperatures. They report back and then, along with input from with weather experts, the balloon organizers decide which flag to fly (see below).

There are three possible flag colors: green, yellow, red. A green flag means the event is a “go.” Yellow means “maybe.” Red means “no go.” If a yellow flag is flying then balloons are generally filled and ready for launch should conditions change and the flag changes to green. A red flag means balloons are not filled or launched because conditions aren’t safe. As a spectator you dread seeing yellow or red, but the officials are very clear that all decisions are made based on safety of the pilots not on the audience.

On the huge launch field, there is only one flag. It’s on the edge at mid-field. Once you know where to look, your eye regularly searches out the flag flying above the crowd as a gauge for what to expect.

When the intent is to fly but conditions don’t allow it (such as when a yellow flag stays yellow), the balloons still inflate. This is called a Static Show.

Mass Ascension is pretty much what it sounds like. The balloons ascend en masse. They all are up and off into the sky within about an hour. It’s a sight to see, especially when Mass Ascension includes most all the registered balloons.

One Group of Volunteers

Zebra Herd are volunteers (about 60) who patrol the launch field and help balloons by moving people out of the way of guidelines, envelopes as well as clearing a path when a balloon is coming in for landing.

Why the name zebras? The uniform. They wear a black and white striped shirt and have a whistle around their neck. They look like a referee except they are allowed to supplement their uniform. My favorite was a guy who also wore a pink tutu.

Hot air balloon against a blue sky with a crowd of people below, including two men in white pants with black and white striped shirts walking.
These two Zebras are the only ones I thought to photography. I took this as I was leaving the launch field after a morning session. Balloons are still going up but for the most part Mass Ascension is finished for the day.


Most days what followed the dawn patrol at 6:30 was the Morning Glow. Still dark, many balloons are filled and waiting for the green flag for the 7:00 Mass Ascension. The organizers communicate with all balloonists. Honestly, I’m not sure how. In the evening the same activity is called variations on the Glow theme. There is the Twilight Glow, Balloon Glow, Special Shapes Glodeo (a mashup of glow and rodeo), Magic Glow. The Glow is when the inflated balloons, against the dark sky, open the burners causing their balloons to light up.

During the Glow, the organizers will tell them to do an all-burn which is when the balloons, all at once, open the burners and you see a field of balloons glowing simultaneously.

Or, they will call for a flicker burn (sometimes called a twinkle burn). Then balloons open and shut, open and shut the burners causing the balloons to flicker across the field.

Hot air balloons that are shapes inflated against the dark blue of a dusky night sky.
The balloons filling at dusk in preparation for the evening Glow. The two hugging bears are glowing. I took this from my spot in the North VIP RV lot so that’s shy you see a fence around the balloons. I’m not on the launch field.

Balloon Fiesta Stats

I was fascinated as I read stats about the event so thought you might be also. I compiled these from the media guide I received, the after-event press release and the website.

The Money

  • 65% of the visitors to the Fiesta are from outside New Mexico and they spend an average of $150 per day.
  • The economic impact of the nine-day event is $173 million to the area which generates nearly $6 million in state tax revenue.
  • The Fiesta is self-sustaining and receives no subsidies from any tax authority.
  • Each year more than $7 million is needed to put on the event. Funding comes from five primary sources:
    • RV space rentals
    • Admission and parking
    • Sponsorships
    • Concession fees
    • Merchandise sales

The Venue

It’s funny. I told several people that the map provided to me in my RV welcome packet made the place seem simple and easy to navigate. Go look for one tent, one balloon, one merchant and you will soon discover it is anything but simple and easy. At least until you get your bearings. When I found a map by the numbers, it became much clearer just how massive the event is.

  • The grassy launch field (merchants and sponsors are not on the launch field so the whole place is even bigger) is 78 acres. If you need a better reference, that means 56 football fields can fit inside the launch field. Is it any wonder I walked three to four miles each day I went to the field?
  •  The event uses 375 port-a-potties.
  • Around the field are 286 picnic tables. This one really seemed crazy to me because—I kid you not—it felt like there was maybe a dozen picnic tables. Realistically, an attendee needs to bring a camping chair if they want to sit.
  • 255 golf carts help volunteers do their jobs.
  • The field is laid out in a grid with 208 balloon launch sites. During Mass Ascension, the balloons go in two waves to get everyone in the sky.
  • More than 20 different law enforcement agencies from federal, state and local agencies participate keeping keep Fiesta-goers safe.
Map of the Balloon Fiesta.
North is the direction of the top right corner. I’m not sure if you can see the details of this but imagine the green launch field as 56 football fields. Vendors are in the white tents on Main Street on the west side of the field.

The Balloon Fiesta 2019 Event

Event Theme: Picture Perfect (2020 theme is Time Flies)

Final Numbers:

  • Total registered hot air balloons: 588
  • Registered special shape balloons: 104 (18% of balloons are special shapes)
  • Registered pilots (primary and additional): 671
  • America’s Challenge Gas Race teams: 9 (I’ll explain this in next week’s post)
  • Estimated guest-visits: 866,414 (It’s impossible to get an exact number)
  • Number of media organizations: 141 (I think that means this blog is a media organization)
  • Registered media representatives: 839 (including yours truly)
  • Number of views on Balloon Fiesta Live: 740,901 (I’ll explain this in another post also)
  • Numbers of countries represented (registered pilots): 17
    • Austria
    • Belgium
    • Brazil
    • Canada
    • Colombia
    • Czech Republic
    • France
    • Germany
    • Great Britain
    • India
    • Kenya
    • Netherlands
    • Russia
    • Spain
    • Switzerland
    • Thailand
    • United States of America
Close up of a hot air balloon with the white, blue, red Russian flag flapping in the air from the basket.
Day 5 included the Flight of the Nations during Mass Ascension. What that means is that two balloons from each of the 17 represented countries flies their nation’s flag.  Can you see the Russian flag flying on this balloon called Colorful?

One More Balloon Fiesta Fun Fact

The breakfast burrito originated at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta sometime in the 1970s. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I love the idea that it might be.

I have so much more to share about this bucket-list event including my balloon ride (and crash) and what it was like to stay onsite in an RV.

Links to Other SSL Adventure Posts:

To see products recently purchased by readers or to browse and shop at Amazon, follow either of these links. Huge thanks for your support.

Affiliate Link Disclosure. As a result of being an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.