Before I share my balloon ride experience, let’s pause for a moment of fun. I haven’t done a trivia question in a while. See if you can answer this one. Think about it and I’ll give the answer at the end.

Trivia Question

What actress on the most popular 1950s comedy television show got her acting start in Albuquerque? Her character, on occasion, would refer to the New Mexico town.

Waiting for a Balloon Ride

My balloon ride, as I’ve mentioned before, was a perk I received as part of attending the Balloon Fiesta as “media.” I applied for the media credentials. But having the credentials didn’t automatically allow me a balloon ride since there are more media requests for rides than slots available. Basically, each day rides are parceled out on a first come, first serve basis.

However, I didn’t know this. So, while I was at the launch field pretty early on the day I decided to ask for a balloon ride, I lollygagged my way to the media tent. First, I stopped for a photo in front of the One Albuquerque sign (the town’s current slogan). Then I decided it was a good day to pick up souvenirs since I had quite a few to buy for everyone on my Christmas list.

Giant letters that spell One Albuquerque with a woman standing in front of it.
One good thing about being on the launch field at 6 a.m., there wasn’t a line to snap a photo in front of the One Albuquerque sign.

Finally, when I got to the media tent, I expressed my interest in a ride to the staff person. The woman said there were already eight people on the list so she didn’t think I’d get one but she took my name “just in case.”

Green fake grass with yellow, blue and purple tent draping overhead. Tables and people.
Inside the media tent waiting for my balloon ride.

I drank coffee and read the paper. That morning’s front-page story was the crash of the balloon, Mr. Fish, into some trees. Luckily, everyone was okay and Mr. Fish returned to the launch field as I waited to see if my name would be called. In my photo post after the Balloon Fiesta, I included a good shot of Mr. Fish in the air.

Front page of a newspaper with photo of red fish hot air balloon caught up in trees.
Mr. Fish crashed into the trees.

Name after name went to their rides. A bit later, the woman called my name. I was going on a balloon ride!

My Balloon and Pilot (and Co-Pilot)

As I signed several release papers, the woman asked if I was allergic to dogs. No. The reason she asked was because the pilot flew with a service dog. I have to say that made me nervous. Images of the pilot going into a diabetic coma or having an epileptic seizure or PTSD incident while 1,500 feet above the earth filled my head.

It turns out, that’s all just code for the guy’s dog comes on the balloon rides. Bandit (a blue healer, I believe) was less service dog, more mascot.

The media tent was on the south end of the field while the balloon I was assigned to was almost at the end of the north end of the field. Although I certainly could’ve walked, when I was offered a ride by a volunteer in a golf cart, I took it. Plus, he could probably find where I was supposed to go better than I could.

The volunteer was a young guy and that’s when I learned about the 1,300 Navigators who volunteer for the event. I just assumed it was his job to be at the media tent by 5 a.m. each day. Nope. Every year, he takes the week off from work to volunteer for the event. I joked with him that he took a week’s vacation from work in order to get up even earlier than he had to for work.

He easily found T1, the launch field coordinate assigned to the balloon called Synchronicity. I met the pilot, Jeff Haliczer.  I met the co-pilot mascot, Bandit.

Dog standing on an overturned hot air balloon's basket.
It’s dawn as the chase crew prepares the balloon. See the envelope laid out in a line? Bandit supervises set up.

Preparations for Balloon Ride

The chase crew (two very nice couples who came to the Fiesta in RVs) began laying out the envelope. My ride took place on Day 4 so, even though it was their first time as part of a chase crew team, they were getting the hang of things.  

Colorful hot air balloon half way filled with air.
Big fans are used to fill the envelope with air before the propane is lit adding heat which makes the envelope rise.

I asked if there was anything I could do and Jeff handed me more release forms to sign. Once done, he gave me a stack of cards and told me to give them out.

I should pause here to tell you about the cards. My first thought was to call them trading cards but I’m not sure if that’s a term from another era when cards (mostly baseball cards) were traded. This is slightly different because you can go up to any balloonist and ask for a card. They have tons. Thus, eliminating the need for trading

Colorful hot air balloon laying on its side as it gets filled with hot air. Two people are holding the rope lines to assist.
More air. almost ready for the propane.

Primarily kids collect them but I know some adults who did as well. In fact, an RVing friend of mine who wrote a blog post about her 2018 Balloon Fiesta experience collected them and sent the balloonists photos she took of their balloon which they appreciated.

And, guess what, even Bandit “The Balloon Dog” has his own card. On the card it says he’s been on more than 200 balloon rides across the US. And, if you are interested, he also has his own Facebook page.

Up, Up and Away

It didn’t take long before we climbed into the gondola. One member of the chase crew came with us for his first balloon ride. Jeff gave us a quick safety talk which, as it happened, I’d be glad for a little bit later.

Blue sky filled with hot air balloons that have just launched.
Synchronicity taking off. This is a different day so I’m not in the balloon. Photo by Colleen Betzing.

As we lifted off, the crowd cheered. We waved. And what felt like a second later, we were in the quiet of space above the launch field. It was another day where the Albuquerque Box was not in play so we went north, right over the North VIP Lot were my rig was parked.

I don’t have a fear of airplane flying. Not really. But, that said, I do get a little nervous at take-off and landing. So, as much as I can, I like to avoid air travel. Because of this, I prepared myself to be quite scared on my balloon ride. After all, it was air travel without the safety of seat belts, a metal cocoon and computers doing the work.

Don’t get me wrong, I was going to do it no matter what but I planned for it to involve a lot of self-talk. So, the most surprising thing about taking off—seeing the ground get further and further away—was how non-scared I was. It doesn’t make sense. I cannot explain it. I can only say I felt no fear. And this didn’t change no matter how high we went.

The other surprising thing about my ride was how quickly the time passed. I’m not kidding. The balloon ride was more than 90 minutes and I never would’ve believed it if I hadn’t seen my phone clock. I would’ve estimated 20 minutes. I guess with all the viewing, photo taking, asking questions of Jeff the time just flew by.

From above, three bee shaped hot air balloons laying on the grass as they are getting inflated. Lots of people all around.
First there was Joe and Lilly Bee. They are known for always taking off together giving the impression they are holding hands as they launch. I’m not sure what happened but one year they must’ve been doing more than holding hands because in 2010 baby Joelly joined the family. Photo by Colleen Betzing.
From the vantage point of inside a hot air balloon, looking down at the people and balloons on the launch field with lot of other balloons in the air.
Just after lift-off. See the white tents all the way on the other end of the field? That’s where the media tent is located.
Three hot air balloons on the launch field filled with air. People all around.
A few minutes later we came back over the end of the launch field. If you look closely you can see the balloon with the skull? See it in the previous photo? It’s called One New Mexico.
From in a hot air balloons with lots of other balloons in the air, over the city of Albuquerque.
From the air on a different day. Photo by Colleen Betzing.
A black pole of the gondola of a hot air balloon in foreground with lots of balloons throughout shot. All over a green tree-filled area.
Sky filled with balloons from my balloon ride.

Splash and Dash

Balloonist like to test their skills near water by doing a maneuver called Splash and Dash. What they do is lower the balloon near the water then take off again. If they are really good, they can skim the gondola along the water before rising again.

Since the wind sent us north, it meant we passed over the Rio Grande river. There was a whole line of balloons ahead of us with the same idea.

But, bad news. On our way down to the river, we couldn’t get lined up right so our trajectory had us going into the trees rather than the river. I was bummed we didn’t get to do our own splash and dash. But it was still neat to be that low and to see others do it.

Then on the way back up, just above the river, we bumped another balloon. That bump sent us down again. By the way, I asked about balloons hitting each other before we started the maneuver since so many were congregated in such a small area. In my mind, if they hit, the envelope would collapse in on itself. But Jeff set me straight. He said it was more like sumo wrestlers, they just bounce off each other. He said, though that a pilot had to try to avoid a gondola-to-envelope hit because the gondola’s wicker and rigging could potentially tear the envelope.

Getting bumped and sending us back down again, our angle was perfect and we did our own splash and dash. We briefly touched the water and then went up and off again.

Hot air balloons all over sky, many are low. A river runs through bottom of photo.
Approaching the Rio Grande.
Hot air balloons hovering over a river.
We’re getting closer.
Feet above a river from inside a hot air Another balloon ahead is skimming the water..
Almost down for the touch.
Dog's nose and head poking out of the
Looking down our gondola. Whenever the balloon started to descend, Bandit would get up and look out of this hole. The sign Jeff added says, “Dog is my co-pilot.” The hole is what we use for the step to get into the gondola. See the faint reflection of our balloon in the water? We are just seconds away from touching the water.
Lots of hot air balloons very near a river for a splash and dash.
And we are up and off again.

X Marks the Spot

During the Fiesta, area landowners have the option to pickup a big white X from event organizers. They lay the X in their yards and that’s an indication to balloonists that they have permission to land in that yard. In addition to the official Xs, many people simply put a white sheet in their yard indicating the same thing. In case you are wondering, 287 Xs were picked up from the event organizers.

Initially, I found them hard to spot from so high up. But even in my single ride, it got easier. So, I’m sure with practice, the balloon pilots get really good at seeing those Xs from the sky.

Rainbow colored balloon landed in a yard filled with green grass and trees. There is a white X on the grass.
A balloonist taking advantage of the white X in a person’s yard.

When I saw a yellow sheet at an equestrian center, I asked Jeff about it. He said, yellow means you can land there if you have to but you should try everything not to have to. In the case of an equestrian center, obviously, it scares the horses. Plus, they have a lot of fencing. We were well above it, but later as we were coming down, we went just over some other horses and it definitely spooked them.

Balloon in the sky just above trees and a big rock.
Along the way, the chase car spotted us. Photo by Colleen Betzing.

The Landing aka The Crash

As the propane tanks emptied, Jeff started looking for a place to land. He spotted one but the winds had other ideas so we missed it. We were low by then and he said we were going to try for a yard near a road. The other side of the road was all trees. There wasn’t a white X but there was nothing else suitable around and we couldn’t risk going farther and running out of propane.

The space seemed small to me but it was adequate for the job. In one of the earlier posts I talked about how balloons aren’t actually flown in the sense that a pilot has much control on where they go. That is, they are entirely atmospheric dependent. What the pilot controls is the up and down using the propane to heat up the air of the envelope to go up and pulling on a line that releases hot air from the envelope to go down.

That meant, even though there was an open space on the property, we were unable to aim for it. Instead, we headed straight for the fence. A barbed wire fence. And there was nothing we could do about it. It was fast becoming clear the landing was probably going to be rough.

I wasn’t scared of, say, death. We were too close to the ground. But I’ll be honest, I was a little worried about injury.

We came in scraping along the fence. It might not have been too bad except, shortly after we touched down, there was a log in our path and we were still going a bit fast. Jeff yelled at us several times the safety instruction he’d given us at the beginning of the balloon ride which was to stay inside the basket. No matter what, stay in the basket.

Dirt, dry grass and a piece of wood embedded in the dirt.
You wouldn’t think a little old log could cause a big hot air balloon to completely tip over. But it did. Can you see where the balloon dug hard into the dirt.

When we hit the log, the basket tipped all the way over on its side. It was like a skateboarder hitting a pebble. But we didn’t stay tipped for long because the hot air in the balloon picked the basket back up again. A few more bumps along the ground and we came to a stop.

Same photo as above but from a farther distance away.
The crash site. See the same log and stirred dirt? The chase trailer is on the road in the background.

Jeff said to stay in the basket. We were on property without a white X. Before we could get out, we needed permission. After a minute or two an old woman emerged from the rundown adobe house that, we learned, her brother built. With the wind, we couldn’t hear her so had to wait for her to slowly make her way across the property to where we waited. Then Jeff explained why we landed on her property. He then asked for permission to stay until we took the balloon down.  

Obviously, this is more of a politeness and etiquette thing because what’s our option if she’d said no? I suppose we would’ve had to drag the balloon elsewhere to deflate it and fold it up. But she was very sweet.

In a yard of dirt and dry grass, the shadow of a hot air balloon.
Me and my shadow, waiting for the okay to get out of the balloon. I was the last one out.

Injury Assessment and Take Down

When we hit and tipped, we all fell sideways. I dropped my phone and several body parts slammed into the side of the balloon. In the end, I received a baseball-sized bruise on the back of my arm. It wasn’t bad considering I expected another one on my leg and a third on my other arm. The chase crew guy in the balloon slammed his knee into the side of the balloon. He was definitely more hurt than I was but he could walk. I learned he went back to the RV, put ice on it that night and was okay the following day.

I’ll be honest, I’m glad Jeff yelled for us to stay in the balloon. It might sound obvious but it isn’t. My instinct as we hit the log and dumped over was to put my hand out to brace the fall. And after reviewing it in my mind, the potential for injury would’ve been much greater. First, it would’ve gotten cut up like the basket did by scraping along the barbed wire. Second, it was a hard slam down and an extended arm could’ve resulted in a broke wrist. Or worse.

The chase crew found us in less than 20 minutes. All along, they follow us with GPS, staying as close by as the road would allow. They moved the upright balloon to the woman’s dirt driveway where there’d be enough room to deflate it. They laid out a cloth to protect the envelope from damage or dirt from the rocks or the pokey bushes. Then they grabbed ropes that hung from the top of the balloon and pulled it over as it deflated. Getting it gathered and put away was pretty quick.

Then we returned to the launch field with a story to tell.

Three people carrying a big basket of a hot air balloon. The envelope (balloon part) is off screen.
The balloon being moved to the dirt driveway. Can you see the broken wood support? What you cannot see is all the scraps and scratches in the wicker as well as punctures in the sign from our run along the barbed wire fence.
Black hot air balloon with colored links sitting in a field of dirt and dry grass. A few houses are in the background.
Synchronicity at the top of the dirt driveway just before the crew tips it on its side to deflate it.
A hot air balloon on its side, half deflated. In the foreground are two signed nailed on poles. One hand written sign says, "No Trespassing." The other says, "Private Property No Trespassing."
This ironic shot cracked me up. Not one, but two signs telling people to stay off the property alongside the deflating balloon and a group of us clearly trespassing.
An olive green cloth covers the ground. Several people are working to tie up a deflated hot air balloon.
The green is the drop cloth to protect the balloon. The chase crew is gathering the fabric of the envelope and securing it.

Tasting Flight

While loading the balloon into the trailer, I saw this quote on Jeff’s trailer door:

Once you’ve tasted flight, you will never walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward for there you have been and there you will always long to return. Leonardo da Vinci

I get what da Vinci means. Despite the rough ending, given the opportunity, I’d take another ride without hesitation. Had I been asked, I would’ve taken another ride five minutes after our crash landing. That’s how phenomenal the experience was.

Final Thoughts

Regarding my adventure to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, several people have marveled and said it was a “once in a lifetime” adventure. And every time, I squirm a little bit. I resist the idea because I don’t want such a wonderful experience to be limited to just once. The good news is that in RV life it doesn’t have to be.

Because of that, my intention is to go back for the 50th Balloon Fiesta in 2021. And, yes, I already have nine days counted out on the calendar from the last day of the 2020 Fiesta. I’ll set my alarm and be ready to hit “purchase” as soon as the RV spots go on sale. I suspect with it being a milestone year, the RV spots for 2021 will sell out even faster than an hour.

Anyone else want to put it on their calendar and join me for the super fun, awe-inspiring 2021 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta?

By the way, I want to do a big shout-out of thanks to chase crew member, Colleen Betzing, who share some of her photos with me and gave me permission to use them here.

Trivia Answer

Vivian Vance, who played Ethel Mertz, on I Love Lucy was from Albuquerque. Though, back then, Albuquerque was a tiny town.

Inside the balloon, looking up. The two silver square things are the burners that shoot heat into the balloon to keep us afloat.

Links to Other Balloon Fiesta Posts:

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