The annual hot air balloon festival draws global audiences to the United States

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – Hundreds of hot air balloons are scheduled to take off Saturday morning, marking the start of an annual fiesta that has drawn pilots and spectators from around the world to the New Mexico high desert for the past 50 years.

One of the most photographed events in the world, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has become an economic engine for the state’s largest city and a rare – and colorful – opportunity for enthusiasts to be within reach when the giant balloons are unwrapped and inflated.

Three of the original pilots who competed in the first Fiesta in 1972 and the family members of others are among this year’s participants. That year, 13 balloons launched from an open lot near a mall on what was then the outskirts of Albuquerque. It has since grown into a multi-million dollar production.

Pilot Gene Dennis, 78, remembers the snowstorm that nearly caused him to miss that first fiesta. He had to change his flight schedules from Michigan so he could make it to Albuquerque on time.

The weather was perfect when he arrived in New Mexico, said Dennis, who flew under the alias “Captain Phairweather.” At the time, he was quoted as saying that he had brought good weather with him.

He’s back on the hook as pilots hope the opening weekend predictions are fair.

“Ballooning is contagious,” Dennis said, describing being in the air like floating in a dream, calmly observing the landscape below.

This year, Roman Müller is flying at the Fiesta for the first time. He pilots a specially shaped balloon modeled after a chalet at the top of a famous Swiss bobsleigh run. One of his goals will be to fly over the Rio Grande and get low enough to dunk the gondola into the river.

“That’s my plan,” he said with a big smile while acknowledging that flying a balloon isn’t always easy.

One thing that helps, he said, is the phenomenon known as the Albuquerque box — when winds blow in opposite directions at different altitudes, allowing skilled pilots to return a balloon close to where it launched.

Dennis said it took a few years to hold the Fiesta to realize that the predictability of wind patterns allowed balloons to stay close to the launch field, putting up quite a show for spectators.

Denise Return McDonald was a passenger in her father’s balloon during the first Fiesta. She traveled from Colorado to take part in a re-enactment of that 1972 flight on Friday. Her father, Matt Wiederkehr, was one of the first 10 hot air balloon pilots in the United States and held numerous world records for distance and duration, and built a successful advertising business with his balloon fleet.

Returning McDonald, who later set her own balloon records before becoming a commercial airline pilot, wore one of her father’s faded balloon jackets and held a cardboard cutout of him as the balloon she was riding in took off.

She remembered an eventful childhood around ballooning.

“I remember the first time I sat down in the balloons, everyone got up and got inflated and couldn’t see the sky because it was all colored fabric. And then the other was the first balloon glow of the night. Oh my god,” she said. “There were a lot of firsts that I took for granted at the time but really look back now and appreciate so much.”

The Fiesta has grown into a cadre of European balloonists. More than 20 countries are represented this year, including Switzerland, Australia, Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Taiwan and Ukraine.

It also serves as the launch site for the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, one of the world’s premier distance gas balloon races.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. The annual hot air balloon festival draws global audiences to the United States

Sarah Y. Kim

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