Every year, a valley in New Mexico becomes the launching ground for the largest hot air balloon event in the world. 

The roar of motorized fans cuts into the quiet darkness of a chilly October morning. Several hot air balloons flicker into view as six- to eight-foot flames blast from propane burners. As the balloon pilots continue heating the air inside their envelopes, a single row of swelling, glowing spheres begins to take shape.

One by one, balloons rise into the pre-dawn sky, their ascents tracked by several hundred balloonists on the ground, waiting to see which direction the balloons take. The 10 balloons that make up the Dawn Patrol head south. Back at Balloon Fiesta Park—a 78-acre grass field marked off in quadrants—hundreds of teams lay out their balloon canopies as they watch the airborne patrol, now tiny glowing dots, begin to change direction and head back to the north.

Rachel Wills raises her hands to signal “all clear” for launch. Wills is part of a group of launch coordinators known as zebras (for their black-and-white striped jerseys).

The change in flight path was what the balloon teams, spectators, and volunteers at the park had hoped to see, a confirmation that “box conditions” were present for the opening day mass ascension that kicked off the nine-day, 51st Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. As darkness gave way to dawn and the sun began to rise over the mountains to the east, some 500 hot air balloons took off, creating a colorful dappled sky over the Rio Grande River Valley.

The Albuquerque Box, as it is known to balloonists around the world, is a weather phenomenon that occurs in the fall, when temperatures are cool in the early morning. The Rio Grande River Valley is sandwiched between the West Mesa and the Sandia Mountains. At dawn, the cool conditions often create gentle, lower-altitude winds that blow toward the south. At higher elevations above the desert terrain, a temperature inversion with warmer air exists, creating winds that blow back to the north.

Graham and first-time passengers wave to onlookers. “We have launched from the same square for about the last 10 years,” he says. “They keep trying to move us, but I say ‘no, no, no.’ We just love the crowd.”

At the mercy of the winds, balloonists can control only altitude—by adjusting the temperature within their hot air envelopes. But thanks to the box conditions common during October, pilots can often land on the same field from which they departed, creating quite a spectacle.

Thousands visit the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta each year. Weather permitting, there are mass ascensions on the four weekend days, sandwiching five days of balloon team competitions. Balloon pilot Tim Taylor describes the Fiesta with a baseball analogy: Most of the ballooning events he attends are minor league. The Fiesta, he says, is like “being in the bigs” and “you have to bring your A game.”

There were more than 120 special-shape balloons at last year’s Fiesta, including Graham’s Pumpkin (seen here from the inside), which has been partially inflated by a motorized fan.

The Fiesta’s atmosphere is noticeably different from other aviation events such as airshows, where aircraft fly in choreographed routines that show off speed and power. At Albuquerque, the mood is more evocative of a family picnic. For some attendees, it’s a chance to witness the spectacle with their feet firmly planted on the ground. But for thousands of others, the Fiesta offers an opportunity to check off an item from their bucket lists by soaring above the Earth in a wicker basket.

The sight of balloons quietly breaking the bonds of gravity has often inspired a sense of awe that spans centuries. “It is impossible to describe that moment,” wrote a Parisian observer of one of the first balloon launches, in 1783. “The women in tears, the common people raising their hands to the sky in deep silence; the passengers leaning out of the gallery, waving and crying out in joy… the feeling of fright gives way to wonder.”

Those first balloons—invented by paper manufacturers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier—were lofted by air heated on the ground prior to liftoff (regarded as safer than flying in a combustible contraption with a roaring fire on board). The problem with hot air is that it cools quickly, which significantly limited the range of the Montgolfier balloons. Early balloonists instead used hydrogen and helium until 1960, when American engineer Ed Yost invented the modern hot air balloon, made from heat-resistant material and equipped with a propane burner.

Instructor David Adler (foreground) assists in deflating Pumpkin with a group he is training.

Raven Industries, a company co-founded by Yost in 1956, initially manufactured high-altitude research balloons for the U.S. Navy. When the company began manufacturing some of the first hot air balloons, “they expected the U.S. government to be the main customer for the product,” says Thomas Paone, who curates the lighter-than-air collection at the National Air and Space Museum. “They were, however, quickly purchased by sport balloon enthusiasts, changing the dynamic of lighter-than-air flight as they literally took off.” By the 1980s, Raven Industries was selling 200 hot air balloons per year.

Today, nearly 5,000 hot air balloons are registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. The commercial balloon industry says it conducts as many as 250,000 passenger rides annually. “Hot air ballooning is a different type of flight compared to airplanes,” says Paone. “Many discuss the silence of the flight, with only the occasional sound of the burner interrupting the peace. Balloons may not reach the speeds or altitudes that many celebrate, but they allow people to touch the sky like the first humans to fly.”

Pilot Wild Bill Dobbs directs his crew as they “milk” the air out of his balloon Wild Fire after landing back at Balloon Fiesta Park.

According to the FAA’s Aviation Accident Database, balloons are the safest way to fly. Large events like the Albuquerque Fiesta typically rely on a designated “balloonmeister” who—along with safety and weather officers—directs all activities. Meanwhile, daily launches are coordinated by a well-trained group of launch directors known as “zebras” for their easy to spot black-and-white striped jerseys. At the Fiesta, each zebra is assigned a designated area on the massive field, which is divided into 208 launch sites. The mass ascension events, which involve the launching of hundreds of balloons, would be chaos without supervision by the zebras.

A group of zebras holds a pre-dawn meeting to go over logistics before the Fiesta’s first mass ascension.

With so many balloons in the air at one time, it is each pilot’s responsibility to safely navigate their craft. Pilots at lower altitudes have the right of way, since their upward views are blocked by their balloons. Balloon pilots and their passengers must always be on the lookout for what is below them and be prepared to maneuver out of the way of any ascending balloons. 

Four-year-old Decker Ernst peers through binoculars ahead of an evening glow event, when dozens of balloons shine bright against the night sky.

As the temperature rises with the warming sun, the pilots begin looking for a place to land. With perfect box conditions, most will land back at the launch field. On days when they drift west or east of the field, the pilots will seek other landing areas—many of which have been marked with large white Xs by local landowners. During flight, the pilots keep radio contact with their chase crews, who have been traveling below in pickup trucks. Ideally, the chase crews are on hand to assist as the balloons touch down. 

The Fiesta’s mass ascension events rely on careful coordination between balloon pilots and their zebras.

Once on the ground, the canopy vents are opened to release the warm air and deflate the balloons. The crews then squeeze the remaining air from the canopies—a process they call “milking”—before stuffing them into protective bags, which are then loaded, along with the balloon baskets, onto the pickup trucks for the return to Balloon Fiesta Park.

Dobbs’ Wild Fire chase crew sits in a pickup truck after a flight. Dobbs raced motorcycles until he was 30, when his girlfriend took him to a balloon event. “I was hooked,” he says.

Back at the field, many teams have tailgate celebrations with their families and guests, toasting the day’s flights and sharing stories of balloon experiences new and old. First-time balloon pilots are sometimes initiated by receiving a surprise dousing of water from their crews, and entire teams will recite the balloonist’s prayer:

“May the winds welcome you with softness.

May the sun bless you with its warm hands.

May you fly so high and so well that God joins you in laughter,

And sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”

A setting sun marks the transition to the Fiesta’s nighttime balloon events.

With the departure of the morning crowds and the tailgating activities over, Balloon Fiesta Park becomes deserted in the late morning and early afternoon.

Pilot Tim Taylor (wearing a rabbit-ears hat) inflates his patriotically colored balloon prior to taking off with the day’s Dawn Patrol.

At 4 pm, with the reopening of the park gates, the grounds once again become busy with visitors and balloon teams arriving back to their designated spots. As the sun sets, the evening festivities begin with the playing of the national anthem as a skydiving team and flag bearer land center field. Under the direction of the zebras, hundreds of balloon envelopes are laid out and tied down before getting filled with hot air. The teams then begin to blast their burners, sometimes in unison, creating a spectacular glow throughout the park. “People look at it like we are just launching balloons, but it’s so much more than that,” says Rachel Wills, who has worked as a zebra for 10 years. “It’s a whole community that lifts each other up.” 

Jim Preston is a U.S. Navy veteran photojournalist and career visual journalist and editor who was the National Air and Space Museum's chief photographer before retiring in February 2024.

See more photos from the Balloon Fiesta on Flickr.


This article is from the Spring 2024 issue of Air & Space Quarterly, the National Air and Space Museum's signature magazine that explores topics in aviation and space, from the earliest moments of flight to today. Explore the full issue.

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