Travelling to Albuquerque to witness an event I had long heard of and someday hoped to see, was a dream realized. I could only imagine the exhilaration of seeing these magnificent objects as they inhale and exhale hot air, the life blood of their existence. They are serene and gentle as they float up, up and away, carrying their owners in a vulnerable straw gondola that is suspended by wires beneath their bellies. Vibrant, thin but sturdy, these gigantic shapes glide through the darkness each morning as the dawn patrol consisting of a dozen or so balloons, explores the sky to determine the safety for the others before the events of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta begin each day. The sentries on patrol flicker and twinkle as they illuminate the skies for just an instant, owners flashing their interiors with burners to sustain their buoyancy in sublime heights.
The first time I saw these giants in person, I was in awe of the roar of the flames as they licked their way inside the balloons like a Madagascar chameleon's tongue stretches out to snag its prey. The balloon itself is made of heat-resistant nylon to resist burning from the flames. After being around the balloons during a session of "gassing up", one becomes accustomed to the rhythm of the flames and it becomes almost instinctive to have the camera ready at the precise moment to capture the scene.
On September 19, 1783, Scientist Pilatre De Rozier launched the first hot air balloon called 'Aerostat Reveillon'. The passengers were a sheep, a duck and a rooster and the balloon stayed in the air for a grand total of 15 minutes before crashing back to the ground. The first manned attempt came about two months later on November 21, with a balloon made by French brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier. The balloon was launched from the center of Paris and flew for a period of 20 minutes. This was the birth of hot air ballooning! Today, balloons are used for three primary purposes: sport and adventure flying, commercial advertising, and weddings.
There are three parts to a balloon: the basket, the burners and the envelope. The envelope refers to the actual balloon part that fills with air. The basket is the bottom part of the balloon which carries the passengers, pilot and propane gas cylinders. Baskets come in a variety of different shapes and sizes, some smaller for the more intimate flights of two to three people. The larger balloons hold twenty or more and are used for public flights. These days, most baskets are woven from Kooboo and Palambang cane as these materials are extremely sturdy, flexible and relatively lightweight. The cane has proven to be the most hardwearing and durable material, proving more favorable than even aluminum or composite plastics. The basket needs to be dependably strong as it is constantly on the move, being shifted from place to place. When the balloon actually lands there is a large amount of force exerted on the basket as it hits the ground and comes grinding to a halt. The flexibility of the cane helps with the balloon landing as wicker material flexes a little, absorbing some of the energy. It is possible to have your basket completely tailor-made to a set specification, from everything to the wall height and width, material used for padding, the floor of the basket, and whether passenger seat belts are required.
There are two main types of basket: open and T-partition. The open is obviously an open space where the passengers, pilot and fuel are all housed in the basket in just one compartment and T-partition is where the basket is split into sections so the passengers can be separated from the pilot and canisters. The T-partitions are actually a stronger structure due to the extra struts and also allows the balloon to remain more balanced overall as weight can be spread evenly over each compartment.
Essentially, there are only two ways to control a balloon: heat to make the balloon rise and venting to make it sink. This raises an interesting question. If pilots can only move hot air balloons up and down, how do they get the balloon from place to place? As it turns out, pilots can maneuver horizontally by changing their vertical position because wind blows in different directions at different altitudes. To move in a particular direction, a pilot ascends and descends to the appropriate level, and rides with the wind. Since wind speed generally increases as you get higher in the atmosphere, pilots can also control horizontal speed by changing altitude. As this doesn't always go as planned, I looked out my hotel window one morning, located only a mile from the launch field, and saw a balloon floating rapidly down into the freeway. It was an alarming site to see this, but the balloon somehow maneuvered itself back and landed on an SUV in the hotel parking lot instead.
One of the most fascinating things I found through this experience is that balloons do not come in just one shape or size. Of course, there are plenty of traditionally shaped balloons consisting of rainbow colors and designs to make the best of the LGTB community envious. There are also scores of balloons aptly dubbed as "special shapes". These include such celebrities as Elvis Presley, Snow White, Humpty Dumpty, Spider Pig, Angry Bird, the Wicked Witch of the West, a Creamland Holstein Cow, and Darth Vader, just to name a handful. Some of the larger special shapes, such as a pair of conjoined Siamese bumble bee twins, proved to be a little cumbersome and despite multiple attempts, remained vertically challenged. They lay flaccidly on the ground, desperately in need of a lift.
To see all these wonders, one must rise at a brisk 5:00 AM, and arrive at the park by 5:30 AM in order to be there when the sun wakes up. Preparations for the day begin before dawn, and as soon as daylight breaks, the balloons begin the mass ascension. One balloon starts to rise, and then another, and so on, until the sky is saturated with around 500 spectacular orbs. As a photographer, it is difficult to know which way to turn. All directions offer amazing views and scenery. The sky is ablaze with color, and the crowd is surrounded by surging gas flames. The heat from the burners transports me back to summer camp and roasting smores. Referees blow their whistles to clear the way as another balloon elevates to the sky, and the crowd cheers them off with whoops and hollers. I can't feel my toes as the grass is wet and cold and I find myself racing between balloons to freeze the moment with my lens .
The most scenic point in the week was on a morning of a competition. The balloons have contests between pilots for dexterity and skill, and attempt such daring feats as hooking a pair of car keys from three stories up in order to win a new car. When the balloons perform like this, they hover like alien spaceships on the horizon, approaching the launch field in increments with careful precision. At this point, they are perfectly still and arranged in striking clusters to resemble Christmas ornaments suspended from a tree branch.
I can always tell if something I do is really worthwhile by the way I feel about going back and doing it again. The International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico is definitely something I would do again. No two shows are alike and I was pleasantly surprised at my own sense of thrill over parachute fabric. The colors are so unbelievably surreal, and the rush of anticipation is so heady, that I would be compelled to return another year to experience these phenomena again.
If you actually need to get somewhere though, a Vespa is a far more sure bet. A hot air balloon is a fairly impractical mode of transportation. You can't actually steer it, and it only travels as fast as the wind blows. However, if you simply want to enjoy the experience of flying, there's nothing quite like it, they say. Many people describe flying in a hot air balloon as one of the most serene, enjoyable activities they've ever experienced. The silence, such sweet silence is what people find so captivating. No screaming babies and no roar of engines. There's only the occasional whoosh of the butane burner to break your solitude. Floating wicker propelled by fire can be a great thing.
Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! `I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' she said aloud. `I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think--' (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) `--yes, that's about the right distance--but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I've got to?' (Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but thought they were nice grand words to say.)