Wednesday, May 11, 2016

2015 RV Adventures - The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

The highlight of our 2015 travel season was the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which took place from October 3 through 11. It was the only part of our trip that was set in advance.

The topography and atmospheric conditions in and around the area make Albuquerque an ideal location for hot air ballooning. In 2015, the 44th year of the event, the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta featured over 550 balloons from 44 states and 17 countries, and was attended by 956,000 people. It is the largest balloon convention in the world, and is said to be the most photographed event in the world. The most photographed event in the world? Yes, I can believe that boast easily. Thanks to digital photography, one can take a virtually unlimited number of photos, and the incremental cost of taking another photo is zero. Everyone at the fiesta had at least one camera (either standalone or built into a phone). During the event, Janet and I took a zillion photos. Assuming all attendees were as snap-happy as we were (a fair assumption, based on what we observed), that would account for approximately half-a-billion photographs!

A great way to experience the Balloon Fiesta is by being in an RV Rally. (During a rally, participants meet and stay in a specific location for a period of time to enjoy a particular event.) The Balloon Fiesta rally we attended was put on by Fantasy RV Tours. Included in the (reasonable) cost of the rally were a reserved, prime RV space adjacent to the balloon field, admission to all balloon-related events, shuttle buses to and from the balloon field that bypassed all of the heavy traffic, coffee and doughnuts every morning, interesting tours (by bus) after the morning balloon events on four different days, and dinner with entertainment on three nights. All we had to do was to show up and have a great time!

We arrived in Albuquerque on October 1 for the start of the rally, which was two days before the beginning of the Balloon Fiesta. The early arrival gave everyone a chance to get set up and oriented before the big event. We went to the International Balloon Museum, which showcases the history and sport of ballooning. Housed in a huge building next to the balloon field, the museum was fascinating.

On October 2, Janet got to check off one of her "bucket list" items: A hot air balloon ride. Here is a high-definition video I made of the event, which began at the fiesta balloon field. (The video plays from YouTube, so for best viewing, be sure to set it to play at 1080p or 720p if you can, and watch it full screen. Crank up the sound too!)

Janet took this aerial view of the RV parking area adjacent to the balloon field.

Janet took this photo from the balloon, about 2,000 feet above the ground.

Back on terra firma after 90 minutes in the air

Balloon flying started at 5:45 a.m. each day of the fiesta with "dawn patrol". The purpose of this pre-sunrise activity, in which just a few balloons are aloft, is to determine if required weather conditions are met, and to scope out the wind speed and direction at various altitudes. (For safe ballooning, surface winds at the balloon field must be no higher than 10 knots, visibility must be at least 3 miles, and any cloud ceiling must be at least 1,500 feet above ground level. Wind speed and direction information helps balloonists plan their rides and estimate where their chase vehicles will need to be located for pick-up at the end of the ride. Sometimes the wind shifts mid-morning, and all bets are off!) Absent frontal passages or storms, wind conditions will usually persist until about 10 a.m., after which the air usually becomes too turbulent for safe hot air ballooning. The weather was suitable for ballooning every day of the 2015 Fiesta. The last time that occurred was in 1996. Lucky us!

Balloon in flight getting a burst of hot air during dawn patrol

After dawn patrol comes a "mass ascension", during which balloons take off one after another, so that nearly all the balloons are aloft at the same time! This controlled chaos results in over 500 balloons being airborne at once  an awesome sight to behold. Here is a high-definition video I took of a mass ascension. For effect, the video is sped up at 20 seconds, even faster at 30 seconds, and even faster at 40 seconds. (Set it to play at 1080p or 720p if you can, and watch it full screen.)

And some photos too...

The experience of seeing so many balloons is hard to capture in photographs. Here are lots of shots to give you an idea of what it was like. You can click on any photo to go to a full-screen view. Once in that mode, you can see any photo by clicking on its thumbnail shown at the bottom of the screen, or you can press the forward and back arrows on your keyboard to go ahead or back from photo to photo. To exit the full-screen view, either click the X in the upper right, or press the Esc key on your keyboard.

Hmm.. perhaps I should buy a house!

While the variety of balloon designs and colors was staggering, the special shapes balloons were beyond amazing. There were 105 special shapes balloons at the fiesta; one of them was 178 feet tall!

Mass ascension of special shapes balloons

The force of hot air is strong with this one

A big, wide balloon it is

The pig was bitten by a radioactive spider!

If only the dog would have peed on the fire hydrant!

Alas, what goes up must eventually come down. On two of the mornings, the wind was such that many of the balloons came down near or between the RVs!

Even the dark side of the force couldn't keep Darth Vader in the air forever. Here he is, returning to earth. (Set the video to play at 720p if you can, and watch it full screen.)

To top off all of the high-flying activities, we took a ride on the Sandia Peak Tramway, which is about nine miles east of the balloon field. The tramway ascends the steep western side of the highest point of the Sandia Mountains. It is the longest aerial tram in the United States (3,819 feet, from a base elevation of 6,559 feet to a top elevation of 10,378 feet). A trip up (or down) the mountain takes about 15 minutes. We passed through a solid layer of clouds on the way up, and when we got to the top, the cloud layer was below us. After we had a fancy lunch in a mountaintop restaurant, the clouds dissipated and we were treated to quite a view. (See this panorama full screen by clicking on it.)

Q: What causes the sport of ballooning to get more expensive every year?
A: Inflation.

Q: What is the final installment on a 5-year interest-only loan for a hot air rig called?
A: The balloon payment.