History of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta
Ballooning in New Mexico began more than a century ago in Albuquerque, when “Professor” P.A. Van Tassell, a local bartender, piloted a “gas bag” from the center of town up to nearly 14, 000 feet and landed, intact, a few miles away at the west end of the city. Still, ballooning remained an obscure sport for many years.
Now, for nine days in October, the Albuquerque skies are colorfully painted as more than 500 balloons lift off from Balloon Fiesta Park.
But, it hasn’t always been that way!
The very first balloon fiesta in Albuquerque was miniature, in comparison to today’s event, but the 13 hot air balloons that managed to make their way to New Mexico in 1972, were history makers.
The first event was located in the parking lot of the Coronado Center Shopping Mall with 10, 000 spectators and with balloonists from Arizona, California, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and Texas taking part.
The first Fiesta incorporated a “Roadrunner-Coyote Balloon Race” (a “hare-and-hounds” race elsewhere in the world) with 1 balloon being the “Roadrunner” and the others being “Coyote” balloons (the “Roadrunner” balloon was actually emblazoned with likenesses of both Warner Bros. characters). The winner of the race – the “Coyote” that landed closest to the Roadrunner – was Don Piccard of the noted aerostation dynasty, flying a balloon of his company’s design and construction (his wife also placed in the race). This race has continued as part of the Balloon Fiesta today.
The next year Albuquerque hosted the first World Hot-Air Balloon Championships in February and the fiesta became an international event. In 1975 Albuquerque was looking at hosting the World Championships again, but the event was scheduled for October. So the Fiesta was moved to correspond with the championships. To maintain interest in Albuquerque’s bid to host the championships, a balloon rally was held in February of that year. Autumn being a far better flying time than February, the event has remained in early October to the present day.
THE YEAR THERE WERE TWO FIESTAS
Many Balloon old timers talk about the year there were two Fiestas. It was 1975.
The 1974 Balloon Fiesta had been held in February 1974. Sid Cutter realized that February-April were bad months to conduct the Balloon Fiesta because of the possibility of bad weather. The next year, the Balloon Fiesta/World Championship was scheduled to be conducted in October rather than February.
Organizers were concerned that the public would lose interest in ballooning in the interim, since it would be 20 months between the 3rd Balloon Fiesta (February 1974) and the 4th Balloon Fiesta (October 1975). So the local balloon club decided to conduct a different balloon event in February 1975 – 12 months after the 3rd Balloon Fiesta.
As a result, in 1975 there were two balloon events in Albuquerque – the AAAA event in February and the Balloon Fiesta/World Championship in October.
In February of 1975, about 40 balloons from 8 states gathered at the Fairgrounds to hold the first Cloudbouncer Rally, or Fiesta “3-1/2”. This locally-inspired event proved to be the forerunner of today’s Friends and Lovers Rally, which is still held each February around Valentine’s Day.
WE’VE GOT GAS!
Gas balloons became part of the Balloon Fiesta in 1981. In 1993, and again in 1999, AIBF hosted the annual Coupe de Gordon Bennett, the world’s oldest and most prestigious gas balloon race. In 1994, The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta hosted the 8th World Gas Balloon Championship and in 1995, Balloon Fiesta launched America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, a distance race that broke distance records, dating back to 1912.
The Balloon Fiesta grew each year for decades, and today is the largest balloon convention in the world. The number of registered balloons reached a peak of 1, 019 in 2000, prompting the Balloon Fiesta Board to limit the number to 750 starting in 2001, citing a desire for “quality over quantity”. The limit was changed to 600 in 2009 — citing recent growth in the city and a loss of landing zones. On any given day during the festival, up to 100, 000 spectators may be on the launch field where they are provided the rare opportunity to observe inflation and take off procedures. Countless more people gather at landing sites all over the city to watch incoming balloons.
The Dawn Patrol began at the Balloon Fiesta in 1978, when two California balloonists developed position lighting systems that allowed them to fly at night. Dawn Patrol pilots take off before sunrise and fly until it is light enough to see landing sites. Fellow balloonists appreciate the Dawn Patrol because they can watch the balloons and get an early idea of wind speeds and directions at different altitudes.