ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For many of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta pilots and chase crews, the real party doesn’t start until after they’ve flown, packed up their balloons and driven back to the park.
Long after the crowds of spectators have cleared out, tailgate parties both simple and elaborate begin to pop up across the field.
“After the flight, the field is absolutely full. … The whole area is in tailgate mode, everybody just wanders around and socializes,” says pilot Skip Pringle of Orlando, Fla. “It’s kind of a phenomenon.”
Pringle is part of the “H Row Family,” a group of pilots who launch from the row on the field marked H and then gather together afterward. The field’s launch spaces are divided into a grid, identified by letter and number.
It’s common for pilots to be part of groups such as Pringle’s H Row. The “Adams Family” of New Mexico pilots fly Adams brand balloons all named after angels or with the word angel in the name. There are also the rowdier “Vikings” who sometimes wear horns and deerskins, and there is the “Wicker Clan,” a group of pilots with a Celtic background.
Some of the groups come from across the country and meet in New Mexico.
“Albuquerque is the biggest balloon event in the world and a lot of the pilots do use it as almost a family reunion,” says Elisa Trillanes, pilot coordinator for the fiesta. “We try very hard to make that atmosphere.”
In fact, some of the pilots say socializing is more important than flying. Pringle even has come to the fiesta without his small, yellow “Smilie” balloon just so he can catch up with friends and socialize.
“The Albuquerque fiesta is like the annual gathering of the worldwide balloon community,” he says.
Kevin Cloney, an Albuquerque pilot and member of the “Wicker Clan” who is known to don a kilt on special occasions, agrees.
“We’re there primarily to be with friends, to have fun and hopefully to fly,” he says, explaining that even on days when high winds or other bad weather grounds the balloons, the pilots and their friends and families still have a good time.
It makes sense that the pilots and their crews want to have a good time.
“This is their vacation, even the local guys … they want to relax,” Trillanes says.
The “Wicker Clan” of about 12 balloons is made up mostly of local pilots but includes members from Clovis and Chicago as well.
“We tried to create a culture that was family-oriented,” Cloney says. “We’ve had up to four generations out there.”
The “Wicker Clan” even brings out a bagpipe band to play one weekend during the fiesta, and their culture also includes elaborate tailgates.
Monday, for example, typically is Ziploc omelet day. Everyone gets a one-pint Ziploc bag to write their name on and fill with eggs and their choice of such items as cheese, potatoes and vegetables. Then, the bags are dropped into a turkey fryer full of hot water. Once the omelets are cooked, they come out of the bags and go into a tortilla, Cloney says.
Champagne to spaghetti
The other tailgates aren’t just sandwiches and chips, either.
“You name it, honey, it’s there,” Pringle says.
Various groups bring everything from champagne to spaghetti. There’s even a bake-off contest with cookies, cakes and pies. One pilots’ group really goes over the top.
“They have an entire trailer that is their tailgate trailer,” Trillanes says, adding that they have a huge grill in which they fry anything you can find. They also bring out snow cone and cotton candy machines during the fiesta.
A group of Brazilian pilots started their own special day, featuring their local foods and drinks.
“A lot of them do get very, very elaborate,” Trillanes says.
Many people wander from tailgate to tailgate, talking and mixing with friends.
Although the post-flight parties are not normally a public affair, there’s one sure way to get an invitation: volunteer to be on the chase crew for an out-of-town pilot who needs the help.
There also are plenty of other opportunities for pilots to party.
“As far as the socializing stuff, that starts as soon as people start arriving,” Trillanes says.
It starts with “The Gaggle” on the Friday afternoon before the fiesta officially begins. The Gaggle is “a time for the pilots to come and catch up with each other,” she says.
The fiesta hosts several official parties: a beer and brats welcome on Saturday morning, parties specifically for international and special shapes pilots, a midweek luncheon at the ABQ BioPark Zoo and an awards party on the second Saturday.
“Every pilot gets five tickets to each of these parties,” Trillanes says.
It is a fiesta, after all.