ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Winds during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta this year have predominantly sent hot-air balloons south of the launch field, forcing pilots to search the landscape for slivers of open space or empty parking lots on which to touch down.
Areas south of Balloon Fiesta Park have been increasingly filled with new buildings and development, some pilots said Saturday during a somewhat windy morning. Development to the west is also complicating some ballooning events, they said.
“It is getting tougher and tougher to fly out here,” said Sacramento, Calif., pilot Ken Lehr. “There are fewer and fewer (places to land) and they’re smaller.”
Also, Peter Procopio, a pilot from Gallup who was celebrating his 35th year as a pilot at the fiesta, said the number of balloons, and rapid development in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho have increasingly complicated his flights over the years.
Procopio, like many other pilots Saturday, chose not to fly because of swift surface winds heading south. The fact that the high winds would have complicated landing, and that they were sending pilots south, meant that pilots would have had less precision in an area where they needed it the most.
Pilots said development to the south and west have reduced landing spots. To the east, the mountains make landing difficult and Sandia Pueblo officials to the north have cracked down on landing areas.
“If you go west, it’s reasonably good. If you go south, it’s challenging,” Lehr said. “You can’t go east because of the mountains.”
And, in the north, Lehr said, pueblo officials require escorts for chase crews, and fiesta officials warn of herds of buffalo near Sandia Casino during morning briefings.
“They really keep their thumb on it,” Lehr said of the pueblo to the north. “Depending on their mood, they can make it tough on you.”
Lehr said he first flew at the Balloon Fiesta in 1999 and hasn’t been back until this year’s event. As he drove through Albuquerque upon his return, he said, he was filled with anxiety about where he was going to land.
“Now we come back and it’s all filled in,” he said. ” … But we still have a great time.”
Bill Walker, pilot president of the Balloon Fiesta Board of Directors, said “patience and fuel” are all that’s needed for any pilot trying to find a safe landing spot. He said pilots should consider carrying more fuel and fewer passengers if they’re worried.
He landed Saturday morning just south of Broadway and Woodward, and he said balloons could even go as far as the Isleta Pueblo reservation without trouble.
Procopio said some pilots opt out of attending the fiesta because they prefer smaller events with more spots to land, but he doesn’t know of anyone who has stopped coming to the fiesta solely because of the lack of open space. Neither does Lehr.
In 2007, the City Council bought up a parcel of land on Osuna NE that was being courted by Wal-Mart officials as a potential site for a store. Residents voiced their opposition to the store’s construction, but councilors said the site’s popularity as a balloon landing spot was what swayed them.
A Balloon Fiesta official at the time told councilors that more than half of pilots landed at the site. Most balloons landed in the spot Friday.
Walker said the fiesta board hasn’t identified any other specific pieces of land it would like to see protected as landing spots.
Bill Lee, another Gallup pilot, said he was also anxious when he first came to the fiesta 15 years ago, but he said experience and familiarity with Albuquerque have made him much more confident flying in the metropolitan area.
Tom Garrity, Balloon Fiesta spokesman, said that’s a common experience for most experienced pilots here. Many include the availability of landing spots as just one factor among many when deciding whether to fly, he said.
“I think that’s a sentiment of a lot of the veteran pilots,” Garrity said. “I really think it’s determined more by the wind than anything else.”