Barb Curry remembers her fascination with hot air ballooning after hearing about the very first balloon rally in Albuquerque in 1972. Two years later, she traveled from her home in Farmington to Albuquerque to see it for herself, unfolding in the racetrack infield at the State Fairgrounds.
“I was so … I couldn’t even believe it,” she enthused recently. “All these balloons, and you could walk right up to them while they were inflating. The colors, the commotion and the noise, I was like a kid on Christmas. It was so exciting, and it still is. You can’t explain it to people.”
Curry, 68, regularly attended the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and moved to Albuquerque in 1984 for a job in mortgage banking, knowing that as a side benefit she could be closer to the local ballooning culture. This year would have been her 27th as a member of Sponsor Hospitality, a volunteer group that assists in the promotion of events hosted by fiesta sponsors.
“When I heard that fiesta was being canceled this year, I was so sad I could have just cried,” Curry said. “There are people you see only at fiesta, some of them coming from all over the world. It feels like a once-a-year family reunion, and now I’m not going to see them.”
For the first time in nearly five decades, there will be no Balloon Fiesta this year, a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pilots are disappointed, vendors are disappointed, volunteers and spectators are disappointed,” AIBF director of operations Sam Parks said. “There is a sense of loss. The Balloon Fiesta is part of the DNA of Albuquerque and part of our culture.”
While there is no fiesta this year, there are still balloons to be seen.
Dozens of pilots launched Saturday morning from five parks across the city as part of Balloon Fall Fest, an event that will allow balloonists to take off on select dates through next Sunday. Spectators, and general public access, are prohibited at the launch locations.
The event got off to a good start Saturday morning, when at least 30 hot air balloons lifted off between 7 and 7:30 a.m. Many seemed to climb into the sky from the West Side, but about a dozen launched from the all-but-empty Balloon Fiesta Park.
The winds picked up at the park, and a few of balloonists scrubbed their flights while other winged it.
Still, it was a far cry from the chilly October mornings residents are used to – a sky packed with more colorful balloons than blue – and pilots appeared to have bittersweet feelings about floating alone.
Outside the gates of Balloon Fiesta Park, a family of three gathered in lawn chairs and watched them go.
Typically during fiesta, 550 to 600 balloons from around the country and the world are registered to fly in what is the largest hot air ballooning event in the world, said Parks, who has been a pilot for 32 years. The largest assemblage of balloons, more than 1,000 of them, launched during the 2000 Balloon Fiesta.
The fiesta not only incorporates hot air and gas ballooning events, but also features live entertainment and concerts, food and merchandise vendors, and opportunities for RV camping and “glamping.”
Last year, the nine days of fiesta attracted 866,414 guest visits and had an economic impact of nearly $187 million,according to a survey conducted by Forward Analytics, a national market research firm. It is by far the largest event in New Mexico each year, said AIBF Executive Director Paul Smith, who is also a balloon pilot.
“You kind of lose sight of it when you’re in the middle of it. You forget just how big the Balloon Fiesta is,” Smith said.
And that’s saying something, considering the fiesta’s modest beginnings.
Back in 1972, longtime state Sen. Tom Rutherford was working as an announcer and manager at KOB radio, which was celebrating its 50th anniversary. “We wanted to do something special, so we called Sid Cutter,” who owned Cutter Aviation, Rutherford recalled in a 2014 story in the Albuquerque Journal. “He had just purchased a hot air balloon, and we asked him if he would fly it as part of the station celebration. Sid said, ‘My brother in Phoenix has a balloon, and I know a few other people who have balloons.’ ”
Thirteen balloons launched from the parking lot at Coronado Shopping Center. Different accounts of that first event place the number of spectators at anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000.
Coincidentally, 1972 was the 100th anniversary of Jules Verne’s ballooning adventure novel, “Around the World in 80 Days.”
In 1973 and 1974, balloonists launched from the racetrack infield at the New Mexico State Fair, Smith said. Nearly 140 balloons and pilots from 15 countries participated. Held in February, the 1973 event was marked by cold weather, wind and snow.
Because many balloons that launched from the State Fairgrounds drifted south over the airport and Kirtland Air Force Base, the newly dubbed “International Balloon Fiesta” was moved in 1974 to Simms Field, an alfalfa meadow south of Osuna and west of Jefferson. Then-Mayor Harry Kinney got behind the fiesta and had city road crews grade and prepare the site, police were assigned to direct traffic, and solid waste workers hauled trash from the field.
Looking for better ballooning weather, the fiesta moved to October in 1975, resulting in spectator attendance growing to 150,000. That year, the fiesta organizing entity became the nonprofit Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Inc.
As ever more balloonists participated in the fiesta and with spectator attendance increasing, the event moved in 1981 to Cutter Field, which is now Vista del Norte Park and subdivision north of Osuna and west of the north Diversion Channel, Smith said. That year, gas balloon events were added to the fiesta.
Another move, in 1986, had the fiesta launching from a large lot on the south side of Alameda, where the current fiesta RV park is. It remained there until 1995. During these years, the Balloon Glow and Special Shapes Rodeo became permanent attractions, as did the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race.
On the north side of Alameda, the city of Albuquerque was developing what would become Balloon Fiesta Park, which at 360 acres is the largest of all city parks. The Balloon Fiesta moved there in 1996 and now has an 86-acre launch field and permanent buildings, including the Sid Cutter Pilots’ Pavilion and a golf and events center. Cutter died in 2011.
The fiesta, which regularly gets international media coverage, had corporate sponsorship from 1992 to 2001 from Kodak, which declared the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta the most photographed event in the world, Smith said. In recent years, Canon became a major corporate sponsor.
“There’s something about Balloon Fiesta that is demonstrative of our culture, something that connects us to people and places,” said Shelle Sanchez, director of the Albuquerque Cultural Services Department.
“Those of us who grew up here and have gone to Balloon Fiesta know that it’s magical and that it’s powerful. We have the weather that makes it happen here, we have the families and the people who have international influence on ballooning, and we have the support of the community.”
And, she noted, there’s something pretty special about an early morning mass ascension, a breakfast burrito and hot chocolate.
Matthew Reisen and Journal photographer Roberto E. Rosales contributed to this report.
Balloon Fall Fest Launch Locations, Oct. 3 to 11
• Ventana Ranch Park
• Mariposa Basin Park
• Vista del Norte Park
• North Domingo Baca Park
• Balloon Fiesta Park
Launch sites are not open to the public.