RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta for 2020 recently passed into the history books because it didn’t take place as a result of COVID pandemic restrictions.
In the meantime, here is thumbnail sketch of the fiesta’s history.
Ballooning in Albuquerque began in the summer of 1882 when “Professor” Park A. Van Tassel soared upward 10,000 feet in a gas-filled balloon from a vacant lot on Gold Street between Second and Third streets. He called his craft the “City of Albuquerque.”
Subsequent balloon demonstrations later in the 19th century were not nearly as successful.
Those events took place 90 years before the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta made its beginnings in 1972 from the parking lot of Coronado Shopping Center.
Sidney “Sid” Dalton Cutter (1934-2011) deserves credit for beginning the event, which attracted 13 balloons and about 20,000 spectators on April 8, 1972. Cutter was a member of a family heavily involved in aviation in Albuquerque, and he acquired a hot-air balloon pilot certification in 1962.
Ten years later, local radio station KOB-AM (later KKOB) asked Cutter to organize a balloon event to celebrate the station’s 50th anniversary, and what he produced was the Albuquerque International Coyote and Roadrunner Balloon race.
The event grew by leaps and bounds after that. Cutter credited Albuquerque Mayor Harry Kinney for considerable assistance in finding backers for the ongoing event. Radio broadcaster and future state Sen. Tom Rutherford also played a significant role in promoting the event.
By 1975, the event had been moved to the New Mexico State Fairgrounds and the schedule had changed from April to October.
In the same year, Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Inc. was formed, and, according to Cutter, “This is where it developed into a world-class event.” After that, it moved to what came to be called Simms Field near the intersection of Jefferson and McLeod. Spectators were first allowed to visit the balloon launch sites that year.
Then it moved again, this time to what came to be called Cutter Field, a large area between El Pueblo Road and Osuna Boulevard, where it remained from 1981-85. Then it was on to Balloon Fiesta Park No. 1, between Osuna Road and Paseo del Norte.
It made a final move to a permanent home at Balloon Fiesta Park, north of Alameda Boulevard.
The AIBF is one of New Mexico’s leading annual events. It attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators each year. One hopes it will return in 2021.
(Note on sources: Hundreds of articles and thousands of words have been written about the balloon fiesta — not to mention millions of pictures taken — but the best overall source is “The World Comes to Albuquerque,” written by several long-time ballooning enthusiasts and published by the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Inc. in 2011.)
(Don Bullis is a Rio Rancho resident, New Mexico centennial historian and award-winning author. He was named the Best Local Author in the 2018 and ’19 Rio Rancho Observer Readers’ Choice contests. “Ellos Pasaron por Aqui” is translated as “They Passed by Here.”)
Don Bullis’s latest book, “New Mexico Historical Chronology,” is available from RioGrandeBooks.com.