ABQ balloons climb back to Guinness world record

Balloons float above Albuquerque on Oct. 6, 2019, during a mass ascension that was recently certified by Guinness World Records for the largest hot air balloon ascent. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is often billed as the largest hot air balloon event in the world.

And now it’s official – again.

Guinness World Records recently certified that the fiesta was the site of the “greatest mass hot air balloon ascent” of 524 balloons, which occurred on Oct. 6, 2019, during a Sunday mass ascension as part of the 48th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity said.

Albuquerque rose to snatch the record from Lorraine, France, where 408 balloons launched on July 31, 2013, as part of the Grand Est Mondial Air Ballons event, which takes place every two years, Garrity said.

Before 2019, the fiesta held the Guinness record for largest mass ascension in 2010 with 329 balloons, and again in 2011 with 345.

“What an honor and what a great title to have for this already spectacular event,” fiesta President Matt Guthrie said.

Ray Bair, a pilot for 35 years, flew his balloon, Kaleidoscope, in that Sunday mass ascension and remembers it well.

“The weekend started out a little rough,” he said. “… But Sunday came around, and it was beautiful. There was a bit of the box wind pattern going on, but the winds were slow enough so the balloons kind of hung in the air, giving us a chance to take in what was happening on the field while being able to see everybody else who was flying around you.”

Technically, although not officially, the largest mass ascension in history occurred during the 2000 Balloon Fiesta, when 1,009 hot air balloons launched, fiesta Executive Director Paul Smith said. Unfortunately, fiesta officials didn’t file any documentation with Guinness World Records.

Fiesta officials subsequently decided that “Albuquerque really should be the home for this kind of world record, so we started the process of learning how to document the launches,” a laborious and involved undertaking resulting in world records in 2010 and 2011, Smith said.

After France took that world record in 2013, fiesta officials refocused their energies away from pursuing world records and concentrated on making fiesta “the best balloon event in the world,” Smith said.

But then, the pandemic gripped New Mexico, and the 2020 Balloon Fiesta was put on hiatus. “We were thinking of things we could do to promote the event, Albuquerque and New Mexico, so we started digging up the paperwork to see if we could set the world record based solely on the event’s documentation,” Garrity said.

He reached out to the folks at Guinness, and fiesta officials began gathering information to properly document the record using Guinness’ updated criteria, which includes photographs and video of the launch, and collection of a “launch slip” from each pilot before balloons take off.

Sam Parks, the fiesta’s director of operations, said the Guinness world record has special meaning for him.

“It speaks to the professionalism and dedication to safety by the launch director, the safety officials, the balloonmeister and all those who take part in facilitating an ascension of 524 balloon during a morning session,” he said.

Because the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the largest ballooning event in the world, Parks said, “it makes sense that from time to time we would also hold the record for the most balloons in a mass ascension.”

The distinction from Guinness is also a source of pride for the city of Albuquerque, said Shelle Sanchez, director of the city’s Department of Arts and Culture.

“Balloon Fiesta in October and hot air balloons in our Albuquerque skies year round is now part of the visual and cultural landscape of our city,” she said. “A blue sky full of hundreds of balloons is magical and awe-inspiring each and every time. It seems natural and obvious that the Balloon Fiesta, and by extension our city, should hold this exciting record of balloons in the sky.”

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