Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Clear blue skies, warm temperatures and light winds. All in all, near perfect conditions on Saturday for the return of the 49th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which was canceled last year because of the pandemic.
“It was a beautiful Albuquerque morning, even though we didn’t have the box (wind pattern),” said Marilyn Wallace of Santa Monica, who was piloting her balloon Rainbow Through Heaven.
“We had a lovely flight and nice gentle winds to land with and some nice community involvement when we set down over there on Osuna,” she said.
According to fiesta officials, 548 balloons, including 84 special shape balloons, are registered to participate in the fiesta, which continues through Oct. 10. International pilots came from Brazil, Canada, Netherlands, Switzerland, France and Mexico.
Not surprisingly, traffic into Balloon Fiesta Park was extremely heavy. A police officer on a motorcycle was struck by a car as the officer attempted to enter San Mateo at San Diego, just east of the park, said Albuquerque Police Department spokesman Gilbert Gallegos. The officer was transported to a hospital with a leg injury and the motorist was cited, he said.
Once inside the park, long lines quickly formed in front of tents and booths selling food, drinks and merchandise.
“I don’t really like the lines, but I will wait for coffee,” said Denver resident Amber Wilcox, who was excited to be attending her first Balloon Fiesta and anxious for the mass ascension to begin.
The tent selling official Balloon Fiesta merchandise was extremely busy with people looking for that special fiesta item or article of clothing.
Ed and Marie Malandris of El Paso had just purchased two T-shirts, a balloon patch and several balloon pins. The couple make their “yearly trek” to Albuquerque just for the fiesta, where Ed Malandris brings some of his personal collection of balloon pins to sell and trade at the pin trading event.
“We love coming here,” he said. “It’s beautiful with all the special shapes and different kinds of balloons from all over the world. We were definitely disappointed when it was canceled last year, but we knew it would be back in some form or fashion sooner or later.”
Thousands of people began clapping and snapping photos at 6:30 a.m., when the Dawn Patrol balloons, illuminated against the backdrop of the dark sky, lifted off. Soon the silhouette of the Sandias became more pronounced as the sun rose behind it.
A flyover of seven aircraft in formation conducted by the Chile Flight aviators roared across the field as the national anthem blared over the loudspeakers. A crescent moon seemed to dart in-and-out of view as the mass ascension began and balloons filled the sky with the anticipated cornucopia of colors and textures.
It was the first visit to Albuquerque for Juliana Wynkoop of Sacramento, California, who produces her own YouTube channel, “Tourist to Local,” in which she and her husband create travel guides and highlight unique events.
“I felt like this was a double whammy to get to experience this awesome event as well as get to see the great city of Albuquerque,” she said.
Pilot Matt Mitchell of Champaign, Illinois, has been flying at fiesta since 1980. In addition to his balloon, Travelin’ Lite, he will also fly his special shape balloon, El-Fonz, the gray elephant.
“There is no comparison with other fiestas because you’ve got the big infrastructure here,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing housing being built so close to the field, and that’s going to change the dynamics, especially when there are light winds.”
Venkat Minnaganti, an infectious disease physician from India who now practices in Decatur, Illinois, came to see the fiesta for the first time.
“This is just beautiful. I’m not a literary person, I can’t describe it. There is just nothing like it,” he said.
However, a very articulate 8-year-old Jaxon Glance of Albuquerque had less trouble finding the words. Sitting on a lawn chair with his family, he said, “this is the most momentous moment of my life,” when asked what he thought of the spectacle. He then declared that the Golden Corral balloon was his favorite.
“He’s probably thinking about breakfast,” said his amused father, Carl Glance.