Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
It normally takes four to five weeks to piece together a standard size hot air balloon envelope, but Andy Baird, general manager of Michigan-based Cameron Balloons, is determined to have it done in nine days, and he’s doing in it front of visitors to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
The big reveal will be on Sunday, the ninth and final day of the fiesta, when the envelope is inflated during the morning mass ascension, and visitors will finally be able to see the artwork adorning the bright yellow fabric and learn who commissioned its construction.
“The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the birthplace of ballooning in New Mexico and in many ways the birthplace of ballooning in the United States. It’s the mecca of ballooning,” Baird said. “Every year hundreds of pilots and crew make the annual pilgrimage to this event, so what better place to give birth to a balloon than right here.”
Among those making the annual pilgrimage has been Baird, a pilot for more than 35 years. This is the 27th fiesta in which he has flown a balloon, he said.
This year, he also brought a Cameron Balloons sewing team of five people and industrial-strength sewing machines, which have been set up in front of large windows in the Sid Cutter Pilots’ Pavilion.
“It’s the first time any of the staff has been to fiesta,” Baird said. “Our production schedule is such that they can all come out and enjoy a little bit of the mass launch, and then get back to work.”
And it’s a fair amount of work, considering the mammoth size of the 90,000 cubic foot envelope. “Imagine 90,000 basketballs in a bag. That’s how big it is. It’s eight stories tall and 57 feet wide, so it’s huge,” said Baird.
It’s also something of a jigsaw puzzle with 800 pieces, including 400 fabric panels and another 400 smaller pieces, many of which will be assembled to form the art adorning the balloon.
“It’s not that much different than sewing a pair of jeans,” said team member Debbie Branch, who has been sewing hot air balloons for 35 years. “You still have the same kind of balance marks, or tick marks, so you know where one piece joins the next. You just have to make that mark match up as you go along,” she said.
The trickiest part is sewing what are called French fell seams, interlocking seams that create a strong bond between the pieces of 1.9-ounce ripstop nylon.
The fabric, Baird said, is similar to what is often used in the manufacturing of tents, “but it’s the type of nylon fiber that’s used, the construction of it, the type of coating, the type of finishes, how the dye is formulated, all of those things are specific to ballooning for our specifications.”
The cost of assembling a balloon envelope of the type that’s being worked on at fiesta starts at about $25,000, Baird said.
Branch, who sews about 25 hot air balloon envelopes a year, said that the work is anything but monotonous. “I find something different about it every day – whether it’s a different balloon, a different part of the balloon or different colors, shapes or art. It’s very gratifying.”