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Most everyone knows about the Big One – the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta – which dominates the skies for nine days in early October.
But not so many people know about the Taos Mountain Balloon Rally, which tends to, um, fly under the radar. It lifts off with a mini ascension Friday morning, followed by tether rides for schoolchildren, and continues through Oct. 31, with a full morning ascension.
A micro ballooning event in that the number of balloons is capped at 35 because of the size of the launch field, the Taos Mountain Rally is still popular because of the sheer magnificence of the flying locale.
“This time of the year, with all the trees changing colors, when you’re flying, you get a view of the Rio Grande Gorge and the surrounding mountains,” said Mike Olsen, president of the Taos Mountain Balloon Rally Association. “It is spectacular. It is beautiful.”
Coming up on its 38th event, the rally was started by balloonists from Albuquerque who needed a break from the Duke City onslaught, he said.
“It was started by a couple of balloonists from Albuquerque who were overwhelmed by the size of Albuquerque and they wanted something where they could come just have fun,” Olsen said. “They worked with other folks in Taos and set it up to be a pilots’ rally.”
With such a limited group of pilots and such incredible scenery to view, slots are coveted, he said.
“We have pilots from all over,” he said. “There’s a significant percentage from Albuquerque and the local area, but we get them from across the country, also.”
The air currents surrounding Albuquerque creating the famous box is one of the reasons the Balloon Fiesta is so popular, but Taos frequently has similar patterns, Olsen said.
“Currents come off the mountains and, on some mornings, you can take off and come back to the same place,” he said. “We do have limitations with the Taos Pueblo as they control a lot of the land around here and that’s prohibited air space. Pilots have to be very careful about the way they are flying and where they are with the way the winds are blowing.”
And, like the Fiesta, mingling on the flight deck is encouraged, with usually 800 to 1,000 visitors meandering through the field.
“We’re still a little concerned about COVID, so we’re asking everybody to mask up,” Olsen said. “But people can walk right up to the balloons, talk to pilots, volunteer to be on crews. It’s a family event. It’s a great time.”
A few vendors will be part of the festivities, but, again, nowhere near the number at the Albuquerque Fiesta.
“We’ll have a couple of food vendors, coffee vendors, a really nice couple who bring in a lot of kites and whirligigs that are very colorful, shirts and hats,” Olsen said. “We really want people to go in and enjoy the town of Taos, and take advantage of our wonderful shops and artists, and restaurants.”
Ralph and Marcie Sweet have been sponsoring a balloon for every rally and are actually on the second generation with Balloonmeister Phil Campbell. They had previously sponsored Campbell’s father, Calvin Campbell, who was one of the first pilots involved in the rally. He died recently.
The event is something that the Sweets also circle on their calendar, Ralph Sweet said.
“It’s the only thing that I do in my life that has no purpose but to make me laugh,” he said.
Although not a balloon pilot himself, Sweet has had a chance to fly into the Gorge, high above the mountains, and cruise low over ground parties.
“Ballooning is a gorgeous way to see the countryside, no matter where you are,” he said. “The view, it’s always changing no matter how many times you see the same place. Flying overhead, you’re barely moving. We have flown for years over the tops of parties and you can have a conversation with people 50 feet below you. It’s a community event here.”