Since 1972, representatives from 51 countries have floated in the high desert skies during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
And the event just keeps growing.
The fiesta became global just a year after its inception. In 1973, the “First World Hot Air Balloon Championship” took place at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds. Thirteen countries were represented in what was the world’s largest ballooning event at the time.
Now, the Balloon Fiesta hosts around 700 pilots from around the world, a cap that was put into effect due to the number of applications received year after year.
“There’s an important historical aspect to it being connected to Albuquerque,” said Lynne Newton, curator at the Anderson Abruzzo International Balloon Museum.
Newton explained that in the ’70s, foreign pilots would come and be assigned local crews, and to this day it created “this really nice exchange that is organic and really part of the tradition of fiesta.”
She added, “This event is on par with all kinds of really high-profile sporting events around the world. … It’s a very big part of the identity here, and being international definitely plays a part in that.”
Though Albuquerque has the most balloonists per capita than any other city in the world, the aircraft was originally developed and manned overseas by the French in 1783. Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier first launched a hot air balloon with farm animals serving as navigators. Two months later, French brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier piloted a balloon over Paris for 20 minutes.
Hot air balloons first came to North America in 1793, but aviation innovation put a pause on the popularity of the aircraft for about 150 years. It was revived in the 1950s by American engineer Ed Yost’s efforts to make modern ballooning more efficient. Two decades later, it became a global phenomenon, and Albuquerque has been at the center of it since.
The initial relationship formed between Albuquerque and the international ballooning community has contributed to the global interest and growth of the event the past five decades.
Part of New Mexico’s appeal to international pilots, especially race participants, is room to fly. The fiesta’s field is 350 acres, but the real challenge on other continents such as Europe is airspace limitations due to the proximity of borders.
Newton said, “Coming to Albuquerque, thinking of the jet stream and the way the wind blows … it’s very highly-desired by international gas balloon pilots.”
A colorful year-round mainstay floating over the Duke City is the famed pixelated Rainbow Ryders balloons. Troy Bradley, chief pilot of the company, has been flying hot air balloons since he was 16 years old and has participated in every fiesta since 1981.
Bradley said of flying in Albuquerque, “Open spaces, friendly landowners, good weather … those are perfect conditions for a balloon event.”
The already-popular business sees an uptick in bookings during the fiesta, including a variety of international visitors. Bradley, who has been with the company for 13 years, says they handle nearly 400 passengers throughout the event, and they have flown spectators from all over the world.
“It truly is an international event,” he said. “We’ve taken people from all over Europe, Asia, South America. It’s not uncommon to have foreign passengers.”
Bradley has experienced the growth firsthand, saying the event “does bring people to Albuquerque who wouldn’t otherwise come.”
“It really puts Albuquerque on the map,” Bradley said. “It’s such a great benefit to the city.”
The event’s reach has even stretched into the modern era of accessibility for spectators who have difficulty getting to New Mexico.
Pilots, as well as over a million spectators, visit Albuquerque each October for the event. In 2017, the fiesta broadened its audience more, introducing Balloon Fiesta Live!, which streams the entire event to viewers around the globe.
Art Lloyd Jr., anchor and executive producer of Balloon Fiesta Live!, says that since the live stream was introduced it has “taken Balloon Fiesta places that we couldn’t go before and brought people who couldn’t get here up close and personal with it.”
The feed offers uninterrupted coverage of each session, as well as different camera angles and expert commentary throughout, including breathtaking views while flying and interviews with pilots. Not only does it give spectators who can’t attend an opportunity to still experience the event, Lloyd explains it creates interest and encourages future attendance.
He said, “For people from around the world, especially in these times, travel is difficult. … The strategy is to give the viewers the sense of being there.”
Lloyd Jr. and his team each have decades of experience in both ballooning and broadcasting, and he says the crew is able to provide insight into the event that is hard to come across anywhere else.
Now in its sixth year, Balloon Fiesta Live! has increased to well over a million views, and Lloyd explained that the number of people who watch the live stream is almost the same number of people who attend the event in-person each year.
“You will get an entirely different perspective,” Lloyd said. “People are figuring out that this is really pretty cool stuff.”
The stream can be viewed on YouTube and Facebook at no cost, and is especially beneficial to global audiences due to the substantial time differences. If international viewers cannot tune in at the very moment a session is happening, they can watch later because the video feeds are archived and available at any time.
Jennifer Garcia, associate event director of the fiesta, shared that the 50th anniversary this year will feature 806 pilots representing 21 different countries, with the possibility of a Ukrainian participant if able to attend.
Since year two, the Balloon Fiesta has been international. As more countries continue to participate and live streaming the event reaches a broader audience, the sky remains the limit for growth and welcoming the globe to Albuquerque’s small pocket of the world.