These behind-the-scenes volunteers help make the fiesta work - Albuquerque Journal

These behind-the-scenes volunteers help make the fiesta work

Carol Bair has been running the pilots hospitality tent for 36 years, keeping the flyers well-fed during the Balloon Fiesta. On the field she checks in with a couple of zebras directing the balloons. (Courtesy of Cindy Briggs )

Those unsung heroes turn ballooning into an annual communal party enjoyed by tens of thousands each year.

Carol Bair, 79, has been running the pilots’ hospitality tent since it was actually housed in a tent and not in the gleaming new Sid Cutter Pavilion. For 36 years, Bair has ensured that the pilots, chases crews and various others workers start their day with a hot meal and a hot cup of coffee.

That means that Bair arrives on site generally about 3 a.m.

“I have to get there that early in order to open by 5 in the morning,” Bair explains.

She was originally asked to take over when there was a breakdown in the system getting people started in the mornings.

“The girls that were chosen to be part of that outfit were not doing anything,” Bair said. “So they asked if I could take over.”

And it was a fairly rough operation at the outset.

“We had a tent, we didn’t have a building,” she recalls. “We had cords running everywhere. We had several coffee urns and got people to donate some of the food. At the very beginning, the balloon club bought cheese and meat and we cut that up for pilots. After that, the fiesta helped us with expenses so we could do more.”

But it was a sketchy situation at times.

“It was a little hard,” Bair said. “If it rained, part of the floor would flood, so we had to use equipment to brush it back out and we had to unplug all the cords for safety’s sake. You just take what comes along and deal with at the time.”

Like the year then-fiesta executive director Paul Smith had a special request.

“He asked us to do waffles so we practiced with a couple of waffle makers at our house,” she said. “We figured out the time it would take to make the waffles in the morning.”

Bear in mind, this is a lot more than simply feeding a few balloon pilots.

“We serve about 1,800 people every morning,” Bair said. “We started out at about 1,500. We try and stretch things with donations and things but when we run out, we run out.”

But make no mistake, all those pilots and helpers won’t be walking away hungry.

Pilot database

Although Art Lloyd Jr., 68, is now on staff with the fiesta as he produces and anchors the Balloon Fiesta Live! stream, his connection with the event goes back decades. Four of them to be exact.

With a media background, Lloyd was the perfect person to produce training videos for navigators, a vital function as the city’s growth continued to ooze north, squeezing available landing sites.

But perhaps his biggest contribution over the years was creating a database for pilot participation.

With the vast number of balloons that fill the sky each October, it is often thought that every pilot who wants to participate can do so, Lloyd said. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In fact, each pilot must apply to be able to fly, with 1,000 or more pilots submitting applications that consist of certifications, reviews and a plethora of other documents that allow officials to make their decisions about who will be invited.

“We easily have 10,000 (pieces of paperwork) so that’s a lot of electronic paperwork that we have to go through to make this happen,” Lloyd said. “Somebody has to be able to track it all and make it easily accessible. So I’m the database author behind the pilot application process.”

At one point he also was in charge of the Collectors Corner.

“I documented programs, pins and bumpers stickers and calendars,” he said. “Fiesta creates something like 100 pins every year so I’d photograph all of them, front and back, front on a grid so you could tell how it big it was, all uploaded on the website. I guess it is a lot of little things that get done to help the entire experience for both staff and guests that make it all work.”

‘Building a city’

Rod May, 69, first volunteered as a crew member in 1980 and the fiesta has been in his blood ever since.

In short, there is not a volunteer position across the field that May has not held. From field official to chief launch director to balloonmeister, he has been there.

In the old days, however, before fiesta had its own permanent, swanky offices, pilot registration would go on at the old Holiday Inn Midtown.

The mounds of paperwork all had to be loaded and transported safely and unloaded “and it all just kind of grew from that,” he said. “You really get to know what goes into the Balloon Fiesta and what makes it happen when you’re involved in it and see all the things as they are set up. There is a months-long period where the teams set up a lot of things. It’s kind of like building a city at Balloon Fiesta Park.”

Back before the fiesta moved to its current location, the old site did not have the infrastructure that is simply taken for granted now.

“So we’d drive the post, set up flagging, put banners up,” May said. “Everything that happened to make it what it was.”

And what it has become is a phenomenon recognized across the country and even the world, he said.

“It’s such a great event,” May said. “It’s something that makes people happy. How can you not like a bunch of hot air balloons in the sky above you? It’s a fun event and great for the city and the state. I’d wear one of the Balloon Fiesta jackets traveling and I’d always hear, ‘I want to come someday.’ It could be from the east coast to west coast. I don’t know that there are a lot of events like that. It’s a bucket list event for a lot of people.”

Art Lloyd Jr. anchors a stream of Balloon Fiesta Live!, which has been in production since 2017. (Courtesy of Art Lloyd Jr.)
Rod May has volunteered in many capacities in his more than 40-year association with the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, including helping transport pilot registration from the office to the registration site. (Courtesy of Rod May )

Putting on an event as extensive and as time consuming as the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta year after year for five decades is not an easy task and is not accomplished without a bevy of folks behind the scenes doing the little things that make it such a special happening.

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