In October 1989 a flying saucer was spotted over the afternoon skies of Albuquerque.
The aircraft was seen by thousands of people in the Duke City in an event that would change the course of history.
But this wasn’t the sequel to the famous Roswell Incident. This craft had a far different purpose.
It was there to help usher in a new age – the age of the Special Shape Rodeo at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
First lady of fiesta
The beginnings of special shape balloons at the fiesta began over a decade before that first event. They flew at Balloon Fiesta for years before being given their own designated event.
“The appearance of balloons that are not the regular shape goes back to the ’70s. They might not be recorded as special shapes or appear in the records,” says Kim Vesely, a volunteer with Balloon Fiesta and member of the Heritage Committee. “One of the earlier ones I remember is the Orville Redenbacher popcorn kernel from 1976.”
“In the 1980s, you started seeing them more and more,” says Vesely. “Maybe a dozen a year for quite a long time.”
That included some of the famous shapes, Vesely says, like The G-R-Reat Tony, the Financial Times newspaper and Earforce One, a Mickey Mouse-shaped balloon.
“They were real novelties,” Vesely says.
But there is one balloon that is considered the “first lady” of special shapes, making her debut appearance at the fiesta in the early 1980s.
Chic-I-Boom is recognized as the first special shape balloon to fly at Balloon Fiesta.
“The iconic ‘Chic-i-Boom,’ inspired by the late Brazilian film star (Carmen Miranda), has the distinction of being the first special-shaped hot air balloon ever to fly at the Albuquerque (International) Balloon Fiesta. The idea was conceived by Jacques Soukup and Kirk Thomas during the 1982 fiesta,” according to a Sept. 30, 2011, Albuquerque Journal article.
Piloting Chic-I-Boom for the 50th Balloon Fiesta will be Jon Kolba. The balloon is now in its second iteration after the original was retired in 1996. Chic-I-Boom sports a fruit headdress in honor of Miranda, with the bananas measuring 50 feet in length.
“For me personally, it’s really an honor to fly this particular balloon because of its history,” says Kolba.
“The big thrill for me, particularly in the shapes rodeo and the glows, is getting these middle-aged couples saying ‘Chic-I-Boom, awwww, I remember her from when I was a little kid.’ … The appeal is in how long she’s been around.”
It’s their first rodeo
Chic-I-Boom would be joined in 1989 by around 20 other special shape balloons for the first Special Shape Rodeo held during the 18th Balloon Fiesta. Her company included a Flying Saucer, Mr. Peanut, Balloon Hilda, Uncle Sam, Chesty the Bulldog, a Cow Jumping Over the Moon, a rolled newspaper, a cactus and more.
Launch time for that first rodeo was 4:45 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 12, and the balloons held a “hare and hound race” where balloons would chase the “hare” balloon, then try to land rice/birdseed bags on a target set by the hare.
The events were billed as the largest gathering of special shape balloons in the world, and 100,000 people attended the Friday Special Shape Rodeo.
Following the success of the first two special shape events there was no where to go but up.
The 1990 fiesta saw the number of special shape participants begin to grow. In an effort to help off-set the costs, private pilots of special shape balloons were allowed to sell pins and other paraphernalia of their balloons at the fiesta’s official concession.
By 1991, the number of balloons participating had almost doubled, with 48 balloons drawing in an estimated 150,000 spectators for the Thursday rodeo.
The increasing number of spectators wanting to get a look at the balloons led to the first special shape mass ascension in 1993. Among those balloons came the visage of arguably the most internationally recognized New Mexican, Smokey Bear.
In 1994, the special shapes rallied together to form a marquee nighttime event. By 1995, the event would take on the name it still uses today, the “Glowdeo.”
The 25th anniversary of the Balloon Fiesta in 1996 saw upward of 100 special shape balloons flying over the Duke City.
While the number of balloons has changed over the years since, each year has brought new balloons to fiesta.
Joining the ever growing pantheon of special shape balloons that have flown of the Albuquerque skies are 20 first-time flyers at the fiesta. This year’s new shapes include Steggy, a dinosaur; Scarlett, a red macaw; Mister Globie, who will be keeping an eye on Albuquerque with his spyglass; a Flying Bus; Master Zaba, taking his name and shape from the Czech word for “frog”; a Toy Car; and more.
Why they’re special
Fiesta officials define a special shape as anything that is “outside” of the regular balloon shape, whether that be a puff appendage or a full-fledge shape.
“I think anything added to it qualifies it as a shape balloon,” says Kolba. Chic-I-Boom is an example of a standard shaped balloon with appendages.
“While it does have a standard shape, all those fruts create an additional challenge,” says Kolba. “A standard shape balloon will shed the wind on the surface, with Chic-I, with the fruits they catch the wind.”
SnoBird, a penguin dressed for a vacation complete with a Hawaiian-style shirt and a camera, is an example of a full-fledged shape.
SnoBird is 110 feet tall and measures 140,000 cubic feet, says Don Edwards, who will be piloting SnoBird at this year’s fiesta.
Helping SnoBird and the other behemoth balloons keep their shape while inflated is a series of lines called catenary lines.
“A lot of the shapes, depending on the shapes, use catenary lines,” says Edwards. “Basically all they do is they hold the shape.”
In the shamrock balloon, Paddy, most were horizontal, Edwards says, some of them will go at an angle, depending on the shape.
Some special shape balloons are also fitted with ports or vents that are held closed by Velcro. The vents are opened during inflation and used to help get air into the shape’s appendages.
Energizer Bunny had 43 Velcro ports and Miss Daisy had 12 Velcro ports, says Edwards. Crew will hold a port open and inflate the shape, where a pocket has limited access to heat, then seal the port to inflate it.
Chic-I-Boom has 30 vents and Kolba says a larger support crew helps monitor the vents during inflation.
Kolba says the more crew eyes on the fruit as the balloon inflates helps make sure all the vents are sealed.
Opening the vents is also important after landing the special shapes. Unsealing the vents releases any additional trapped air.
“My shamrock balloon (Paddy) was brand new and I had it at Albuquerque,” says Edwards. “(I had) only flown it a few times. After Albuquerque I had to change the vent system. It drug and drug … It was a teaching moment.”
Edwards says most special shape balloons fly with the same sized gondola basket as a standard shaped balloon, and uses about the same amount of fuel as a standard balloon due to their shorter flight time.
“As soon as we clear the field we’re looking for a place to land,” says Edwards.
The height or width of the special shapes narrows the possible landing spots. Edwards refers to the balloons as “wide bodies.”
“The shamrock was 80 feet wide,” he says.
And big they can be. While there have been some giants, including Superbike, which debuted at fiesta in 2017, fiesta officials think an accidentally enormous balloon may have been the largest. Sid Cutter commissioned a balloon in the shape of red tractor. Cutter had ordered the balloon in cubic feet, the standard measurement for balloons, but the factory made the balloon in cubic meters, creating a balloon at 35 times the intended size, says officials.
A lasting legacy
While the official number of balloons at the first Special Shape Rodeo remains shrouded in mystery, there is no question about the popularity of the special shapes.
“It’s a very special event,” says Vesely. “It makes people happy.”
“I’ve been going to Albuquerque since 1990 and I can’t go onto the field and not be in awe of what’s going on,” says Kolba. “When you add shapes to it, we all become children.”
In 2024, the Special Shape Rodeo will celebrate its 35th year. It will be interesting to see what shapes up.
Visit abqjournal.com/2536219/balloon-fiesta-daily-schedule.html for the 2022 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta schedule of events.