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Thirteen hot air balloons launched early Friday morning from the south parking lot of Coronado Center in Uptown in a reenactment of the seminal 1972 balloon rally that evolved into the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta – now celebrating its 50th year.
The fiesta starts Saturday and continues through Oct. 9.
On hand and, in some cases, inside the balloon gondolas, were the original pilots or members of their families.
“It just feels really good,” said Denny Flodan, also known as “Capt. Phogg,” one of those original pilots. “It’s very special because the fiesta has such a history. It’s been a part of me and I’ve been a part of it. I did not anticipate having as much of an emotional reaction as I’m having, but it’s wonderful.”
He also paid tribute to the vision of the late Sid Cutter, who is credited with founding the Balloon Fiesta. “He had this incredible ability for promotion and to make the best out of everything he touched,” Floden said.
Originally from Michigan, but now living in Florida, Floden said he was happy on this day just to be along for the ride.
“I don’t have to think. I get to be a passenger and I don’t get that very often. And I don’t have to pay for it,” he said laughing.
Prior to the launch, a breakfast program was presented inside Coronado Center, honoring the original pilots, those who, early on, worked to create the Balloon Fiesta and their families.
“I was always proud to stand beside my husband,” said Jewel Cutter of her late husband. “The launch field has turned into an oasis of joy and camaraderie. I’m very proud of what we’ve become.”
Fifty years ago, the spot that hosted Friday’s indoor breakfast program was a dirt lot from where the pilots launched, said Coronado Center’s general manager Randy Sanchez. Over the years, Coronado continued to support the growing Balloon Fiesta with its sponsorship of a balloon and providing space for the fiesta’s park and ride program.
That original April 8, 1972, gathering of balloons was assembled by Sid Cutter, as part of a 50th anniversary celebration for KOB radio. Then-station manager Dick McKee wanted an event to mark the event, and he and station employees came up with the idea of a balloon rally.
They approached Cutter, who operated Cutter Aviation and was one of the few people who owned and piloted a hot air balloon. Cutter got commitments from 20 others to come to Albuquerque and participate. Bad weather prevented some from arriving and the 13 balloons that were present held a “roadrunner and coyote” competition.
Named for the Looney Tunes cartoon characters, a single balloon designated as the roadrunner, launched and was soon chased by the remaining coyotes. The winner was determined by who landed closest to where the roadrunner set down.
Denise Wiederkehr McDonald remembers that competition. She was a 15-year-old co-pilot to her father, Matt Wiederkehr. For a while, the Minnesota team was positioned to win the race until a married couple, also from Minnesota, and flying separate balloons, displaced them.
The Wiederkehrs continued to fly in, or come as spectators at subsequent Balloon Fiestas. Matt Wiederkehr died three years ago.
Wiederkehr McDonald piloted balloons for a number of years, but eventually gave it up in pursuit of a career with United Airlines, from where she recently retired as a pilot after 37 years.
Back as an unofficial balloon co-pilot on Friday, she quickly got into the swing of things.
“It was great. It was a beautiful morning and we had a really nice landing,” she said. “It just came back immediately, especially the ground crewing and inflating, just jumping back into the old days. It was special because, 50 years ago, I couldn’t envision that, today, we’d be reenacting the original rally and everything that’s happened in between. I could feel my dad there.”
Her sister, Donna Wiederkehr, and mother, Bobbie Wiederkehr, were also in Albuquerque for the 50th event. Her sister will be piloting their father’s balloon during the fiesta.
Because hot air balloons were such an unusual sight back in 1972, the assemblage of 13 of them was a big deal and a big attraction, drawing a crowd that, by some estimates, ranged from 10,000 to 20,000.
The crowd for Friday’s reenactment was likely between 600 and 800.
“I was driving by on my way to work and saw them, and decided to watch for a while,” said Travis Archuleta, who works at a nearby restaurant.
“I generally don’t work this early in the morning and I mostly try to avoid the hassle of going to the Balloon Fiesta because of the early hour, the traffic and the crowds,” he said. “I had a few minutes today and this seemed more manageable – and they are really nice to look at up close.”