'It's been a great ride': Longtime Balloon Fiesta executive director is retiring - Albuquerque Journal

‘It’s been a great ride’: Longtime Balloon Fiesta executive director is retiring

Paul Smith reflects on his 26 years at the helm of Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta as the executive director. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Had it not been for the dissolution of a marriage, Paul Smith might never have become executive director of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

Back in 1979, he and a friend had just graduated from the University of New Mexico School of Law. The two marked the occasion by arranging their first hot air balloon ride.

While floating above Albuquerque and admiring the landscape, the two engaged in chitchat, much of it concerning legal issues. Overhearing the conversation, the pilot quickly came to understand that his passengers were newly minted lawyers.

“When we landed, he told me he was getting divorced and needed a lawyer,” Smith said. “He offered to trade balloon lessons if I handled his divorce.”

Smith accepted the offer, but it wasn’t until he was able to learn the nuances of piloting a hot air balloon and getting hands-on experience controlling the propane burners that he knew for certain he’d made a good trade, he said.

Smith got his pilot’s license in January 1982 and, within a month, had purchased a hot air balloon.

Now 67, Smith will retire at the end of January after 26 years as executive director of the Balloon Fiesta and helping to guide the world’s largest annual balloon gathering. For a decade before becoming executive director, he was the Balloon Fiesta’s lawyer.

Sam Parks, the Fiesta’s operations manager, will become the new executive director.

“Any organization needs to have fresh ideas and new outlooks,” Smith said. “I had given my board of directors a hard time and teased them over the years that they were here, like forever. Some had been on the board for 20 years or longer; and suddenly I realized, looking around the boardroom, that I had been at Balloon Fiesta longer than half of them. So, I figured I gotta heed my own advice.”

A good match

Smith was born in Santa Fe and adopted by a couple who raised him and an adopted sister in the East Mountain community of Carnuel. He attended Manzano High School, got an undergraduate degree in political science from Arizona State University, and then attended the UNM School of Law.

For several years in the early 1980s, Smith was a partner in a balloon-themed restaurant and bar, the Launch Site, in the Northeast Heights. They sold the business, which was fine with Smith, who said it was exhausting.

Paul Smith and his wife, Beth Wright-Smith, on the launch field at the 2010 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

“I was still practicing law and didn’t like the idea of spending all day at my law office, and then all night at the bar,” he said.

It was also in the early ’80s, at the ballooning national championships in Indianola, Iowa, that he met a woman who was piloting a balloon sponsored by a major soft drink company. That woman would later become his wife – but it was not love at first sight. Smith said he tried to strike up a conversation and “she just kind of ignored me.”

He bumped into her some years later at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, “and she blew me off again.” A few years after that, she wound up moving to Albuquerque to work for the World Balloon Corp., started by Balloon Fiesta founder Sid Cutter.

“At that point, I’d already been shut down twice, so I didn’t pay any attention, but then Jewel Cutter, Sid’s wife, decided that she was going to play matchmaker.”

Turned out to be a good match. Smith and his wife, Beth Wright-Smith, have been married 29 years. The couple have an adult daughter, Taylor Duffney, who is a local corporate attorney. Wright-Smith operates Airborne Heat Ballooning, a flight and ground school for balloon pilot training.

‘Graying of the sport’ an issue

A witness and catalyst to many changes at Balloon Fiesta, Smith said that among the most significant has been one you might not expect: “grass.”

He noted that the current launch field and two fiesta locales before that, were all dirt fields. That changed in 2002, when the city installed grass on the 86-acre launch field at Balloon Fiesta Park, which, at 360 total acres, is the largest of Albuquerque’s parks.

“We used to joke that you could tell the difference between Albuquerqueans and people from out of town because the out-of-towners were all looking up at the sky and taking pictures of the balloons, and the locals were all staring down and taking pictures of the grass,” Smith said.

Another change was the upgrading of the propane refueling area from four to 48 stations. What used to take balloonists waiting in line up to three hours now takes 10 to 20 minutes, he said.

Paul Smith, right, poses with incoming Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta executive director Sam Parks, left, and Jewel Cutter, widow of Sid Cutter, founder of the fiesta.

Under Smith’s tenure, the Fiesta has added such features as the Gondola and the Chasers clubs, the Sid Cutter Pilots’ Pavilion, skyboxes and glamorous camping, referred to as “glamping.”

Looking to the future, the Balloon Fiesta leadership will have to deal with the ongoing issue of urban infill and the decreasing number of landing sites, Smith said.

“I’ve been involved in different initiatives to try to preserve landing sites and locate new ones for the past 20 years. It’s like planting a tree. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the next best time is now,” he said.

A city task force has been working on creating or preserving more landing sites, and the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority, or AMAFCA, has been cooperating to give landing access wherever it can to swaths of land that it controls, Smith said.

Another issue is the “graying of the sport,” as pilots are getting older and fewer younger people are replacing them.

Albuquerque Aloft has been helpful in that regard, he said. Modeled after a similar program in Tucson, balloon pilots launch early in the morning from schoolyards across the metro area, introducing the sport to students – many of whom have never seen a hot air balloon up close or attended the Balloon Fiesta.

Other educational tools Smith incorporated as a way to introduce people to ballooning is the Discovery Center at the north end of the launch field, and the Fiesta de los Globitos.

The Discovery Center consists of interactive exhibits that illustrate the principles of lighter-than-air flight, the history of the sport, the “Albuquerque Box” effect and safety aspects of ballooning. Kids can also trigger a burner attached to a wicker basket. More recently, the Fiesta de los Globitos, in which miniature radio-control balloons have their own mass ascension, has been extremely popular with children, who grew up with RC technology and gaming.

Retirement for Smith doesn’t mean he intends to go gently into that good night. He has kept his law license current and intends to remain active in the ballooning community.

“I’m still a pilot and I may apply to fly in the Balloon Fiesta and see if they accept me,” he joked. “I’ve been at Balloon Fiesta in one way or another since 1980 or so, and I can’t imagine going somewhere else in October.

“It’s been a great ride.”

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