Although Thursday saw the cancellation of the mass ascension in the morning – it was replaced by a tethered inflation of special-shaped balloons – as well as a black-out on the evening glow that night because of unfavorable ballooning weather, nothing else had to be canceled this year.
That’s what the fiesta calls an overall success, particularly compared with the 2012 event, according to fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity.
“I believe the crowds this year were stronger than last, because of the number of events that went off,” Garrity said, sitting at a bench in the huge park as U-Hauls were being loaded and boxes packed up, so vendors and balloon pilots and their crews could depart.
“It just shows people love their balloons, love their special shapes, and love to see them go off.”
The 2012 event’s first day was not a good one for flying, whereas this year, both the opening and closing weekends were flight-friendly, with Saturday’s turnout being very energetic, Garrity said. “I remember looking out onto the field on Saturday and never seeing it more crowded.”
Overall, he estimated that there were 3,000 launches, based on about 500 balloons flying during six different events. “That underscores the success of this year,” he said, adding that final attendance numbers won’t be available for a few weeks.
Balloon Fiesta did experience some serious mishaps. Four people were injured this year, one of whom suffered serious burns and had to have his left arm amputated when the balloon he was in flew into power lines Wednesday.
Daniel Lovato, 66, was riding in “New Mexico Sunrise” piloted and owned by Mark Kilgore, 59, when it hit power lines and fell more than 40 feet in Rio Rancho, leaving him with burns on his chest, face and arms. Kilgore suffered lesser burns on his head.
University of New Mexico School of Law employees set up a relief account for Lovato. Donations can be made to the Daniel Lovato Donation Fund by mail or in person at any US Bank branch.
A 68-year-old man was taken to Presbyterian Hospital’s Rust Medical Center with a leg injury after a balloon he was in hit a curb near 500 Quantum Road NE in Rio Rancho on Sunday around 9 a.m., according to Rio Rancho Police. And a 61-year-old woman broke her leg after a balloon she was in made a rough landing on the Arroyo del Oso Golf Course on Oct. 5.
The fiesta offered a lot more than balloons, with pin trading a popular activity. Even Walter White, the lead character of Albuquerque’s “Breaking Bad” has his own pin, as do many pilots and others involved in the fiesta. There was also zip-lining, a wide range of foods to buy, an arts and crafts tent, a small museum intended for children to learn more about the fiesta, and a swanky VIP area it cost $60 to hang out in during the week, and upwards of $100 on the more crowded weekends.
The south end of the field was a good spot from which to do not only balloon-watching Sunday morning, but people-watching, with many spectators mentioning that this Balloon Fiesta was far superior to the comparably paltry ones put on at home.
Bridgette Moore was in town from Wildomar, Calif., with her mother, Marsha Lindsey of Tustin, Calif. Moore said that the fireworks show she saw at Saturday evening’s Glowdeo was the longest and best she’d ever seen, and that the fiesta was better than the one she went to in her home state.
Her mother, pointing at a balloon during the morning glow, said, “It looks like the balloon is breathing. See look, it goes in; it goes out.” Then, looking up in the sky as the mass ascension began with a non-uniform launch of hundreds of balloons, she said: “It looks peaceful, watching them float so gently.”
When asked if they’d come back, the mother and daughter’s enthusiastic “Yeah!” came in unison.
During the farewell ascension, zebras, also known as flight directors, blew whistles and called out to people to get out of the way so revelers would be clear of the balloons that stood upright as they inflated on the grounds, which Garrity estimated to be the size of 55 football fields.
Amidst cheers and lots of oohs and aahs, camera- snapping and spontaneous applause, balloons slowly climbed into the sky shortly after sunrise.
To watch them rise, some people showed up in shorts and sandals, others were dressed in parkas and Uggs, and still others wore rainbow-colored mohawk wigs. One woman had on a balloon-shaped hat with a button that said: “Want a Free Hug?” Parents had their kids on their shoulders and were reminding them to stay close by during the ascension.
The field’s moist brownish-green grass was littered with a gnawed turkey leg, a lost, child-sized blue glove, and some discarded napkins, but that didn’t stop Nancy Hogan from appreciating the visual experience.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s beautiful,” she said during the ascension. “Nothing I could imagine. I never would have imagined it was this beautiful.” She had attended a balloon rally in her native Wisconsin, from where she’d come by train, but she said it only had about 100 balloons and that attendees had to watch from behind a fence rather than being able to get up-close and personal with the balloons.
A crew member of the balloon Timepeace, Alan Joyce, who came from Gouldburn, New South Wales, Australia, said he’d attended fiestas in Australia and New Zealand, but none as impressive. “This is the best we’ve ever attended,” he said. “It’s so amazing.”
Journal Staff Writer Nicole Perez contributed to this report.