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Balloon Fiesta for schools: Launches mix excitement, education

Students, parents and teachers at La Mesa Elementary School crowd around the hot-air balloon Aerodactyl

Students, parents and teachers at La Mesa Elementary School crowd around the hot-air balloon Aerodactyl. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The only thing as loud as the propane burners on the hot-air balloon was the joyful shrieking of the children at La Mesa Elementary School, who on Friday got a close-up view of a hot-air balloon being inflated in the school’s playground.

The balloon pilot, Bruce Lavorgna, of Austin, and his crew were among balloonists who fanned out around the city to inflate their aircraft at 54 elementary schools as part of Albuquerque Aloft, the first flying event of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

The program provides an opportunity for students, teachers and parents to meet pilots and crew, to observe the process from inflation to launch, and gives students a chance to ask technical or scientific questions about flying, aviation and weather.

Gathering around the inflated and tethered balloon named “Aerodactyl,” the children peppered Lavorgna with questions: How tall is the balloon? How much does it weigh? Why do you have to use hot air? Is a balloon expensive? And, of course, can I go for a ride?

Trinidad Bustamonte is not one of the kids who’s keen to hop into a balloon gondola. “I’m afraid of heights,” the 8-year-old third-grader admitted. “But I do like to go fast.” She also found the roaring sound of the propane burners “scary” but appreciated that “it feels warm” when they are ignited, offering a welcome respite from the chilly morning air.

“They’re so big and cool,” said seventh-grader Maria Roa, 12. “I’d want to go up in one and look down and see all the houses. I’ve never been to the Balloon Fiesta.”

Joshua Romero has been to the fiesta before, but the 8-year-old third-grader said he still likes “when they come to the school” so he can watch them “getting filled up” with air.

“It’s really nice. They’re big and I like the colors,” he said of the inflated balloon swaying in the soft breeze.

“It’s good that they do this every year,” said his mother, Flor Romero. “Sometimes, I can’t take him to the Balloon Fiesta.”

Because La Mesa Elementary, 7500 Copper NE, is in a low-income neighborhood, “many of my families can’t afford to go to the Balloon Fiesta,” principal Bernadette Hall Cuarón said. “So this is their Balloon Fiesta. Most of the 700 kids live within a two-mile radius of the school. We don’t even have school buses. This is their world, so we bring outside experiences to them.”

The Albuquerque Aloft program is also educational, generating questions and discussion in the classroom with teachers, and in the playground with the pilots, Cuarón said.

“I think this sparks interest so we can teach a little bit of science, math, physics and weather,” Lavorgna said. “Maybe someday that interest will lead these kids to crewing on a balloon and then becoming a pilot.”

Lavorgna and his crew also donated about $700 worth of snacks to La Mesa’s after-school program, as well as $100 in gift cards from Payless Shoes. Last year, he and his crew donated four dozen gently used jackets to kids at the school.
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