Lift Off at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Hot Air Balloon Festival in Albuquerque (Source: iStock / Starcevic)

New Mexico fancies itself as the “Land of Enchantment,” and year after year, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta proves to be one of the state’s most enchanting events. For nine days each October, the crisp fall air of the Rio Grande Valley is filled with a breathtaking array of giant balloons in all shapes and colors. When we say all shapes and sizes, we mean it—from a cartoon penguin to a Darth Vader’s helmet. It’s no wonder this celebration of human flight has been attracting fans from around the world for almost 50 years.

Enthusiasts know that hot air ballooning can easily transform from a curiosity to an all-encompassing passion. There’s something about the spectacle of a field of balloons, the roar of the combustion torch, and the rush of ascension that turns people from mere spectators to dedicated balloonists.

Here’s our guide to attending the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta—as a visitor, a participant, or even as a pilot.

Enjoy the Fiesta

Mass ascension of hot air balloons as part of The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (Source: iStock)

The Fiesta is a yearly pilgrimage made by thousands of faithful balloon lovers. Accommodating the 500-plus balloons that take flight during the event requires a launch field the size of more than 50 football fields. Finding room for all of the spectators is just as challenging, so Fiesta organizers partner with local hotels and run shuttles all day to get people to the event. You’ll want to purchase tickets for the events of your choice—launches, music performances, or cultural events like the Chainsaw Carving Exhibition competition—well in advance to make sure you get a spot.

The most popular events during Fiesta Week are always the Mass Ascensions—and for good reason. A launch of all the participating balloons on the festival grounds, the Mass Ascension is “the most spectacular display of sound and color in all of aviation,” according to Fiesta organizers. On Ascension days, balloons begin to launch at about 7am (weather permitting), and there’s always a lead balloon flying a giant American flag and playing the national anthem to set the tone.

Get involved in the action

Eyeing the ascent from the balloon basket` (Source: iStock)

It’s not uncommon for attendees to transform from mere spectators one year to participants the next. There are a number of ways to get involved. Consider getting up close by volunteering as a member of the chase crew and help pilots inflate and deflate their balloons. Or get a group together for fundraising opportunities.

If you need a taste of what it’s like to take flight, you can make a reservation and take to the skies with a guide. The Fiesta’s only approved ride operator during the festival, Rainbow Ryders, offers ride options for early birds, night owls, and everyone in between. There are no bad flight choices, but a sunrise balloon rise is arguably the most spectacular. Ascending from the darkness of the launch field, you’ll witness the balloon-filled sky slowly brighten as the morning sun rises over the Sandia Mountains. It’s an experience you’ll never forget!

Get your pilot’s license and take off

A hot air balloon envelope inflates as its burner shoots flames inside (Source: iStock)

If you get a serious case of balloon fever from the Fiesta, there’s only one cure: get your pilot’s license. According to The Balloon Flight School in Albuquerque, there are some very specific requirements and qualifications for becoming a private balloon pilot. To earn a license, one must:

> Be at least 16 years of age

> Pass a written test on important flight knowledge, including basic operating procedures, pilot privileges and flight procedures, and weather reports and conditions

> Have received instruction on essential pilot operations, including ground handling and inflation, navigation, takeoff and ascents, descents and landings, and emergency procedures

> Have at least 10 hours of flight instruction in free balloons, which must include six flights under the supervision of an instructor

Applications to pilot a balloon during the Fiesta are due in March, so get cracking if you want to fly high as you operate a balloon that dazzles the masses. Whether you’re in the crowd, on the launch field, or in the skies, you won’t regret making the trip to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.