The morning was still black as we walked on to the launch field; the sun had not yet climbed over the Sandia Mountains. Thousands of people wrapped in jackets or blankets, nursing cups of coffee, covered the 78-acre field.
It was dark. The only lights were at the concession cabanas on the edge of the field.
Fans started to hum, forcing air into dark blobs that began to bulge from the grass. The hot air balloons glowed as flames shot from the propane burners, and they began to lift off. In the sky, they blinked like fireflies.
My wife, Katie, and I took our family to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta a few weekends ago. The “Morning Glow” begins early, 6:30 a.m., so we drove up the day before and stayed overnight. Only about four hours from El Paso, I wondered why we hadn’t done it sooner. The spectacle exceeded our expectations, and we plan to return next year.
Quick tip: Buy tickets in advance and take advantage of the park & ride service. We booked an Airbnb with friends, but I hear hotel rooms fill quickly.
The Japanese word Hanafubuki has no single English equivalent. It describes “A moment of cherry petals swirling in the breeze; a blizzard of flowers,” I recently learned reading the Wall Street Journal.
The word could also describe the moment when nearly 600 hot air balloons drifted into the blue sky like cherry blossoms caught in a breeze – what they call the Mass Ascension. The kids (and adults) would call out when a surprising balloon would rise. A pig with wings! Penguins! Smokey Bear!
It’s Instagram gold.
My favorite thing about the spectacle is you don’t watch from the sidelines, you get to wander the field amidst the balloons. When one is ready to launch a “zebra” – launch directors dressed in black and white outfits – clear a path for the balloon to take off, blowing a whistle if needed.
The festival takes place over nine days during the first full week of October and attracts nearly 750,000 visitors, according to Visit Albuquerque. It brings international attention to that city and boosts its economy.
While watching the balloons, I couldn’t help reminiscing about the old Amigo Airsho in El Paso. Started in 1981, it was one of the region’s most popular annual events, attracting more than 100,000 people over two days. But it abruptly ended after the 2014 show.
My oldest son was four when we last went, but he still remembers the jet-powered school bus. And who could forget the jet-powered porta potty? Cue the dad jokes.
The headliners were amazing – the Blue Angels, Snowbirds and Thunderbirds flight display teams. And the Golden Knights parachute team, vintage aircraft and other shows always wowed.
On the ground, I remember gawking at NASA’s “Super Guppy,” missile launch systems and Apache helicopters. One year we walked through a Space Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.
When automatic budget cuts hit the military in 2013 – the cuts that taught us all the word sequestration – the Defense Department pulled the plug on its participation in civilian airshows. Without its military partners and home, Biggs Army Airfield, the 2013 Amigo Airsho was canceled.
The nonprofit that organized the event managed to resurrect it in 2014 at Doña Ana County Jetport in Santa Teresa, but attendance wasn’t great. And without the military shows and displays, it wasn’t quite the same.
The event never returned. It would be great to see it come back someday.