This week at Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has been filled with incredible experiences. I’ve seen hundreds of balloons filling the sky all around me, even directly above my RV. I’ve watched American-flag wielding sky divers shoot out fireworks as they spiraled down through the sky. I’ve delighted in balloons of all different shapes filling and lighting up an enormous field. I’ve enjoyed the benefits of having a media pass, including getting to take photos from the tall media tower. I’ve lived out my dream of getting to ride in a hot air balloon! I’ve eaten a s’mores funnel cake – my life may never be the same after that one! Yesterday morning was my last session at the 2018 Balloon Fiesta, and, since the rest of my family was exhausted and wanted to sleep in, I decided it was my opportunity to crew!
Crewing for a hot air balloon means you’re on the team that helps set up and take down the balloon. In our roadschool network, Fulltime Families, many people had been crewing all week. However, technically you have to be 13 or older to crew, so there was a difficulty in having two kids younger than that with me (although some friends had their younger children hand out balloon cards and answer people’s questions about the balloon they were crewing for). Friday night I decided it was my last chance, and I didn’t want to miss it, so I made arrangements to crew Saturday morning.
My friend Dan and I left our sleeping families at 5:30 in the morning to walk over to the launch field. Pilots and crews have access to a whole different area than media, so that was neat to see. Instead of a large tent, they have a building filled with tables, and lots of free food options around the perimeter of the room: breakfast burritos, boxes and boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts, a whole wall lined with beverages, etc. I grabbed a Belgian waffle and a hot chocolate, and we headed out to fight our way through the ever-growing crowd to U2 – the spot on the grid we were told to report to. It was empty. Dan reached out to our coordinator, who sent us over to R9.
There we met the pilot and crew of Miss Wyoming. When we first arrived, there was just one lady standing with the truck. The pilots were still in their daily pilot briefing, which we could hear taking place nearby. Once that was over, the rest of our crew gathered at the truck. This particular crew is very experienced – at least two of them, other than the one piloting this particular morning, are also hot air balloon pilots, and all of them knew each other well and had lots of experience. That worked great for me – a complete newbie! I had seen it all happen, but that’s very different from actually doing it! They were very patient with me, teaching me exactly what to do at each step.
As we waited through the Dawn Patrol’s light up and launch, I witnessed again the fun, community spirit of ballooning that I had learned about while riding Synchronicity with Jeff Haliczer on Tuesday. A neighboring crew was celebrating a seven year-old’s birthday, and invited us all over to share in the cookies! (Keep in mind, this was at 6am!)
I also thought it was interesting to hear our crew leader Steve’s response to the Dawn Patrol. As they were on the ground, entertaining the crowd by doing syncopated light shows, he was very eager for them to get in the air “…so I can see where we’re going!” I have learned this week that there are layers of air that go different directions, so to go a different direction in a hot air balloon, you ascend or descend to a different level. He explained to me that yesterday when he had been flying, he had to find tiny micro-layers to get him going the direction he wanted. I was surprised to learn that there was shaving cream on board – the pilot can spray it in the air and watch it to see what direction the wind is blowing in that particular layer! At another point, Steve excitedly pointed out to me two balloons that were just barely vertical of each other, but traveling in opposite directions. “That’s Albuquerque!” he exclaimed, as giddy as a young boy with a new set of Legos.
Before long, it was time for us to start unloading. First, we turned the basket around to the correct placement and positioned the burners. Then we brought out the large envelope (the fabric part of a hot air balloon) and started laying it out on the field.
The next step was to attach and tighten the ropes from the envelope to the basket.
Then it was time to inflate the envelope. That involves two steps: first blowing a fan to fill it up with air, then blasting hot air into it to lift it. Steve and a lady named Dee coached me on how to hold the ropes open. For the fan, I needed to hold them up and out, trying to make as large an opening as possible for the air to enter. For the heat, it was critical for me to pull them tight toward me to keep them out of the flame! After we filled it with air from the fan, we actually had to wait awhile until a “zebra” (the referees of the event) gave us the clearance to do so. They wanted the balloon next to us to go up first, so we had to wait for our turn. It gets difficult to hold your arm up that high, holding tightly, for an extended period!
It was finally our turn to go. Once we added the heat, the balloon pretty quickly popped upright. The pilot and two riders settled in their spots, we walked them a little bit to a clear take-off spot, then they were off!
That’s when the action really started! A few crew members jumped in the truck pulling the balloon trailer, and the rest of us walked to the far end of a parking lot to jump in a different truck. It was time to chase a balloon!
The balloons today went the opposite direction from Tuesday when I rode. This time they crossed over the Rio Grande River. (One of the riders later showed me an absolutely stunning photo she took as they dipped close to the surface.) The chase crew needs to be there when the balloon lands, so there was a mad dash to stay near the balloon and get to the undetermined landing spot before it landed. The pilot sent a Glympse, so we could track his location, speed, and direction. We also had walkie-talkie communication between the balloon and both trucks. But there’s also an element of just using your eyes to track and figure out where to go. I felt a bit like we were the tornado chasers in the movie Twister – quick U-turns where there’s not really space for a U-turn, shouting at slow traffic, sudden changes in landing location, a general sense of chaotic urgency. It was actually really fun, and there was a lot of laughter involved through it all.
As we neared the landing site, the driver calmly instructed us to not get out of the truck until it stops, and to close the door when we got out. I didn’t really understand the need for such common sense instructions. Then we got closer and were urgently instructed, “Gloves on! Seatbelts off! Be ready to run!” So, the truck stopped, and we ran! I didn’t realize there would be running involved in this! We had to run to the basket to hold it down as it approached the ground.
As we got the basket settled, I once again saw the beautiful community spirit of ballooning. We had landed in a little field behind some homes. A boy around 7 years old came outside with his parents to watch the action. Our group immediately called out to him, learned his name, and invited him into the basket! They set him up on the propane tank for a great photo.
The first step in the take down process is laying out a huge tarp to protect the envelope. This field was even pricklier than the one we landed in during my ride on Tuesday.
Once the tarp was down, we laid the balloon on its side.
Then we had to get the air out of it. Sarah and I pushed the sides of the envelope up and in while Dan and another guy slid this metal device along it to push out the air.
Next we gathered it up one section at a time and placed it in the bag, occasionally sitting on it to squeeze more air out!
I completely missed folding up the tarp. Maybe that’s when Dan, Sarah, and I took a neighbor up on her offer to let us pick apples?
Anyway, we got both the envelope and the tarp in their respective bags, and loaded those up in the trailer. Next came the basket.
Before returning to the launch field, we helped out the next balloon that came in to land, signed the number banner, and took a group photo.
I think I was smiling the whole walk home from the launch field. I can’t say it was quite equal to actually going in the air on Tuesday, but it really was so much fun! I definitely plan to seek out both of these opportunities again in the future!
Other posts from the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta:
my hot air balloon ride! Synchronicity