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 Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta - 2013

3 Oct 2013: At long last, the day we have been awaiting since last spring has finally arrived - it's time to move across town to the Balloon Fiesta Park and meet up with about 40 other Lazy Daze (LD) motorhomes for a week of fun and camaraderie. Before leaving Kirtland AFB, however, we had to dump our gray and black tanks and top off the fresh water. We needed to be totally self-sufficient for the next week. 

 Here we are - I'm standing on our roof looking out over our little LD conclave. The folks that organized this LD group managed to get us a great spot, right up at the front of the umpteen acre RV lot that has been set up just for this event. That's us in the lower right picture - a front-row seat for the week's activities.

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Our next-door neighbors were a group of multi-million dollar Prevost motor coaches. There were about 40 of them, each costing over a million bucks. I figured there had to be at least $50 million represented there. Meanwhile, in the other direction, behind us, were the thousands of other RV's also here for the Fiesta.

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4 Oct 2013: Today was a day of settling in and most importantly, meeting the pilot to whom I had been assigned to help crew. Earlier in the day I went over to the balloon field for the orientation for crews. Back in the spring, I had volunteered to crew - help prepare the balloon for launch and then meet it at its landing spot and help deflate and pack it up. It's quite a meticulous process and it takes quite a few hands. My pilot was Peggy Watson-Meinke, from California. She arrived late this afternoon; I met her at the pilots' tent to get my pass to the field and find out her schedule and where on the field she was assigned. With 600-700 balloons out there, I wanted to be sure I could find her the next morning.

5 Oct 2013: Up at 0430 before the crack of dawn for my first day of "work". I met our team: pilot Peggy Watson-Meinke, Crew Chief Gary Meinke and about half a dozen other volunteers like me. A few of them had crewed for Peggy before and knew the drill; I can't say the same, but Peggy and Gary were very patient with us newbies. I give them a lot of credit for knowing how let us know what needed to be done and how to do it. Launching a balloon is a step-by-step process, which is closely followed to avoid safety problems.

balloon fiesta100 Peggy carries all her ballooning gear in a small utility trailer, with things packed in a certain order so that when unpacking for a flight, things come out in the order they're needed. First out of the trailer is the wicker basket, which is quite heavy, primarily due to the three large propane tanks it holds.

We maneuver the basket into position and lay it on its side, with the side with two propane tanks facing where the balloon will be. Next out of the trailer is the large bag containing the balloon. We place it out in front of the basket, open the bag and pull out what is the bottom of the balloon with the ropes that fasten it to the basket and then walk the bag away from the basket as the balloon is pulled out. There are a number of velcro straps around the balloon along its length, which we remove. Next out of the trailer is a gas-powered fan, which is used to fill the balloon with cold air. Two crew members hold the mouth of the balloon open while the fan blows air into it.

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With the balloon nearly full, but still lying on its side, Peggy gets into the tipped-on-its-side basket and starts the burners to heat the air inside. In just a minute or two, the balloon will "stand up". Several crew members gather around the basket, which was tilted upright as the balloon rose, and put "weight on" to keep the balloon from taking off prematurely. An additional safety measure is a tether from the basket to the rear bumper of the truck, which is released just prior to take-off.

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At this point passengers climb in and a zebra comes over to see if Peggy is ready to launch. Zebras are the controllers who coordinate all launches to make sure no balloon interferes with another. They wear black and white striped jackets, hence the name. With 700 balloons on the launch field, it takes a lot of effort to get everyone off the ground as quickly and safely as possible. When Peggy says she's ready to launch, the zebra backs away from the basket, checks to ensure it's clear for her to take off without interfering with another balloon and then blows a whistle and gives her a thumbs-up. With a few short bursts of propane to heat the air just a bit more, the balloon slowly moves away and upwards.

Peggy calls her balloon "Starlight" - you can just make out one of the stars up near the top of the balloon.

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OK - what goes up must eventually come down - that applies quite well to balloons. The ground crew has to try to follow the balloon and meet it at its landing spot. The chase job is a lot easier these days thanks to cell phones and GPS systems. Most of the time Peggy's crew was there to meet her at touchdown, or at most a few minutes later.

balloon fiesta122 If the chase team has not arrived, the pilot tries to keep the balloon standing so the crew can see it. She also wants to keep it standing if are any rough or sharp objects around. Most of the time the crew will lay out some large tarps where the balloon will fall to the ground to protect it. When the tarps and crew are ready, the pilot vents the top of the balloon, which quickly leans over and lays on the ground.
The crew gathers the balloon together squeezing the air out the open top; this maneuver is called "milking the balloon". On this day I had the honor of doing the milking. balloon fiesta244
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The velcro straps are placed around the bundled balloon and it's stuffed back into its bag. At that point, four people can relax as they squeeze the last bit of air out of the bagged balloon. Everything gets packed into the trailer and the crew, pilot, and passengers head back to the Balloon Field for a little after-flight celebration.

That's Peggy facing the camera.

7 Oct 2013: Before we get to the real high point of the week, let's take a look at just a few of the many balloons participating in the Fiesta. I took some of the photos from the balloon field, while Liz took quite a few from the RV park.

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I learned that there are several different types of balloons. Most common are the spherical balloons like Peggy's. There is also a racing balloon that looks like a football standing on end - the tall narrow shape allows it to ascend/descend much faster than the round ones. When racing, the pilot needs to react quickly to wind changes at different altitudes. Special shape balloons are always popular with spectators. As the name implies, these balloons are custom-shaped to represent all sorts of things, such as Darth Vader and the lighthouse. Appendage balloons are somewhere in the middle between the round balloons and the special shapes. Appendage balloona are really the normal spherical balloon with some protuberances added; the Angry Bird and the Jester are good examples of appendage balloons.

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Liz took this picture just before sunrise at ground level. At about 1000', however, the yellow balloon has seen  the sun come up.

I'll use this photo to tell you about "Flying the Box".The multi-colored balloon at the bottom is flying southward, while the yellow balloon is heading north. As a result of some unique orographic effects caused by the Rio Grande valley and the Sandia Mountains, balloonists at Albuquerque can sometimes take off from the Fiesta Field, fly south and then climb in elevation to catch the southerly wind back to the north. When north of the field, they can then descend and land back at the spot from which they took off.

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9 Oct 2013: Getting up well before dawn to crew with Peggy had a reward this morning: unlike the previous morning she had no passengers and with just a few minutes to go before take-off, Gary and Peggy decided that since I had been crewing all week, I should have a chance for a ride. No hesitation here! I had to sign a release form and then climbed into the basket. Another crew member, Curtis, also got invited aboard and Peggy gave us a little safety briefing dealing with possible hard landings. The zebra came over and collected Peggy's flying ticket; then he backed away and after checking for any other balloons with which we might interfere, he gave us the thumbs-up sign. Peggy gave the burners a few shorts bursts to get us just off the ground and our crew walked us out to where it was clear to take off. Another burst or two of the burners and we began to glide gently up and southward.

As we slowly climbed, we had a great view of the Balloon Field, with probably about half the balloons yet to take off. We drifted south almost to the RV park, where I could easily spot our Lazy Daze.

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After a 45 minute flight of about 12 miles to the north, Peggy decided it was time to look for a place to land. She talked to Gary on her cell phone a couple of times to let him know where we were. At one point she tells him that we're just northeast of the clock (the balloon in the above picture).

As we slowly descended into a neighborhood with big spaces between homes, we spotted our chase crew's truck and trailer. We made a very gentle landing beside the house above, Its inhabitants came out to greet us and put "weight on" until our crew arrived. We all pitched in to deflate the balloon and pack everything up.

Thank you, Peggy and Gary, for a fantastic week!

Now it's time to do a little more exploring of New Mexico.