Van E. Harl
ALBUQUERQUE BALLOON FIESTA, 2003
The sun was not up yet but there is a tremendous amount of movement on the ground at the launch field. There was the occasional flash of light or the sound of someone barking orders. Then these large objects start to take shape. It is Dawn Patrol time and I am not talking about Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and the 94th Aero Squadron heading out over enemy lines looking for the Red Baron.
It is the 32nd annual Albuquerque New Mexico, Balloon Fiesta. This nine-day event drew over 750 hot-air-balloons. Most of the balloons are of the round types, but there were 94 balloons in the special shape category. These shapes were everything from Smoky the Bear to a Wells Fargo stagecoach.
This is my first year living in Albuquerque and my first time at the Balloon Fiesta. I have been to and or worked at numerous military air shows over the past twenty years. I have never been at an air show were there where so many aircraft packed on to such a small of piece of real estate and been able to fly so safely. The big advantage here is no motors or engines to worry about and all the aircraft launch straight up. No long runway needed here.
But the most noticeable advantage to this type of air show is the extreme low level of noise dealing with balloon flight, compared to that of the launching of fix wing or rotor aircraft. I remember when I was first learning to jump out of aircraft; all my jumps were done from helicopters. There was all the noise on the ground getting ready, and then the helicopter flies in to pick you up. This is where the noise really increases. At that point you do all your communications with the jumpmaster by yelling in each other’s ears. Even as you exit the aircraft, it is constant noise. The noise only subsides after your parachute opens and the helicopter has flown away.
But when you make your first balloon jump it is totally different. Except for the sound of the burner, inside the basket building up heat in the balloon, there is very little man made noise. When you get to elevation, the only real noise you notice is the sound of your heart as you climb over the side of the basket to make your jump. The last human noise is the jumpmaster telling you to go. You are over the side in almost total quiet and it dawns on your there is no aircraft noise above you as you start your descent. The last noisy thing you hear is the opening of your chute. Then except for the sound of air moving over you, it is quiet. This is the most peaceful parachute jump you can make at high elevation.
It was “Salute to New Mexico Veterans Day” at the Balloon Fiesta. I was there in uniform as were many in the crowd. The Fiesta planners had encouraged the Fiesta goers to wear red, white and blue and this was ever apparent as I walked around. I got there early to watch the morning balloon launch. All the balloons launched in about a two-hour non-stop period. I know this sounds very child-like, but the feeling I got watching those brightly colored balloons take off was happiness. If you came to the balloon launch that morning in a bad mood, there was no-way you were still in that foul mood after watching hundreds of balloons take off.
There were two balloons from Brazil in the shape of “yellow bees.” They were by far the best crowd pleasers. The cheers when the “bees” took off where the loudest. There were some really great special shape balloons, but the one that got my attention the best, was the POW/MIA balloon.
I did not see it take off. In fact I did not even know there was a POW/MIA balloon at first. After the mass launch they held the Salute to New Mexico Veterans Ceremony. I was behind the stage helping set up, so I did not see them fly the POW/MIA balloon into position. As I walked around to the front of the stage there it was hovering about 100 feet in the air and 200 yards for the front of the stage. It is solid black with an eagle and barbed wire on it. The Veterans of Foreign Wars from Illinois are the main sponsors of the balloon. All through the ceremony the POW/MIA balloon was providing rides to the public. So the balloon was constantly ascending and descending. You could not have had a better visual effect for this veteran’s appreciation ceremony.
For the better part of the morning and into mid afternoon the only balloon up at the Fiesta was the POW/MIA balloon. It was a great hit with the crowd, but subliminally it was able to reinforce the POW/MIA issue into the minds of a lot of people who were not even paying attention to that issue.
Seated in the audience were veterans of the Vietnam and Korean War. This being New Mexico and the home of so many USMC, WWII Native American Code Talkers, it was very inspiring to see these elder statesmen of the veteran community. There were three Medal of Honor recipients on the stage at the Fiesta. I had never been in the presents of more than one recipient before. These men represent the best this country has to offer to our continued freedom.
Also in the audience was one of my personal modern day heroes or in this case heroine, the Air Force Academy graduate and former Air Force officer Congresswoman Heather Wilson. Congresswoman Wilson is the first woman veteran to every serve in the US Congress. She is a strong advocate for the military, for service members both past and present and in this country’s defense. New Mexico and the Nation are lucky to have such a devoted citizen and veteran.
I had heard tales for years about the Balloon Fiesta but until you stand under hundreds of brightly colored, launching balloon you can not begin to appreciate this magnificent event.
©Copyright 2003 by Van E. Harl