Each fall, pilots, crews and spectators from all over the world come to Albuquerque for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta®, the world's largest hot air ballooning event. For nine days during the first full week of October, hundreds of colorful balloons float above the city each morning as dawn breaks over the Sandia Mountains. This magical hot air balloon festival is considered to be the most photographed event in the world and draws a huge international crowd of professional balloonists and spectators alike.
Mass ascensions, when more than 600 balloons lift off, are held on all four weekend mornings and one day mid-week. Mass ascensions begin after the "dawn patrol" carefully examines the morning's weather conditions. When the dawn patrol gives the green light, balloons from all over the world rise together in a harmonious lift-off. The sight of 600 balloons in the sky is as breathtaking for first-time visitors as it continues to be for veteran Fiesta attendees.
Balloon glow® and other balloon illumination events are held in the evenings, filling the launch field with tethered balloons of every color, shape and size. As the propane burners inflate the balloons against a dark sky, they seem to flicker like giant psychedelic light bulbs. Special shapes balloons come alive during magical evening Balloon "glowdeos"™. Dinosaurs, bumble bees, flowers, Mother Hubbard's shoe, a space shuttle and a cow jumping over the moon can all be seen up close during a glowdeo, and they all launch together during their own mass ascensions, called "special shape rodeos."
Balloon pilots particularly enjoy the competition of the Balloon Fiesta's precision flying events. Every weekday morning, pilots compete in events that are a lot harder than they look. In the key grab event, pilots must launch at least one mile away from the field, then fly back, avoiding collisions with hundreds of other balloons, and navigate to the precise location of an envelope attached to a tall pole. The envelope holds the keys to a new car, and the first one to grab it wins.
Gas ballooning is the ultimate challenge for balloonists: they fly higher and farther than hot air balloons, often exposing pilots to violent weather conditions. Each year, the Balloon Fiesta hosts the America's Challenge Gas Balloon Race, which began in 1995. This competition, based entirely on the distance traveled by a balloon, is the premier gas ballooning event in the United States. Over the years, Albuquerque has also hosted two gas balloon World Championships and four editions of the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett, the world's oldest and most prestigious gas balloon competition.
The most unusual and exciting feature of the Balloon Fiesta is that spectators are allowed to walk amongst the balloons as they inflate on the launch field each morning. Visitors are welcome to ask questions and meet the pilots--they may even be asked to help out a crew member with the inflation process! When it is time for a balloon to launch, "zebras" (the traffic directors dressed in black and white outfits) will clear a path in the crowd for each balloon to take off.
With nearly 800,000 visitors attending the Balloon Fiesta each year, many hotels are booked up to one year in advance.