The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is a family event. There are a lot of families that attend every day in part because there are lots of balloons and also because children under 12 years old get in free. Adults have to pay $10 per session. Public schools are on Fall Break this week so many children can come with their parents to the events. The school buses are used to transport many of the attendees to the launch field, too. Besides the balloons, each balloonist has a collector’s card with the photo of their balloon, its name, and information about the balloonist. All of the children (and some adults) go to the balloon team and ask for their card. The special characters, such as Smokey the Bear, are the most popular. Sometimes the balloon pilots will throw the cards out of the basket like confetti. They also have special pins that people trade and collect. It was fun to see all of the children get so excited to see the balloons launch at the Fiesta.
David and I got our first collector’s card from one of the balloonist who was our docent at the Albuquerque Balloon Museum. Kathy Smith, who owns and pilots the balloon called “Levity,” led our tour through the Museum after having flown that morning. The tour covered the history of ballooning and its contributions to current aviation, science, and technology. The Museum opened in 2005 and it was named after Maxie Anderson and Ben Abruzzo, two Albuquerque natives who were famous aeronauts. The Museum also has artifacts related to ballooning such as the actual gas balloon “baskets” of the balloonists who completed the first crossings of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in the Double Eagle II and Double Eagle V respectively. They also boast the first airship to circumnavigate the globe, the Breitling Orbiter 3. It also have a 4-D theatre where they show films about aeronautic adventures.
There were many interesting displays but none more intriguing to me than those about how balloons were used in war. Our docent explained how the Japanese had used balloons to attack the USA during WWII. The balloons were armed with bombs and were called “fugos.” Japan sent more than 10,000 armed balloons across the Pacific Ocean using the jet stream. Most fugos did not make it to the Continent but about 1,000 did. These unmanned fugos landed in the northwest of the USA, causing many fires. The government intercepted many of these balloons and those that were recovered were kept a secret until recently. They did not want the Japanese to know that their balloons had reached their intended target. (If you want to know more about this, you can go to You Tube and search for “On a Wing and a Prayer” and you will find a short documentary of the fugos.) They actually had the remnants of one of the fugos in the Museum.
The tour of the Museum was very informative and it was even more thrilling to have one of the balloonist as our docent. We stayed after the tour was over and asked Kathy questions about ballooning. Her husband was there as well and he is a balloon pilot, too. She has been a pilot for 20 years. We learned that balloonist have to be FAA certified to fly, just like all airplane pilots do. She told us that her balloon cost $40,000. Her husband’s balloon is cheaper since it does not have as many intricate designs as hers does. She also said that the envelope, the outside of the balloon, has to be inspected and certified to fly annually. Moreover, the balloon envelope has to be replaced after 500 hours of flight time. It was a fascinating glimpse into the sport of ballooning.