Hot air balloons
 
Featured in: News  |  March 29, 2019

At the Whim of the Wind

For nearly 50 years, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has created a dreamlike skyscape over New Mexico and inspired a new generation of pilots.

By Allan Richter

Malcolm Forbes liked to describe hot air ballooning as “a Peter Pan kind of thing.” He meant that piloting a hot air balloon elicited childlike wonder because it is such a departure from daily life—even for someone as wealthy as the patriarch of the Forbes media company.

My first hot air balloon ride, over a vast spruce forest in central New Jersey years ago, was sedate, offered pretty views and was uneventful, except for a slightly rocky landing that put our basket on its side. But it wasn’t enough for me to fully grasp the enchantment that Forbes had described.

My second ride came closer. It was with Albuquerque-based World Balloon, whose cheerful pilot flew low enough to dip the floor of the vessel’s basket in the Rio Grande and to allow its 10 passengers to identify potted cacti growing in backyards. As we threw the bulbous shadow of the balloon envelope—the inflatable part—on the cookie-cutter beige rooftops of an Albuquerque suburb, one could suspend disbelief enough to imagine Peter Pan leading Wendy Darling and Pan’s other young charges in flight over Edwardian London.

But it wasn’t until months later in Albuquerque, where the world’s largest balloon festival has been held for nearly five decades, that Forbes’ Peter Pan allegory became fully clear. At the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the lines blur between dream and reality, child and adult: fathers and daughters share cotton candy or work together to collect balloon pins and trading cards from pilots and crews, each collectible unique to the individual balloons.

Jaws of children and adults drop as the giant heads of cartoon characters and myriad other shapes and colors become airborne: a grey wolf with protruding snout and ears; a goldfish with cane, bowtie and top hat; the tall bearskin hat worn by the Royal British Guard.

And, of course, there are the promotional balloons serving as giant floating billboards: Among others, an immense black spider climbs along the envelope of a purple balloon promoting an exterminator, while a massive stagecoach, the iconic logo of Wells Fargo, represents the bank.

Cecilia Tamashiro and Teresa Yergara, both 48 and architects who went to school together, came from their native Lima, Peru, picking up a friend in Houston before driving 13 hours to the Balloon Fiesta. Yergara was stunned by the sophistication of the balloons, saying, “The creativity, the designs— it’s moving architecture.”

Toward the middle of the 78-acre launch field, Katie Knop, 28, Sophie Van Backle, 24, and Dan Nguyen, 27, all from California, debate the identity of a balloon in the shape of a bearded head. Nguyen guesses it is football coach Tom Landry. Knop sees the horror movie character Freddy Kruger. Van Backle, nonplussed, is more focused on the Smokey the Bear in the distance. “I’m from California,” Van Backle says, “so maybe Smokey reminds me of the national parks.” It is her third time at Balloon Fiesta, though her first time seeing the balloons ascend because it had been too windy on her previous outings.

I suggest the bearded head is Vincent Van Gogh. Nguyen agrees: “It looks like one of his self-portraits.” The confusion over the identity comes from the balloon’s design: Both ears of the balloon Van Gogh are intact, while the more familiar image is the self-portrait of the Dutch artist with a white bandage after he mutilated his ear.

Crowds surrounding the balloons applaud as each craft lifts off. Cheers erupt as Darth Vader and Yoda balloons ascend, with the green Jedi leading the evil Vader.

Much of the Balloon Fiesta magic unfolds on the ground. Pilots gather in the pre-dawn darkness for early morning flights, when the winds are more stable; the pre-flight firing of propane burners by hundreds of pilots and their teams while still spread across grounds the size of 54 football fields plays out like a symphony of rhythm and light. The odd contradiction of children mesmerized and unthreatened by fuel tanks burning like large acetylene torches is dreamlike, as are the illuminated balloon envelopes flickering across the field like huge Christmas lights or fireflies signaling to one another.

As the sun rises, pilots and their teams prepare to inflate their balloons as others take off. A child, self-empowered by his own flights of fancy, blows soap bubbles that compete for the surface air space with the aroma of smoked turkey legs and green chili pepper–filled breakfast burritos from concession stands around the field’s perimeter. Country bands and Native American drummers provide the soundtrack. Just north of a US Army Virtual Reality exhibit that lets visitors feel the sensation of skydiving, chainsaw artists noisily carve wooden balloons and bears, basswood and walnut chips flying in a frenzy.

The carnival on the ground is by design. In addition to adding to the economic impact of the Fiesta, it gives festival-goers many distractions if surface winds exceeding around 10 to 15 miles per hour ground the balloons.

“We plan a party just in case we’re not going to have great weather,” says Jim Garcia, a Balloon Fiesta board member. In the nine days of the latest Fiesta in October, winds only grounded the balloons on one day.

Charm and Danger

For all the carefree innocence of the Balloon Fiesta, ballooning is a risky pursuit that has claimed lives. Their crafts at the whim of the wind, pilots must both embrace and joust with the air currents and be on constant alert. They must watch fuel levels and look for obstacles (especially other balloonists at an event like Balloon Fiesta) if they are to avoid accident reports with two words that are the bane of every balloonist: pilot error. The nemesis mostly likely to cause such an outcome is power lines. (See box on balloon safety, page 69.)

Balloon Fiesta spotlights that odd courtship between pilot and nature in a competition that tests the pilots’ precision flying skills. Teams drive at least one mile from the balloon field, choose a launch spot and fly to a 10-foot fabric X on the field. The objective: to throw a four-ounce sandbag with a five-foot fabric tail so it lands in the center of the X. Pilots can fly their crafts as low as they want but are penalized if they touch ground. At the Fiesta, chief pilot Jonathan Wright of Vegas Balloon Rides (vegasballoonrides.com), wears purple-mirrored shades, a top hat above his blue mohawk and a zebra-themed vest to go along with the Mister Z cartoon zebra head balloon he flies there. The vest also pays homage to the “zebras”—the festival staff that serves as ground control and assists balloonists in taking off.

For deeply competitive pilots, however, the most daring contests are played out far from the Fiesta’s family-friendly grounds. On the competitive circuit, Wright, 35, wears a look of determination that has paid dividends: In five of his six years competing for the US National Hot Air Balloon Championship, he has finished in the top 20, joining the ranks of the top 10 on several turns. Twice he has qualified for the World Hot Air Balloon Championships. In those intense competitions, pilots must fly to multiple points and complete many tasks.

Wright was born into ballooning. His parents are devoted fans, and his father Thom, brother Tommy and he all became pilots. He’s been to every Balloon Fiesta since he was born, in 1982, first with his family as spectators, then as crew, then as a pilot himself. His mother, Loida, and sister in-law, Tiffany, crew for him, as do his three nephews.

His dad’s balloon, Chain Gang, is a standard 90,000 cubic foot hobby balloon (the figure refers to the amount of air the envelope holds when inflated); its basket can hold a pilot, co-pilot and perhaps several passengers. In contrast, the family’s commercial flying balloon back in Vegas is 330,000 cubic feet and can lift a basket holding 16 passengers as well as its pilot.

Playing on the name of his father’s balloon, Wright called his racing balloon Unchained and kept the same turquoise, red and blue colors; instead of the chain link design of the Chain Gang balloon, unchained has broken links. And like other racing balloons, Wright’s competitive craft is narrower and football-shaped, enabling it to more deftly ascend and descend (at 1,500 feet versus 800 feet a minute) to catch a current that might hasten him to a finish.

“It becomes the difference between driving the family sedan and driving a Ferrari,” Wright says of the distinction between piloting the hobby balloon and his racer. As for the commercial craft, he says, “The ride balloon is like driving a tour bus.”

One of Wright’s most intense competitions was last year’s Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race & Festival, a two-day race from Helen, Georgia, to I-95 along the East Coast. Weather almost grounded the balloons but cleared on the second day, giving the pilots just eight hours to make the more than 200-mile trip. Wright, who won the race the previous two years, saw the race as largely a competition between him and one other pilot, Daryl Tatum of Cummings, Georgia, owner of the commercial outfit Balloons Over Georgia (balloonsovergeorgia.com).

“Both of us took off from Helen with 40 gallons of fuel,” Wright says. “I flew four hours, running through our fuel supply, and about 100 miles out found a field to land in. It took about 20 minutes for the crew to get caught up with me with backup fuel tanks.”

Near the end of the race, and out of fuel again, Wright was 5,000 feet above ground and 8 miles short of I-95. As he descended, the winds shifted 90 degrees and his craft was being blown around a cornfield at a very brisk 17 mph. “I slapped against the tree line, put the basket safely on the ground, and the balloon wrapped around trees,” Wright says. “To my absolute surprise there was not a single tear in the fabric, and I didn’t do any damage to the crop field.”

Tatum won the race by crossing I-95 about 10 minutes after Wright landed. He attributes his victory to a chase crew that was on time at his one landing for fuel, as well as to favorable wind conditions—for both speed and direction. “The speed was reasonable,” Tatum says. “Most of the time we were doing between 40 and 50 mph, and we covered 220 miles more or less. If the wind had been slower, I would have had to make one more fuel stop.” He also managed to stretch his fuel supply. “I just didn’t burn unless I absolutely had to,” he says. “If you get the balloon in equilibrium, and you get it in the air mass you want that’s moving in the right direction, at the right speed, you don’t burn unless you have to.”

Like Wright and other pilots, Kurt Spruhan, 36, a wrong turn into a parking area for crew instead of spectators. She was called upon to crew on the spot, and ultimately pursued her pilot’s license. Spruhan expects to get his license over the coming year and is driven by the competitive dynamics as well as the mood of Balloon Fiesta. “Imagine Coachella, but the musicians are hot air balloons,” Spruhan says, “and you get to participate.”

For Spruhan, whose young son Kaleb is already being groomed for ballooning, the sport exemplifies achievement in the face of skepticism. Defying gravity, he says, is the ultimate victory over conventional wisdom through history. “You have huge resistance to change, and people have faith in that idea. You have to stick to your guns and know what you believe to be true, and eventually it will catch up to you and become reality,” he says.

Riding at the Fiesta

It is these loftier ideas, and the risks associated with them, that fuel my sense of adventure at Balloon Fiesta before a ride. A handler walks me through the huge field as balloon crews inflate their envelopes for the first rides of the day.

My adrenaline pumps faster with each step. My mind wanders beyond the silly cartoon shapes I pass; I am in an adult world of daring. Not realizing I am living the Peter Pan analogy of Malcolm Forbes, I dismiss that correlation, the Harley Davidson-shaped balloon Forbes once owned notwithstanding.

Perhaps I will take off in a flying chainsaw that will cut its way through the morning clouds (or through the ear of the Vincent Van Gogh balloon to give it more authenticity). Maybe I will ride beneath the sinister Darth Vader head, perhaps with an onboard voice-transforming megaphone that gives the pilot the menacing bass of James Earl Jones cautioning rebel fighters—or other balloons—to keep their distance.

When we arrive at the balloon I am to join, the image before me does little to raise my testosterone levels: The balloon is shaped like the head of a cross-eyed pink elephant with a heart at the end of its long trunk, two protruding pink ears and a silver crown adorned with a pink heart. Its name: Princess Nelly. Peter Van Overwalle, Princess Nelly’s Belgian owner and lead pilot, owns a car dealership back home and is decked out in grey army camouflage slacks, a short-sleeve, white button-down shirt, a shiny, bright pink necktie and a pink baseball cap adorned with Princess Nelly’s silver crown.

Van Overwalle has been flying at the Balloon Fiesta for 20 years but started his balloon career fearfully clinging to whatever equipment he could grab as he ascended for the first time as a passenger. He remained frozen for 10 minutes before the fear completely washed away and he became smitten. It wasn’t long before Van Overwalle was piloting others, and he soon found himself soaring peacefully above exotic locations like the Alps. Princess Nelly is the third elephant-shaped balloon he owns.

Once in the air, the balloon-filled skies look as if they are a canvas on which a pointillist painting has begun, each balloon in the distance a dab of paint from the tip of a brush. My mind drifts along with the hundreds of balloons around me. I conceive a dystopian future in which modern technology has been disabled, with survivors taking rudimentary transportation that will get them to an uncertain future. In my plot, hot air balloons descending to kayakers in the Rio Grande below are rescue cra­fts, the boaters clamoring for a spot on an airborne lifeboat.

Many of the fields below are marked with Xs, most made from fabric. In one field, rows of pumpkins form the X. It is a welcome signal to the balloon pilots from landowners—as important a partner in the flight as crew—that says, “Feel free to land here.” The “X Marks the Spot” program, launched this past year, was the brainchild of Balloon Fiesta Chairman Sam Parks. Officials made hundreds of kits of Xs from huge rolls of three-foot-wide vinyl. Ranchers and other landowners that put Xs out were entered into a drawing for gift­ baskets valued at more than $1,000 each that included donations from area businesses—a free year of dentistry, cases of salsa, bottles of wine.

A­fter crossing over the Rio Grande, Van Overwalle spots a huge field. It has no X, but the welcome is evident in the harried enthusiasm as living creatures on the property rush out in excitement to greet Princess Nelly. The landing consists of just a couple of bumps on the grass. Dogs run in circles, a couple of horses come as close as possible for a better look and the family’s young children squeal in delight. As the chase crew joins him, Van Overwalle breaks into a wide smile. He gives the children a ride of a couple of more bounces across the lawn before Princess Nelly is deflated, then hands out balloon pins and trading cards before all gather for a photo.

“That was a good morning,” Van Overwalle says under his breath on the ride back to the festival grounds, “a good morning.” Wind is the form of nature most pilots turn their attention to, but it is evident that human nature can also make or break a flight.

That ballooning depends on the state of the natural world at any given moment is not lost on Matthew Yeme, 30, an engineer from Aachen, Germany, now living in France. Yeme came to the Balloon Fiesta for his first time, on a break from an entrepreneurship study program in Taos, New Mexico. “I’m still discovering, still dreaming,” he says, mesmerized. “The colors, the shapes, being so close to it all.”

It is the second day of Balloon Fiesta, but Yeme’s first day at the event. On this morning, pilots and their teams are inflating balloons but not ascending; the winds are too strong. Still, Yeme is pleased. “When the sun rises, there’s a special energy. Everything is waking up. The balloons are rising with the sun. It’s a nice image.” He says the burners alone awaken his senses. “You can feel it. You can hear it. You can smell it. It’s kind of trippy.”

Yeme is anxious to see the balloons in flight but accepts their temporary grounding. “Maybe that’s the beauty of it—you have to work with nature,” he says. “You can’t force the experience.” 


Albuquerque Box’ Makes Flights More Predictable

Coupled with its 300 days a year of model flying weather, Albuquerque has a unique weather pattern that makes it ideal for hosting a festival like the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

The wind pattern, known as the Albuquerque Box, is in part the result of the city’s location, in the Rio Grande Valley between the Sandia Mountains and the West Mesa.

The name comes from the boxlike pattern of wind directions in the area that give balloonists remarkable predictability by enabling them to fly southerly winds at low elevations, and then light their burners to climb and catch northerly winds.

This vertical box lets pilots land in almost exactly the same spot from which they took off. Quite a feat for a craft whose only real control is vertical.

“I’ve been in a balloon that landed 10 feet from where it took off, and it was an hour-and-a-half flight,” says Jim Garcia, a Balloon Fiesta board member. “It could have landed anywhere. I’ve done that several times.”

He Swapped Police Wheels for Wings

When he was a commander in the Albuquerque Police Department, Murray Conrad had a big-picture view of the city and oversaw a high crime district called the War Zone. Now Conrad has more of a birds-eye view: he is chief pilot with the Albuquerque-based commercial balloon outfit World Balloon (worldballoon.com).

Though Conrad retired from the police department eight years ago, his law enforcement background gives riders a glimpse of Albuquerque they might not otherwise see. On one flight, as his American flag-themed balloon slowly lifted off during the early morning hours from a fast food restaurant parking lot, Conrad nodded toward a house below.

It was where police would bring children to remove them from danger or if parents were taken to jail. “I always try to fly as low as I can just in case there’s a kid who’s awake and can see us, just to bring a little joy to their life,” Conrad says.

On the same ride, Conrad, 56, briefly dropped the basket floor into the Rio Grande for a “dip and dash.” Elsewhere, Conrad was close enough to the ground for passengers to see jackrabbits scampering across fields.

Conrad, who resembles actor Sam Elliott, piloted the balloon just over residential rooftops, as dogs in yards barked at the strange thing overhead and curious residents in their bathrobes came out of their homes. One man yelled up to invite passengers and crew for coffee.

On one of his flights when he was still with the police force, Conrad saw what looked like marijuana plants growing in the courtyard in the center of a house. So, he dropped lower and took out his camera.

“I called my detectives, sent them the photos and video, and said ‘I want a warrant for this house before I land.’ We got 68 plants out of that, and the DA’s office refused to prosecute because the people who lived there were in their late 70s or early 80s and said they were growing it for themselves.” That didn’t jibe with Conrad: “Even if you went to Woodstock,” he says, “68 plants is more than you could smoke.”

Conrad’s career as a pilot marks a return to his young adulthood. He and his high school sweetheart, Julie, now his wife, would crew for balloon pilots in their senior year and continued with the sport. Their first balloon was a gift, as long as they would fly it with an advertising banner: Mrs. B’s Pawn Shop.

Conrad retired from the force in 2011 after 23 years and says he has piloted 2,100 safe balloon flights.

In his early flying days, piloting way out in the mesas, the sighting of a car or truck meant a possible crime scene, Conrad says. “Even today,” he says, “if I see a vehicle, I call it in and make sure it’s not stolen.”

Message in the Skies: Remember the Pow-Mia Vets

The two teenagers approached Luke Cesnik at his Balloon Fiesta balloon site and asked the pilot for collectible pins, a common practice on the festival field. “Let me ask you something,” Cesnik said to the young men before giving them the pins depicting his balloon. “Do you know what POW-MIA stands for?”

They didn’t, and Cesnik explained the abbreviations. Then he handed over the mementos.

For 30 years Cesnik, the president and chief pilot of St. Cloud, Minnesota-based Freedom Flight (freedomflight.org), has been flying a hot air balloon to make sure veterans who were prisoners of war or missing in action are not forgotten. Families are still learning about the fates of loved ones who served as far back as the Vietnam and Korean wars and World War II. And remains are still being identified, thanks to DNA advances.

Freedom Flight’s black balloon—one of four—features an eagle’s head, barbed wire, “POW-MIA” in large white letters and the phrase “You are not forgotten.” At Balloon Fiesta, the black, pear-shaped balloon stood out among the hundreds of rainbow-colored balloons of odd shapes dotting the sky.

Just before Balloon Fiesta, Freedom Flight was awarded a $37,500 grant from the Minnesota Veterans A­ airs Department for a wheelchair accessible basket and the trailer to haul it, said Cesnik, a Vietnam Air Force veteran. To enter a standard balloon basket, riders ordinarily have to climb over the top. The special basket has a door, and passengers can ride in a wheelchair or a special racecar-like seat attached to the basket and equipped with a four-point harness. “We’ll be able to take people that have never been up in a balloon,” Cesnik said. At Balloon Fiesta, Cesnik flew the names of veterans on ribbons affixed to his basket. The names included that of Senator John McCain, who had died a little over a month earlier.

As Cesnik was speaking, other veterans approached the balloon and signed a festival poster on the basket. Michele Boutell, 39, of Waco, Texas, lauded the Freedom Flight mission. “They’re doing amazing things,” said Boutell, whose Air Force reserves unit was the second in Afghanistan after 9/11. “A lot of young people I meet don’t know a veteran.”

For Chase Crews, The Action is on the Ground

The unsung heroes of hot air ballooning are the chase crews—the teams of young men and women who track their operation’s balloon from a pickup truck or van to help bring the craft to a safe landing.

Kurt Spruhan, who crews for his family, says pilots and chase crews share a single important lesson: expect the unexpected. “You have to expect something different each time out,” Spruhan says.

Chase crews rely on visuals and knowing the wind, he says. “Sometimes you’ll put up a helium balloon. Sometimes the wind is going one direction, but the last 50 feet over the surface it’s going a different direction. Just because the balloon is going one direction doesn’t mean you’re going to catch it in that direction.”

In one adrenaline-pumping episode four years ago, Spruhan was tracking the balloon his stepfather, Tom Keller, was piloting with two passengers near their Coachella Valley home.

Winds shifted, putting the balloon just past some power lines and over the only viable landing area: a patch of open land about the size of a tennis court that was bordered by tall trees. “He drops really fast and then has to make the balloon stop at a point where he’s not hitting these trees,” Spruhan recounts.

Worse, radios weren’t working, and Spruhan couldn’t communicate with the pilot. Spruhan ultimately anchored a drop line that the pilot had tossed before the balloon could hit the trees.

In pilot Jonathan Wright’s most memorable episode when he was on a chase crew, the radios of both pilot and crew on the ground were working. But the chase crew was wise enough to keep its radio silent and avoid distracting the pilot with the mishap it was tending to on the ground.

Wright and the rest of the team were chasing the balloon of a pilot during a competition at an Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in the mid-90s. They were using Wright’s father’s truck, a one-ton ’89 Chevy Crew Cab Dually when the U-joint in the drive shaft suddenly broke and an axle dropped to the ground, leaving the crew immobile.

“The pilot is scoring great,” Wright recalls. “We haven’t told him we have a broken truck. My dad is a general contractor, and he calls his heating contractor, who’s a spectator at the field. We jumped into his truck, and we were there when [the pilot] landed with a totally different truck, ready to pick him up.”

Many pilots say their chase crews are typically already at a landing site when they are ready to bring the balloon down. Daryl Tatum, owner and chief pilot at Balloons Over Georgia, recalls one instance after a night flight that ended up with his balloon in a dark cow pasture, and he and his chase crew couldn’t find each other for two hours—even with working radios.

“It wasn’t anybody’s fault,” Tatum says. “It was an evening flight.”

Now and then, a pilot dispenses with an official chase crew altogether. Jeffrey Ashworth, 46, said his two sons typically crew for him on the ground when he pilots their balloon, Slainte! (pronounced Slan-Tcha, meaning “Cheers” in Gaelic). When his sons want to fly, however, Ashworth does what many do when they need a ride: He calls an Uber to pick them up at the landing site.

“The driver doesn’t get it for a while until they pull up to our chase truck,” Ashworth says, “and then we retrieve the balloon.”

The Enemy of Balloon Pilots: Power Lines

The wind—it’s both friend and foe to balloon pilots. The operators use the fuel burners of their crafts to ascend and catch air currents that will bring them to a spacious landing field owned by a friendly neighbor—or they fire up the burner to escape a current that might take them to their biggest nemesis: power lines.

In one of the deadliest balloon incidents, a pilot and 15 passengers died 44 minutes after launching at sunrise on July 30, 2016, when their balloon struck power lines and crashed in a field near Lockhart, Texas. The balloon, owned by the pilot, was destroyed by the impact and a fire after the crash, according to a 55-page National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident report.

The October 2017 report said that the ground crew and witnesses saw “patchy fog” along the route to and near the launch site. The ground crew chief said weather at the launch site was clear, the report said, citing a post-crash interview with NTSB investigators, while a ground crew member said fog was visible near the launch site but that “vertical visibility was unobscured.”

When the pilot checked weather conditions about two hours before the launch, clouds were as low as 1,100 feet above ground. Other conditions indicated fog could form, though fog was not forecast. “The pilot did not check weather again before launch,” the NTSB said in the report, adding that updated forecasts indicated “deteriorating conditions.”

In addition to missing the opportunity to cancel the flight by not checking the weather again, the pilot “exhibited poor decision-making” when he did not land during “suitable” opportunities, the NTSB report concluded.

The pilot had medical conditions, the report said. Prescribed medicine for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and depression did not affect his performance, though his depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, “and the combined effects of multiple central nervous system impairing drugs likely affected the pilot’s ability to make safe decisions,” the report said.

The NTSB also took the Federal Aviation Administration to task for not requiring medical clearance for balloon pilots.

The FAA said it is examining the issue. “One notable exception in the regulations is that balloon pilots do not require medical certificates,” the FAA said in an email response to a Discover Life query. “The history of this exception is unclear, as that rule was written decades ago. The NTSB submitted a safety recommendation to the FAA regarding that rule, and the FAA Reauthorization of 2018 required rulemaking regarding second-class medicals. The FAA is reviewing that mandate at this time.”

Pilot judgment plays a big role in accidents, says Tom McConnell, MD, an air safety expert and author of Balloon Safety (Rio Grande), a collection of his seminars on the subject.

“In the first 30 balloon accident reconstructions that I did for safety seminars over the years, only one of them did not involve pilot error,” says McConnell. “It was a malfunction of the equipment and the pilot did everything right. In the other 29, the pilot screwed up.”

In one incident near Balloon Fiesta, a pilot trying to land with a passenger flew over a tall power line but “apparently he didn’t put the power to the burner when he should have,” McConnell says. “They fell 30 or 40 feet to the ground and both men were killed.”

In only two cases that McConnell knows of involving power lines, pilots or passengers were likely electrocuted. In most cases when a balloon collides with power lines, the balloon tips and the fall is fatal.

In the meantime, Balloon Fiesta, Albuquerque and New Mexico officials are laying the groundwork to improve safety in and around the balloon festival. Under Federal Aviation Administration rules, drones were prohibited this year from flying within four miles from the center of Balloon Fiesta Park. Nonetheless, hundreds of drones were detected.

Just before the 2018 Balloon Fiesta, a task force met to explore other ways to make flight paths more balloon-friendly, says Jim Garcia, a task force and Fiesta board member. The group is looking at land that could serve as a balloon landing site during the Fiesta and as soccer fields and parks the rest of the year. It has discussed whether power line poles can be made to break away upon impact, or if the power lines could be put underground.

Preemptive initiatives are making the Fiesta and the ballooning industry safer, McConnell says. Stronger materials with heavier stitching are being used for the balloon envelope and burners are more efficient. At the Fiesta, weather forecasting and the launch routine are always upgraded. Weather observations, for instance, are made as close to the Fiesta site as possible, he says.

“In the real old days, you got a briefing from the airport,” McConnell notes, “but if the airport is 10 miles away from where you’re ballooning, it may not be the same as where you’re going to take off.”

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