Thousands of visitors packed into Balloon Fiesta Park last Saturday for the opening day of the 47th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Hundreds of balloons of all shapes and sizes took to the morning sky as spectators cheered on the pilots and bid them a safe trip.
The work of a balloon pilot is no easy feat. Pilots and chase crews arrive to the park well before dawn to take part in the event.
Keith Lutz and his crew have been participating in the fiesta for the better part of a decade. Lutz and his wife Michelle first took an interest in ballooning as spectators. Later they became participants on a chase crew until Lutz decided he wanted to become a pilot. Now Lutz and his crew, named The Flying Monkeys, help him fly his balloon, High Maintenance II.
High Maintenance II stands 11 stories tall. The balloon pattern, or envelope, is clean white, with red and blue alternating panels that encircle it. This year, two passengers accompanied Lutz on his ride. Albuquerque resident Erika Bolanos and her husband Freddy huddled close together in the basket as Lutz pulled on the burner, illuminating the balloon like an incandescent light bulb.
“We’re afraid but we’re excited at the same time,” Freddy said.
This was the couple’s first time riding in a hot air balloon. Chase crew member Terry Iliff attempted to give the couple advice for their first ride.
“Okay now,” Iliff said, “don’t crash, don’t catch on fire.”
Shortly after Lutz received the go-ahead from a launch director, his balloon was buoyant and it was time for takeoff.
The Flying Monkeys sprung into action before Lutz’s balloon was out of sight. The crew rolled up the large blue tarp that was lying before High Maintenance II in perfect coordination and stowed it away in the trailer.
Their next challenge was navigating the truck off the crowded field. Crew members jogged beside the truck to guide it towards an exit before hopping in the cab and in the bed of the truck. Once they made it to the road it was time for the chase.
John Brown, Jeannie Baldwin and Kevin Gove have been part of The Flying Monkeys’ crew for roughly five years. The three relaxed in the bed of the truck while watching the other balloons ascend.
“I think it’s stressful in the cab trying to keep track of the balloon,” Brown said.
After a short 15-minute ride, High Maintenance II was found in an empty dirt lot. All passengers and pilot landed safely. For the next hour Lutz and his crew offered balloon tether rides to any spectators that wanted them. Lutz was later honored as Ambassador of the Day for offering his free rides to the community.
The last challenge for the crew was deflating the balloon. Gove pulled on a rope attached to the apex of the balloon, or the crown, which tipped High Maintenance II on its side. It took every member of the team to squeeze the hot air out of the envelope, in a process referred to as milking.
Once completely flat, each person grabbed an arm full of fabric and stuffed it into the envelope bag in succession. The process was akin to rolling up a sleeping bag on a much larger scale.
Chase crews like The Flying Monkeys all work together to send up their balloons. Whether the ride is three hours or 15 minutes, a strong camaraderie exists between everyone in the ballooning community.
“Pilots will holler over to the other when they’re in the air and they just joke around each other,” Iliff said. “It’s this big group of friends who fly together.”
Lutz and his group of Flying Monkeys drove back to Balloon Fiesta Park after a successful first day, all to repeat the same adventure tomorrow.
Justine Lopez is a culture reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @justine_lopez95.