Once again the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has arrived, painting our city skies with colorful hot air balloons.
Pilots from across the country and globe gathered on Saturday, Oct. 7 in the grass fields behind the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum to kick off this nine-day event with a Mass Ascension, in which hundreds of balloonists take to the air in two separate waves starting at 7 a.m.
The only thing better than seeing this event up close on the field might be the opportunity to actually ride in one of the balloons. And this reporter got that chance, as part of the passenger group that flew with pilot Pat Harwell of Shreveport, Louisiana — a veteran pilot with over 3,000 hours of flight experience.
“I’ve been flying 26 years, and I’ve been at the Fiesta for 21 years,” Harwell said. “I fly in about 20 different cities. This is a great place...I come here for the other pilots, for friends and to meet people. It is the most organized (balloon) event in the world.”
The balloon — a multi-colored checkerboard of yellow, green and blue — was called “Maverick” and launched with the second wave after extensive setup and pre-flight checks confirmed that all systems were working.
Maverick was not a “special shape,” but its conventional tear-drop shaped envelope proved to be a workhorse nonetheless, holding 105,000 cubic feet of air heated with a propane burner to temperatures as high as 175 degrees Fahrenheit.
At these temperatures, the hot air easily generated enough lift to launch four passengers, plus the weight of the gondola basket, the propane tanks, the burners and the balloon’s envelope. All the balloon’s equipment can easily weigh upwards of 800 pounds.
Harwell said he has seen it all in a career that has spanned nearly three decades of hot air ballooning.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging,” Harwell said. “But I have a world’s record for distance flown. I’ve won multiple state championships. I’ve flown celebrities, like former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards.”
He said marriage proposals, and even weddings, have occurred in hot air balloons, with a minister standing in the gondola and a radio broadcasting the vows to the wedding party on the ground.
He also said that he has taken extreme sports enthusiasts, including two skydivers, in his balloon.
“I took them up to about 11,000 feet, put the balloon in a steep dive — dropping about 2,000 feet per minute — and at about 9,000 feet they jumped out,” Harwell said.
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The dive maneuver was necessary, he said, because the balloon suddenly becomes much lighter as people jump out of it, and it will shoot up quickly. Therefore, a rapid dive can compensate for the weight loss.
Harwell also said he has been to extreme altitudes.
“I’ve been to 26,000 feet,” he said. “I was on oxygen, and we went with two other balloons.”
However, Harwell admitted that he has had some scary incidents over the years too.
“I was flying in Abilene, Texas,” he said. “We were at 800 feet, and the wind was going 2 miles an hour. A thunderstorm hit us, and in less than 15 seconds, I was doing 40 knots. We landed doing about 35 miles an hour. We slipped 400 feet on the ground. But everyone got up and walked out. No injuries, no problem, no damage to the balloon.”
Many members of Harwell’s family have also taken up flying. His wife, Susan, also has a world-record in ballooning for female pilots, and they believe their grandson, Duncan Hernandez, is the youngest pilot currently flying at the Balloon Fiesta.
Hernandez, who goes to Eldorado High School, said he has logged a little more than 45 hours of flight time. He apparently missed the cutoff date, which means he won’t officially be a registered pilot but may still get a chance to fly.
While all of this might sound like risky stuff to do with a family, Harwell said ballooning isn’t inherently dangerous, adding that it’s a conservative sport, and speeds are usually maintained at about 5 to 10 mph.
Of course, pilots cannot do everything on their own. Harwell’s chase crew was an essential part of the team, not only for the launch, but then to come secure the balloon on landing, holding it down as it deflated and packing it into the van.
Frank McCall has been “crewing” with the Harwells since 2000 and loves it, he said.
“I crewed with Pat’s brother, and I started crewing with Pat. This year, it looks like we will do about 15 events...I’ve flown all over the southwest United States. There’s a lot of fun in crewing, a lot of exciting stuff. Beautiful spots like Palo Duro Canyon — the closest spot you can fly to the Grand Canyon in a hot air balloon.”
If you are interested in being on a balloon crew, McCall said, you just need to find somebody you can get along with.
“Hot air balloon pilots always need help,” he said. “If they don’t have the crew, they can’t do nothing.”
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta runs now through Sunday, Oct. 15.
Aaron Cowan is a volunteer sports reporter for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers volleyball and men’s and women’s golf. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @AaronTCowan.