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Balloon Fiesta Carries Hundreds Up, Up, and Away

The southwestern U.S. city of Albuquerque is back to normal. Traffic is moving, and the big meadow north of town is just a field again. That's because the world's largest ballooning festival has wrapped up for another year. And it was quite a sight, with hundreds of hot-air balloons rising into the New Mexico sky.

According to the Kodak film company, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the most-photographed event on earth. And it's easy to see why, with 750 brightly colored, giant balloons from 25 nations rising in what's called a "mass ascension" just after dawn, when the air is calmest. Often cleverly shaped -- as a pig, a cat face, a bumblebee, even an Old West stagecoach -- they are first spread limpid on the ground, then inflated by huge, rattling fans.

At dusk, the "envelopes," as balloonists call them, bob from tethers, glowing eerily from the propane-fed flames heating the air within them. Once up and off, they're kept aloft by shorter bursts of flame from the propane burners.

Except when those burners are belching fire, ballooning is serene, more of a spectacle than a sport. From porches and sidewalks and cars that pull to a stop all over town; from the vast New Mexico desert and ridges of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains; and from the launch field itself, tens of thousands of spectators gaze skyward.

Kevin Wolf of Midland, Texas, his wife Angela, and their two sons were among the enthralled. "Awesome, unbelievable," Kevin marveled, looking skyward. "It's beautiful. Never seen anything like it before. I got a lot of pictures. The teamwork that it takes to get the balloon in the air is just quite phenomenal." Added Angela Wolf, "We've never even seen a hot-air balloon, much less hundreds of them. We're just in awe."

Tom McConnell, a local physician who this year piloted a balloon in his 34th-straight Albuquerque fiesta, notes that a hot-air balloon can reach seven stories or more in height, counting its long ropes attaching the wicker basket that carries the pilot and one or two passengers.

"It's pretty easy to fly a balloon," Dr. McConnell assures us. "You pull on one thing to go up, and you pull on something else to come down. And you just gotta kind of keep straight which one of those things that you're pulling on. Once you've had some experience, why you figure out which way the wind is goin', and then you go with it. The goal is to land safely."

Sounds simple enough. Never mind that Dr. McConnell and other pilots -- who must be licensed by the federal government, just like airplane pilots -- must carefully dodge deadly power lines, or that he once flew into a storm that dropped five centimeters of snow onto his yellow-and-red balloon and liters of melted snow into the gondola. Collisions with other balloons, though, are rare since the wind carries all of them in the same direction at the same speed.

An elaborate hot-air balloon can cost $75,000 or more. Charlotte Kinney, who years ago was the first woman to supervise the fiesta's flying events, says they're rather like airborne yachts, in which people of means entertain their friends. "It's not the competition," she says. "It's not the photo opportunities. It's just the magic of the people who are involved. It's a really fun thing. It's not high pressure. It's 'Where are we going to land? Can our chase crew pick us up? There they are now. You'd better turn left; you'd better turn right.' A pilot and one other person or two other people can't launch today's balloon. It takes a whole crowd of people."

Good friends, who help tow the balloon to Albuquerque, get it airborne, track it down in a so-called "chase car," and recover it using radio communications and global-positioning satellites.

The balloonists play airborne games like "splash and dash," in which they descend low and skim a river or lake. Sid Cutter, who was in the aviation business, bought his first balloon as a birthday gift for his mother. He organized the first Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in 1972, in which a mere 13 balloons ascended from a shopping center parking lot. Mr. Cutter says a favorite game begins with a single balloon, whose pilot drifts far downwind, descends and places a target in a field. "It's called a hare and a hound race," he says. "But that didn't sound right to me for New Mexico, so we call it the 'coyote and roadrunner' race. And I was the roadrunner, and all the coyotes chased me."

The pursuers set off in search of the target, trying to hit it with a sandbag dropped from the basket in order to win a prize. Not much of one, though. The biggest reward at the entire festival is a motorcycle.

The fiesta richly rewards Albuquerque, however. For its estimated $5 million in expenses, the city reaps almost $20 million in tax revenue from the money visitors spend on motels, food, and souvenirs.

Since the propane runs out fast, a typical balloon flight lasts just an hour. But one day of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta features the launch of much larger gas-filled balloons. With far greater lift that carries them into upper currents, they soar for days, ending up in Mexico, Canada, even the distant U.S. Atlantic Coast. That's fine for a few pros, says Sid Cutter. But for him, "The most exciting thing is to land in a schoolyard and watch all the kids come out with their faces just shining. It's the most rewarding thing you've ever done."

When balloonists land, they often repeat a much-loved ritual -- reciting the balloonist's prayer: You have flown so high, and so well, that you have touched the face of God. And He has gently put you back into the loving arms of Mother Earth."