Andrew Kaye has flown a very large pile of special shaped balloons amounting to lots of kilos and, having spent his first season flying passenger ride balloons, has now gone off to Australia to fly over Melbourne but before he went he decided he really ought to take The Doll to Albuquerque and fulfil a lifelong ambition. This isn’t so much about this years balloon meet but what you need to know and what you should look out for if you are thinking about going. His advice, “Go for it!”
Albuquerque, to do or not to do - by Andrew Kaye
Ever since I started ballooning back in 1988, I’d had the colourful calendar style images of blue skies full of hundred’s of brightly coloured balloons and shapes in my head, and had always had it on my ‘to do’ list.
Right from the start with my licence issued in 1990 my ballooning career has closely involved Special Shapes, and I’ve now flown so many I’d have to stop and think if you asked me what. For years I was told that the ‘Shapes’ would bring a free entry into Albuquerque with freight and all associated costs paid, however it never quite worked out like that and would have been a very expensive trip, so until 2013 it was still a dream to come true.
Well in 2013 it happened and I visited Albuquerque for the first time, I had high expectations of it and it did not disappoint.
The situation with Shapes and Round Balloons is nothing can be branded to qualify for a free or subsidised entry, branded entry has to be paid for. If its a shape it has to be something that they want for them to be interested. This year we had the Snow White Doll which they wanted. There is also a program called “Flight of The Nations” where a visitor on his first visit can by chosen to represent his country, this is limited, but can be a $2000 dollar top up to your travel expenses, this year I represented the U.K and all that involved was flying on a set day, flying the flag of your country. Deals for Special Shapes are individual and not standardised.
You will be expected to arrange you own freight of equipment but with the right agent both ends the process is simple and painless and US Customs have close links with the Fiesta, the whole city is Balloon crazy so anything ballooning related gets an easy ride. The Police will flag you through streets blocked for the public access only. As pilots of a recognised shape we were stopped everywhere we went from supermarkets, to restaurants to the cable car up the mountain and mobbed for memorabilia. The organisation will give you a set of top trump style trading cards to give out with the picture and info you provided them printed on it. These cards will soon run out as kids will be there for every launch leaving you and them almost in tears when you’ve run out, so maybe get something similar or your own made by Vistaprint before you go.
With a round balloon all is not lost either, the entry costs are small and in rewards you will get a free hotel room including breakfasts for the duration (book it early via the Albuquerque website to get close to the launch site), crew if you want them, I guess travelling as a pilot and one crew is best, local fit crew with knowledge of the area are brilliant, they will probably have their own pick up or trailers to help you and can do some running around before you get there collecting stuff. You will also receive free a very nice jacket (if you want two book your extra as they will be sold out), entry to many social events and eatings. This year they gave each pilot a nice Mini Garmin moving map preloaded with local maps and SA’s, some deals also involve a free rental vehicle but you will find the USA so cheap that nothing is too expensive.
You have two choices basically, you can take your own G- balloon either complete or try to borrow bottom end and fan as we did. Flying a G- balloon for private purposes you can fly on your U.K. licence in USA. As in most countries it’s the two out of three rule where at least two of the countries behind the licence issue, balloon registration and country you are in MUST be the same. You also have the option of renting a USA balloon like Dave Baker did, this is clearly much easier if you know someone already but everyone is very friendly and helpful. Renting would involve you travelling out a few days earlier to get your FAA Licence and maybe do a check flight and you would have to pay the CAA £44 before you leave so the CAA will answer any questions regarding your licence the FAA might ask otherwise they will ignore it, the fact is they still take a month to reply so do this early.
Even once you’ve decided what balloon to try, you may be held back in your mind by disaster stories, horrific video’s you have seen of balloons striking power lines, draped over high towers or plummeting to the Earth. Well, if you’re a pilot in regular practise with a few hours under your belt don’t let these images put you off. You’ve got to remember that statistics come into play and with 500-600 balloons flying each day over 10 days , 5000 to 6000 flights would probably take you years to see in the UK. Albuquerque is a very dry place, it’s a city with a balloon park on the North side. The launch field is very green and lush and very large, probably the biggest launch field you have ever seen and its watered every night to keep it so fresh, a rare sight in the dessert. There are many dusty small paddocks around town some with low level lines nearby, they are probably not suited to a balloon the size of Snow White but for a small round balloon they are good, you can buy or borrow a tarpaulin locally to keep the dust off. However if you have a good round balloon with good duration and a fast deflation system you can just play with the box then go up and fly off away from the city out into the dessert and land somewhere completely open (don’t have this luxury with shapes).
The box winds are incredible and the views you get are amazing, there will be balloons in every compass point, 350 may launch from the field and another 150 fly in as soon as they are clear from a site a couple of miles away. Many elect to fly the box and land back in a designated area of the launch field, this is a very safe and good option.
The briefings are good and thorough, every one is watched very closely on height rules and rates of ascent limited to 200fpm, you will need a sharp lookout though with so many balloons in the air at once, but I personally did not witness any crazy flying. Even with calm winds above quite often a low level jet can form around 10-15 knots or more, this can sit at just 200ft off the ground, it can be there one minute and not the next so if you have a fast deflation system it makes life easy, you just have to watch the other balloons to judge what’s there or not.
You will arrive and set up in the dark, you will see the “Dawn Patrol” of around a dozen balloons take off glowing in the dark as your first ‘met’ balloons. They will then have the sponsor of the day fly the “Stars and Bars” where the whole site freezes in respect. You will have a launch master called a “Zebra” dressed in black and white to stand out from the crowd, they will launch in waves and you will be odd or even and it works quite well. There will be HUGE CROWDS in the launch field hugging your envelope and basket as you inflate. This is the norm but a few firm words will keep the families and push chairs away from dangerous fans and flames and the Zebra’s will assist. For those that don’t like the public around you, you will hate it, for those showmen/women amongst us you will love it and the cheers as you pull the quick release.
Gas is handled safely and efficiently with many patrolled re-fuelling points, hardly any wait and all adaptors available, they even give $200 worth of fuel for the vehicle too.
Post flying many team set up BBQ’s on the launch field and party in the sun and you will soon find new friends around your designated launch position. The parties get named by the launch position, like ‘P2 party’. Apart from a few flights by rides balloons its morning flights only so there will be lots of dark 5am starts and early beds.
You will need to go with an empty suitcase and come back with a full one as there are balloon stores galore on site and local shopping is cheap. A return flight to Albuquerque is around £600 per person and airfreight of equipment will be somewhere around £9 per kilo.
I hope this gives a little insight into Albuquerque. Its amazing, all but one slot was flyable this year with only one of them being “lively” on the field. There is NO pressure to fly, its totally at your discretion and you can do what you want or go off for a few days. Some previous years have been almost totally weathered out so don’t bank on good conditions like we had in 2013. If you enter into a contract to do things in exchange for subsidy payments you must be there on the nominated days and do what is appropriate according to your contract and the weather.
If its on your list of things to do, do it and start the process rolling now. I would go back at the drop of a hat and hope to be there in 2014 where I’d be happy to help you, well, as long as I like you!