It's not even 5 a.m. and the propane burners are already hot at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.
This time of year, pilots and their crews from around the world flock to a field on the outskirts of the city in the predawn darkness. They offload heavy wicker baskets from their trucks, test the propane burners and then gather for a briefing on the weather.
Every morning for more than a week, hundreds of balloons will lift off the ground at once in an unrivaled kaleidoscope of color at the largest celebration of the sport in the world. And this week, I saw it up close.
Pilot Tim Taylor gives the flight briefing this morning. He's also the leader of the day’s dawn patrol, an experienced group of about a half dozen fliers who are the first to launch each day.
Matthew Grote is another dawn patrol pilot with a boomer of a voice. He's also my pilot. Grote and I are standing shoulder to shoulder in his wicker basket, still tethered to the ground. He's invited a friend onboard and between the three of us, there's hardly room to move.
The dawn patrol pilots blast their burners in unison. A row of 80-foot balloons glow like paper lanterns against the dark sky.
“Dawn patrol, is everybody ready to fly?,” Taylor asks on the radio. And we are.
After hearing the crowd cheer and a few blasts of propane, just like that, the dawn patrol is airborne.
I quickly learn that two things affect the direction of our flight. First, the wind is blowing us south at about 9 miles per hour and each blast of propane takes us higher.
As we rise, I see the constellation Orion in the sky. To the east, the moon hangs above the Sandia Mountains and a sliver of sunlight peeks over the horizon as if it's trying to wash away the night.
I can tell the other guy standing four inches from me is enjoying the view. His name is Damien Cook and he’s known pilot Grote for 20 years from their days in Nebraska. The trip marks Cook’s first dawn patrol experience as well.
“You don't get to see this in Iowa,” Cook says. “It's just flat there.”
Cook is smiling — but my stomach is sinking. The higher we go, the more I want to crouch down into the basket and press myself back to Earth.
Pilot Taylor is flying an American flag balloon. He tells us over the radio that the wind is calmer at a higher elevation.
“Dawn patrol, it's a shame we have to go higher to slow down,” he says over the radio, “but anyway, you all look beautiful.”
For pilot Grote, flying a balloon at the fiesta is a privilege. Every year, he does his best to put on a good show so he can return the next year.
The balloon reaches 1,000 feet above the city of Albuquerque as it moves at a mile per hour. The feeling is hard to describe, but Grote finds the words.
“When you're taking off, the Earth drops away from you because you don't have any G-force that pushes you backwards in your seat like you would in the jet,” he says. “And you just lift off the ground.”
The weather in Albuquerque makes the event possible. There's a wind pattern over the city known as the Albuquerque box — which means that on a typical fall day, surface level winds blow to the south while the winds higher up go in the opposite direction to the north.
In theory, Grote could use the north blowing winds to backtrack and land near the same place we took off. But today the box isn't working that well. Even though our balloon is 1,000 feet above the city, we're still drifting south.
Since the balloon moves at the same speed as the wind, riders don’t have to battle gusts of wind hitting them in the face. And hot air balloons are the only aircrafts that a butterfly can speed past, Grote says.
“It's one of the coolest things to go over a field of wildflowers,” he says. “You stir ‘em up up, and all of a sudden there's a bunch of butterflies just flying around you and they fly away and in front of you.”
That's the difference between any other kind of flying: There's no way to go forward other than what the wind does. There's no propellers, no jet. There's nothing but this propane burner above us that allows the balloon to go up and down.
Pilots need to continuously use the propane burner to keep the balloon in the air. But Grote appreciated the peaceful moments of silence.
It is peaceful, and by now I'm feeling confident enough to admit that at one point not long ago I was scared. It’s not the first time the height has freaked out one of Grote’s passengers.
“I've flown a guy that wanted to propose,” Grote says. “And he was in the middle of the basket, hands on the side, opposite corners, and you could feel his knees shaking.”
The “petrified” man eventually dropped down on one knee and popped the question, Grote says.
Grote experiences some moments of unease, but his training and experience flying balloons keep him from feeling terrified. But there are moments where he needs to focus.
“You're conducting a commercial balloon flight,” he says. “You can't let your passengers know you've got that in your head, like, ‘Oh, where are we at?’ And so you just work through it.”
Statistically, balloon flying is safe. But crashes happen. The National Transportation Safety Board has investigated 125 incidents since 2010, 12 of them fatal.
Earlier this week two fiesta pilots struck power lines and knocked out electricity to 1,200 homes. And this summer five people died when a local pilot crashed into a power line.
Many accidents happen while landing.
Landowners leave out colored sheets to signal balloon pilots, Grote says: Red means don’t land here. Yellow means you can land there if necessary but preferably don’t. White means an open invitation to land.
As the sun rises, Grote starts to look for a friendly white sheet to land.
As we get lower and lower, very earthly things come into focus. I can hear street traffic, barking dogs and something else that gives me pause.
Grote points out that almost every street has power lines. Pilots need to keep their eyes open to avoid power lines and make informed decisions on where to land, he says.
Grote is experienced and well trained. As the ground closes in on us, I just have to trust him. He picks a landing spot on a construction site.
The landing was a little harder than I expected, but Grote calls it “excellent.” But as soon as we hit the ground, a member of Grote's crew was there to catch our basket as it dragged through the construction site. They'd been following us in a pickup truck for the entire 45-minute flight.
Grote and his crew got me up safely and brought me back down — an experience at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta that I will never forget.
This segment aired on October 8, 2021.