When humans first soared in the air, it was not aboard an airplane. It was in a hot air balloon, in 1783 — 120 years before the Wright brothers’ maiden flight. Since then, biplanes have evolved into jumbo jets, but the basic technology behind ballooning has hardly changed: cloth, basket, burner, ballast and ground crew.
That’s where devotees like JoAnn Smith, 37, and Benjamin Brown, 41, come in. They have spent more than a decade traveling around the Southwest helping pilot Jonathan Wolfe, 53, set up his fractal-patterned balloon Infinitude and then racing to meet it wherever the winds may carry it, since balloons can’t be steered. They and other volunteer crew members spend their spare time inflating, chasing and packing up balloons, and if they’re lucky, scoring a little airtime along the way.
Roughly 200 balloon festivals take place across the United States every year, in all seasons. In the Northeast, the festivals happen mostly in the spring or summer. In the Southwest, they go all winter. This means plenty of slots for volunteer crew members to hold the ropes, unfold the fabric, drive the chase car and more. In most cases, all you have to do is show up, sign a liability waiver and be ready to learn.
‘Traffic jam in the sky’
The alarm blared at 4 a.m., rousing me to join Wolfe’s volunteer crew on Oct. 13, Day 7 of the nine-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the largest balloon festival in the world. This year, organizers estimated, nearly 970,000 guests attended the event, held at Balloon Fiesta Park, about 80,000 more than in 2018, representing a full rebound from pandemic lows.
Sunrise was still two hours away, but the field in Albuquerque, N.M., was already teeming with people and the swatches of color that would soon become balloons. Balloonists start early so that they can be ready for the pre-sunrise rite called dawn patrol, in which experienced pilots take off in the darkness, their balloons illuminated like giant, multicolored lanterns.
“Everybody kind of turns into a kid seeing all the balloons, all the colors, and everybody has a smile on their face when they’re watching balloons,” said Matt W. Guthrie, 62, a longtime balloon pilot from Corrales, N.M., who was attending but not flying in the festival this year.
Wolfe’s crew, led by Brown, drove onto the field in a truck with the basket, balloon and burner in the back and began to set up. Wolfe, one of 629 pilots in the festival this year, headed to a weather briefing. Wolfe’s balloon is one of two owned by the Fractal Foundation, a nonprofit Wolfe founded to fuel students’ interest in science, math and art. Owning a balloon isn’t cheap: Buying one can cost from $20,000 to $100,000, depending on size. A license runs up to $4,000, and maintenance and insurance can add up to $3,000 a year.
Some of the 17 crew members managed the crowds gathering to watch. Others unfolded the balloon’s envelope — the fabric section that holds the air — on a tarp, installed the basket with the burner and propane tanks, and attached the envelope to the basket with metal and Kevlar cables. A fan began to blow cool air into the envelope as Wolfe returned with welcome news: favorable winds.
Finally, one of the festival coordinators, nicknamed zebras for their football-referee-like uniforms, gave Wolfe the go-ahead to light the burner and fill the envelope with hot air. With a loud whoosh, the balloon began to stand up, joining hundreds of others unfurling like giant flowers in the sunrise.
“Today, it’s just gonna be like a traffic jam in the sky,” Wolfe said.
The crowd cheered and applauded as Wolfe and two crew members lifted off.
“We’re going to count to 10 and let the crew enjoy the moment,” Brown said, as everyone looked skyward and took a deep breath, awed by the beauty.
Then, armed with a radio and a GPS app, we piled into the back of a pickup truck. The chase was on.
Typically, balloon pilots have between two and five regular crew members, said Patrick Cannon, the president of Balloon Federation of America, an organization that manages and educates balloonists. There are roughly 8,000 to 20,000 regular active crew members in the United States, Cannon added, but many volunteers will crew only once in their life. The Federal Aviation Administration reported that there were 4,955 commercial pilots and 2,051 private pilots with balloon-class ratings. Commercial pilots may carry paying passengers, while private pilots may carry nonpaying passengers.
Julie Graff, 37, and her father David Hunt, 69, showed up on Oct. 12, Day 6 of the Albuquerque festival, hoping to join a balloon crew for the first time. YouTube videos had piqued the interest of Graff, an accounts receivable representative at the tech company Snap One, and she brought along her father, who is a retiree and volunteer firefighter.
They didn’t have to wait long for their chance. “Before we could finish signing up, there was a pilot that’s like, ‘This is my site, come on over when you’re done,’ ” Graff said.
That pilot was Gregory Ashton, 61, from Meridian, Idaho, who was flying Montie the Black Sheep, a grinning member of the special shape category, which also included Yoda, a tiger, and a sunglasses-wearing cactus.
Ashton put the pair to work right away, pulling out the balloon and getting it inflated, and then had them coming back over the next three days. The day before the festival ended, Ashton surprised Graff with an invitation to fly. In the basket, her main task was to watch out for other balloons in the sky: Any aircraft below them had the right of way.
“We’re going, going, going,” Graff said. “and then Greg adjusts the height, and then we just like, stop in the air. It’s a very cool experience to just feel that change and just look at everything, and look at the shadow of the balloons.”
Susan Van Campen, 65, a volunteer organizer at the festival, was helping recruit potential crew members at the stand where Graff and Hunt had signed up. She handed anyone who expressed interest a sign-up sheet, a waiver, and booklets on safety and basic crewing tasks. Once the forms were signed, Van Campen paired the volunteers with pilots, and if they returned for more crew shifts, she said, she would provide them with a crew pass to attend the festival at no cost (each session, either morning or evening, is normally $15 a person). With hundreds of pilots coming from all over, she added, the festival always needed more crew members.
A sparkling ending
Balloonists have a tradition, dating back to the early days in France, of sharing a Champagne toast at the end of a flight, as a goodwill gesture to the owner of the landing site, as well as to the crew.
“There’s a pretty big Champagne budget for us,” Brown said with a laugh.
After we had been chasing Wolfe’s fractal balloon for about an hour, he landed in a parking lot southwest of Balloon Fiesta Park. The team met him within minutes and quickly got to work disassembling and packing up the balloon for future festivals on the schedule — the Red Rock rally in Gallup, in early December; Bluff, Utah, in early January; and Chama, New Mexico, in February.
Wolfe brought a few Champagne bottles out of the basket and prepared for the customary toast.
He popped a cork into the air — his much tidier take on a tradition of christening first-time passengers by pouring Champagne on them — and a tie-dyed flurry of adults and children scrambled to catch it, a moment that symbolized why volunteers like Brown get so much out of working on a balloon crew.
“It feels like being a kid,” Brown said. “It feels like play, more than, I think, maybe anything else in my life. You know, it’s like a game and you get to play with all your friends.”