The big deflation…

As a hot air balloon pilot for more than 38 years, it’s probably appropriate that I comment on yesterday’s announcement that the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is being cancelled this year because of concerns surrounding the Covid-19 epidemic.

I have flown at Fiesta for about 35 years (can’t really remember the exact number), but had chosen not to fly in this year’s event for various reasons. I was scheduled to participate in it last year, but my heart surgery in August put a stop to that.

The decision to cancel the event, in my opinion, is completely understandable, for many reasons. We still don’t know enough about the disease to be sure how to accurately predict what it will be doing three months from now. Planning such a major event without having a pretty clear picture of what that time frame might look like is a daunting task. I feel sorry for the vendors, the city of Albuquerque, the hotels, restaurants, the Fiesta staff, the pilots, the crews and especially the spectators who have made the event so meaningful to us all.

There was talk about having a “Fiesta Light” even where the pilots would fly without spectators being on the field, and even a “Cyber Fiesta” somehow manipulated through the wizardry of computers to look like the real thing. (My wife and I watched a Nebraska football cyber spring game in May– it just wasn’t right.)

But what makes Fiesta truly unique among spectator events is that people can get right on the field, touch the balloons, talk to pilots and crews and be surrounded by and totally immersed in one of the most spectacular demonstrations of light and physics on the planet. You can’t go to an NFL game and mingle with Tom Brady or the other players on the sidelines. You can’t sit on the bench and chat up LeBron James in an NBA game. You can’t be in the pits hoping that one of the Busch boys will let you look inside his car and then maybe, just maybe, invite you to join him in his ride for a hot lap around the track at the Daytona 500.

But at Fiesta, you might just work you way into a free balloon ride. I’ve been able to offer that opportunity more than once to a thrilled and unsuspecting onlooker. It was memorable for both of us.

And as a pilot, there’s nothing more thrilling to see a sea of people cheering you as you lift off into a sky filled with hundreds of other balloons. That’s especially true if, as I have been honored to do on many occasions, fly the American flag off the field. With Old Glory dangling below my basket, the Star Spangled Banner is being sung by some high school choir protege whose voice is so strong and clear that you can still hear her singing 500 feet in the air. What a thrill.

So let’s all take a deep breath and have faith that things will return to normal by the fall of 2021 and Fiesta will happen again when the skies over Albuquerque are filled with balloons. I might be convinced to fly there one more time.

The author on the right, flying the American flag off Fiesta Field in 2015
The author, ready to launch his balloon carrying the American flag at the 2015 Fiesta with a mass of onlooker anticipating the liftoff.

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