Every October, hundreds of hot air balloons take to the skies over Albuquerque, NM, for Balloon Fiesta, the world's largest balloon festival. People and teams come from all over the world to compete and watch this spectacular event.
As dazzling as the sight of about 600 colorful balloons filling the skies is, there are plenty of opportunities for those seeking a more active experience. But while actual rides are thrilling, they're also expensive: Expect to pay about $375 per person, per hour-long ride, during the festival, which is October 2-10.
A more affordable, hands-on option that just might earn you a free ride? Joining a chase crew: the on-the-ground support team that inflates the balloon and keeps overzealous onlookers from stepping on it, tracks and follows it in-flight from a vehicle, and, depending on the wind, makes sure the balloon doesn’t drag along the ground after landing.
Along the way, crew newbies can expect to learn how to read the wind and terms like "pull the red line" (pulling the cord that releases the balloon's hot air, effectively ending the ride) and a "stand-up landing" (which means the basket gently drifts to the ground without tipping over).
"If people want to be part of the action, this is where you get to experience the day in the life of a pilot and the crew," says Melissa Winters, a staff member for Balloon Fiesta who has been crewing for a local pilot for about 10 years. "How many times can you say that you've been on the crew for a hot air balloon, especially if you're not around them that much?"
If you're interested in being part of a crew, visit www.balloonfiesta.com and follow the links from the home page (the deadline to register is August 15). Hotel rooms in Albuquerque typically sell out up to a year in advance, but you can usually find lodging in surrounding towns. In addition, another way to avoid the crowds and traffic is to arrive by bike. The festival even offers a free service to securely stow your wheels (bike racks and metal poles are scarce in the massive field where Balloon Fiesta takes place).
Here are two other fun festivals for ballooning enthusiasts:
Sky High Hot Air Balloon Festival, Callaway Gardens, GA, September 3-6: Now in its 12th year, this lively festival drew more than 22,000 spectators in 2009 to Callaway Gardens, a stunning nature reserve about an hour and a half south of Atlanta. Balloon-related festivities include tethered rides, morning and evening launches and, if you manage to coordinate with a pilot ahead of time, an actual ride.
When you're ready to give your neck a break from craning at the sky, check out the 26th annual American Knee Board Championships, which also will be held at Callaway that weekend. Or, take part in the resort's triathlon, which, in its 30th year, bills itself as the oldest triathlon in the South and the longest continually running one in the country. For more information, visit www.callawaygardens.com.
Snowmass Village Balloon Festival, Aspen, CO, September 17-19: Talk about high spirits. This popular, intimate festival, in its 35th year, combines all sorts of ballooning events, and also coincides with a wine festival. Ballooning highlights include the Rat Race, a distance event in which pilots can end up some 40-odd miles away from the launch, and quirkier competitions like the Dawn Quixote, in which pilots try to pop the most helium balloons from their own tethered hot air balloons. Don't miss Saturday evening's "glow" event, in which balloons are illuminated to look like colossal Christmas ornaments (all balloon events are free and open to the public). Saturday's wine festival features more than 250 varieties. www.snowmassballoon.com
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