ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The sun is close to popping over the mountain top and the hot air balloon pilots are beginning to test their propane burners, beating back what’s left of the darkness and the crisp morning air with each quick burst of bright orange and blue flames.
Fans start to roar, pushing air into the giant, colorful envelopes as ground crews pace along the inflating fabric, ensuring every inch is sound as the balloon takes shape.
The ropes are taught, the fasteners secure and the gondolas tip upright with a strong blast of the burners.
Hundreds of balloons will be filling New Mexico’s skies on Saturday at the start of the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
Elijah Sanchez has witnessed this choreographed balloon ballet for years, growing up in what many consider the ballooning capital of the world. He’s gone from a young wide-eyed spectator to a teenage crew member and now a licensed balloon pilot.
At 20, he will be among the youngest to launch when the fiesta kicks off with its first mass ascension.
More than 580 pilots and their teams are registered, representing 41 U.S. states and 17 countries. Organizers are expecting several hundred thousand visitors over the course of the nine-day event.
“Being up in the air is just the most amazing feeling,” Sanchez said. “It’s a different experience every single time. It’s just amazing seeing the beautiful scenery all around as the sun is coming up. And flying over the river, it’s just amazing.”
The wind patterns over Albuquerque create what pilots refer to as a box. The wind direction changes with altitude, meaning pilots can head toward the open desert beyond the Rio Grande and then circle back toward the Sandia Mountains and the launch field, giving passengers an unparalleled view.
It’s just as spectacular from the ground, where throngs of spectators surround the balloons as they lift off in waves.
From the balloons swaying directly overhead to those floating 1,000 feet (305 meters) in the air, the spray of colors is overwhelming.
Troy Bradley, an accomplished pilot who has been to more than 40 fiestas and is one of the ballooning world’s most prolific record-setters, said the first day of the fiesta is always mind-blowing.
“I’m still in awe when I see that many balloons launching,” Bradley said before jumping in his gondola. “There’s just nothing like it in the world, to see that much color going into the sky and how well it’s orchestrated. It’s like a fine-tuned machine.”
During the event, a team of referees directs traffic on the sprawling launch field, their sharp whistles letting pilots know when it’s time to go or warning spectators to clear a path.
Another draw is the special-shaped balloons. There are more than 100 this year, from a family of giant bumble bees to Darth Vader, outlaw Billy the Kid and a massive spotted cow.
Albuquerque has hosted the fiesta since its humble inception in 1972. It has grown from a gathering of only 13 balloons to a major production that infuses tens of millions of dollars into the economy.
Sanchez remembers his mother taking him to the fiesta every year when he was a boy. They would hit the early morning ascensions and then the balloon glows at night.
When school was in session, he couldn’t wait for the weekends to help crew for a commercial balloon operator. Summer was even better since he could crew every day.
“I just fell in love with the sport,” he said.
Sanchez began studying for a battery of tests to earn his private pilot’s license. More fun than driver’s ed? Definitely, he said.
He also worked four jobs to save up enough money to buy his own balloon.
“I was so blessed to have so many great influences to help me,” he said.
The next milestone will be getting his commercial pilot’s license, something he hopes to do over the next year.
Bradley said getting the next generation hooked is something he and other long-time pilots are working on. His own children started flying when they were young, with his son making headlines for being the world’s youngest pilot at 9.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for them to get out and do something that’s not sitting in front of a TV screen or in front of a computer playing games,” he said. “It’s real-life experience out here. It’s a team-building thing and it brings people together.”
Bradley has flown with Sanchez on numerous occasions.
“He’s a really good pilot,” Bradley said. “It’s exciting to see the new blood coming in.”
Sanchez is surrounded by some of ballooning’s rock stars, but he doesn’t feel any pressure. To him, it’s a chance to gain more knowledge.
Whether it’s a question about his bright yellow balloon “Unity,” the science behind flying or what it’s like floating above the city, a big smile always precedes the answer.
“Just try it,” Sanchez said. “It definitely should be on the bucket list.”