Every October, people from around the world gather to watch hundreds of balloons soar into the sky during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Called the mass ascension, this phenomenon is only one of several popular events, which include the balloon glows, the Special Shapes Rodeo, “America’s Challenge” (where gas balloons attempt to fly the furthest distance from Albuquerque), and several competition events that involve trying to hit targets with objects dropped from balloons. With the excitement of the balloons and the wide range of food, music, and other activities at the fiesta, as well as the perfect fall weather, it is no surprise that people from around the world choose to spend this time of year in Albuquerque. The Balloon Fiesta even has a special event to show off the diversity of participants, called the Flight of the Nations Mass Ascension. Each country represented at the Fiesta can fly up to two balloons in this event, and each balloon carries a flag to exhibit its pride for its country.

This year, 20 countries sent balloons to the Balloon Fiesta, including Germany, Spain, Thailand, Russia, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Norway, Brazil, and Belgium. The foreign countries with the largest numbers of the crowd-favorite special shapes balloons were Brazil, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Belgium. Brazil sent balloons called Big Hug, Black Sheep, Jack the Pelican, Armadillo, Bill the Vampire, Mr. Fish, Flying Gator, and several more. The United Kingdom sent five balloons, including Puddles the Penguin and Wes the Wolf. Canada sent four balloons, including the beloved Creamland Cow and the Alien Rocket. Belgium also sent four balloons: Baby Lente and Princess Nelly as well as the wildly popular Darth Vader  and Master Yoda balloons. A large proportion of the special shapes balloons came from throughout the United States as well. There were also many other special shapes balloons, and all of these balloons made up only a small fraction of the hundreds of balloons that participated in the Fiesta.

So, how did the Balloon Fiesta become such a popular event in the first place? It all began in 1972 when the KOB radio station wanted to have a special celebration for its 50th anniversary. The promotional director for KOB noticed Sid Cutter, a balloon enthusiast, flying a balloon, and together they decided to hold a balloon race in Albuquerque. Only 13 balloons participated, but, at the time, it was the largest balloon race that had ever existed. The balloonists were pleased when they found that the weather conditions here were extremely favorable for ballooning, especially the wind pattern called the Albuquerque Box, which is caused by winds that form a directional “box” at different elevations so that balloons can land close to where they take off, regardless of where they meander to. Thus, the annual tradition of the Balloon Fiesta began. The event grew even larger after it hosted the World Hot Air Balloon Championship in 1975. More people representing more countries attended the Fiesta each year as different events were added to the schedule. In fact, the balloon fiesta is still adding and hosting new events. For example, in 2016, it hosted the first United States Women’s National Hot Air Balloon Championships.

Currently, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the largest balloon festival in the world. It is, in fact, the most photographed event in the world, as it is the subject of over 25 million photos showcasing the breathtaking spectacle. Because of its appeal to people of all backgrounds, the Balloon Fiesta successfully promotes both the culture of Albuquerque and the sport of ballooning in the world.

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Photo gallery by Tatiana Gross

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