Up, Up, and Away: Albuquerque’s Hot-Air Balloon History
How did it come to be that one of the most iconic sights in Albuquerque is a 127-foot-tall Mr. Peanut figure floating in front of the Sandias? The city’s air currents were discovered to be friendly to balloons for the first time in 1882.
That was when an adventurous bartender piloted a hydrogen-filled craft into the sky as part of the New Town’s Fourth of July celebrations, much to the delight of the assembled crowd, which had waited almost two days for as the balloon was dubbed, to fill.
“Professor” Park Tassell, the showman pilot, went aloft alone and landed successfully; the only mishap was that a ballast sandbag was emptied on a spectator’s head.
But then it took another 90 years before Albuquerque again drew attention as a place to pursue this gentle sport — in 1972, the first balloon fiesta was held, with 13 aircraft participating. The gathering, centered around a single race, was organized by a local balloon club largely as a publicity stunt for a local radio station’s 50th-anniversary celebrations. The spectacle drew 20,000 spectators, most of whom had never even seen a hot-air balloon before — but within a few short years, the event was an annual spectacle of international renown.
Albuquerque, it turns out, enjoys the world’s most perfect weather for navigating hot-air balloons. A phenomenon called the “Albuquerque Box,” created by the steep mountains adjacent to the low river bottom, enables pilots to move at different speeds at different altitudes, and even to backtrack if necessary.
Combine that with more than 300 days of sunshine per year, and it’s no wonder that now more than 700 balloons — including “special shapes” such as Mr. Peanut — convene annually to show off their colors and compete in precision flying contests.
© Zora O'Neill from Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque, 2nd edition