Day 2 of the Cortez Rendezvous Hot Air Balloon Rally was a bright success, as all 20 balloons lifted off without a hitch and floated across town.
It was a clear day with manageable wind and was, as festival organizer Cookie See put it, a “gorgeous day to fly.”
See has been running the annual event in Cortez for 16 years and has created a rally that runs the way she wants it. Since only 20 balloons are allowed in the festival to avoid overwhelming the sky, she can selectively pick and choose the entries.
“All these pilots really are handpicked by me. I know every one of them personally, and I don’t let anybody in that I don’t feel is top-notch,” she said.
See attends a lot of balloon festivals each year aside from her own and watches people fly, and sometimes new pilots approach her to join one of her rallies.
“When they say, ‘Cookie, I want to come to your rally,’ then I really watch,” she said.
She is a former pilot herself, but See has moved into more of a managerial role now that she hosts several different rallies. She’ll also manage the balloon glow at 8 p.m. Saturday a last day of flying at 7 a.m. Sunday.
“I don’t fly anymore hardly at all,” she said. “I like chasing, and I like the social part. I like the organization part and the camaraderie among the pilots. We’re a family.”
The day started at 6:30 a.m. in Parque de Vida, where the crowd gathered for a pilot briefing. See made sure all pilots were matched up with their passengers before the meteorologist gave a weather report. Rain can be harmful to the balloons’ nylon material, and high winds make for unpredictable and dangerous flying, so the pilots listen closely.
After the pilots were given the go-ahead, chase crews joined their balloons, and the preparations began.
Balloon setup goes pretty much how you might expect. The nylon envelope is unrolled and laid out on the grass and attached to the basket that’s tipped over on its side. Several helpers then hold the bottom of the fabric, called the skirt, open so that a fan can blow air in to fill the balloon. As soon as it’s inflated, the pilot turns on the burners to heat the air so that the balloon rights itself and the basket sits normally. Once upright, passengers climb aboard, and the pilot ignites the burners again so that the hot air causes the balloon to rise above ground.
One important detail is that the ground crew has to wear gloves.
“For one, the oils on your hands are not good for the envelope. It eats the coating off it. Plus, we’re dealing with propane, which can burn your hands,” pilot Stacy Eldridge said.
The coating on the balloons that hand oils dissolve is to protect the fabric from the intense heat and exposure to the elements. Eldridge said that lighting the burners for six seconds is equivalent to heating a 1,200-square-foot house for a month, so it’s understandable why the material needs extra protection.
Eldridge said he’s been piloting for 20 years but has been around balloons his whole life. He lives in Albuquerque, but has been coming to the festival in Cortez for the past five years and has been flying in it for the past three.
He flies the Redneck Cowboy, a 32-year-old balloon that still has its original fabric. According to Eldridge, he’s trying to make the Redneck Cowboy one of only a couple of balloons of such old design to get to 1,000 hours of airtime. He says he’s currently close to 825 hours.
Hot air balloons have no steering mechanism, so flights are at the mercy of the wind, making route planning tricky.
“There are some times that you need to actually try to figure out your landing spot before, but we have plenty of landing spots here, so you just fly for fun,” Eldridge said. “The rule is you don’t ever pass up a good landing spot.”
What pilots can control is the height of the balloon. Burners heat the air in the balloon and cause it to rise, and to lower the balloon, pulling a rope attached to a flap in the top allows some of that warm air to escape.
While up in the air, Eldridge told a story about how he once accidentally kidnapped a judge’s son. His balloon set down in a backyard, and a boy wanted to take a picture with it, and Eldridge offered to put him in the basket with him, float up a little and come back down since the weather was so calm. When they lifted off, though, the winds changed.
“I told the mom, ‘I gotta take off, you’re fine with this? He gets to fly?’ So he got an hour flight,” Eldridge recalled. It wasn’t until they were up in the air that he learned over his radio that the boy was a judge’s son.
When a pilot finds a good landing spot, they set down and wait for the chase crew to arrive.
After enough people surround the basket to anchor it down, the pilot starts to let out air, and the balloon flops over and lies down. The crew then helps to squeeze the air in the balloon before rolling it up and repacking everything.
After a successful flight, everyone is invited to a tailgate at the Days Inn in Cortez, where See, Eldridge and the other pilots stay if they’re from out of town. Pilots, passengers, sponsors and all their families get together aside a band and no shortage of food and drinks for the other purpose of the festival: the social scene.
“I love Cortez. It’s a great place to fly (and) the rapport with the landowners and the people around here is incredible,” See said.
On Friday, 19 hot air balloons lifted off under cloudy skies. Light rain arrived about 7:30 a.m. and put a damper on some flights, but as pilot Brian Hill, of the Basket Case crew from Paige, Arizona, said, “Even a short flight is a good flight.”
“We could see virga (streaks of rain that evaporate before reaching the ground) in the near distance, so we found a landing spot at Southern Bluffs,” he said.
Passenger Tharimae Jones, of Onward!, the balloon’s sponsor, enjoyed her first hot air balloon ride.
“It is so quiet floating through the air, and from that perspective you can see what a pretty town Cortez is,” she said. “We saw deer and fawns, and the landing was gentle.”
Setting up the balloons in the park was a flurry of activity, and attracted families with excited kids.
Pilot Neida Courtney Bueno, of Albuquerque, and her “Neida Life” crew canceled the flight because of rain.
“Rain causes damage to balloons,” she said. “The heat from the burner creates steam that can delaminate the nylon material.”
A veteran pilot, Bueno has been flying hot air balloons since 1972, and was twice the balloon meister for the Albuquerque Balloon International Fiesta, which features 600 balloons.
“The Cortez festival is more relaxing, less hectic,” she said.
Her son Adrian explained the setup process. First, the balloon is rolled out, and everyone must wear gloves. The basket is attached, and a fan blows in ambient air. Then the burner is triggered, heating up the air, which sets the balloon upright and lifts it into the air.
“It holds 77,000 cubic feet of air and has eight panels,” he said. “Ours is a smaller balloon, but that makes it more maneuverable. You can’t steer a balloon and are at the mercy of the winds. If winds are above 8 mph, it is not safe to fly.”
Some balloons have turning vents that can be opened or closed, but rather than steering they work to spin the balloon, he said. When the air is cooler, a hot air balloon is easier to control because it rises and falls more efficiently when the burner is triggered on and off.
The portion of the balloon that holds air, called the envelope, is made of ripstop nylon with a square fiber weave. The upper portion is Hyperlast nylon, made to withstand the heat of the burner.
See, festival organizer and balloon meister, said pilots came from Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado to fly for the event.
The festival partners with the Cortez Special Olympics group, which provides breakfast for pilots and crew as part of a fundraiser.
“When they landed in my yard in 2010, they learned who we were and adopted us into their family,” said Trish Peters, of the Special Olympics group. “We’re grateful for their generosity, and for the amazing balloon rides.”
The festival continued with a balloon glow at 8 p.m. Saturday in Parque de Vida and a last day of flying at 7 a.m. Sunday.