Everybody, at one time or another has looked up into the sky in the early morning, or late evening to see a large hot air balloon, lazily drifting by. This picture of quiet bliss may be accompanied with an occasional whoossssh as the burners fire a blast of superheated air to keep the balloon afloat. We happened to be passing through Albuquerque at the time when the Great Balloon Festival was going on. This is, by far, the largest gathering of balloons in the U.S. Although the festival has many activities, the one we specifically wanted to see was the "night glow". This is beautiful and powerful event. Hundreds of balloons, all tethered to the ground, fire up right at dusk and fill the park with a myriad of shapes and sizes, weaving and glowing in a fabulous color array. We arrived much earlier than was needed. The walk from the parking lot was long but gave us a good panorama of the park which measured several thousand square yards. Although there were many vehicles on the field, no balloons were visible yet. It was time to wander down the boardwalk, checking out all the offerings of trinkets, hats, and of course food. I even stopped at the SPAM trailer for a free sample. Yum! As the balloonists began their unpacking, we headed for the field to find out just what makes these incredible things fly. Part of the fun of the pre-flight is looking at all the trailers that haul the balloons around. Most of these are decorated with some of the funniest signs and sayings. In trying to keep this somewhat short, I may leave out some things. Let me start off with a concise, over-simplified version. I learned that the physics that drive the balloon up are very old. Archimedes, a mathematician wrote about it several thousand years ago. It was a long time after that before the first "balloon" in recorded history actually left the ground. Sometime around the end of the 1700s two French brothers named Montgolfier sent a duck, sheep and a chicken on a very short flight. This was brought to the attention of the King and (you guessed it) very soon after that a French soldier became the first person to "fly", as a brand new weapon was invented. The design of current "baskets" is pretty much the same as the early version used by the French. Little has changed except the introduction of propane gas. The balloon is made up of very simple parts. The basket is usually wicker and capable of carrying a half dozen or so normal weight people, and one or two propane tanks aloft. Attached to the side of the basket, and suspended over the top, is a bracket which holds one or two burners. Also attached to the bracket are the panels (gores) with sewn-in webbing, which support the balloon. The top of the balloon has a bungee-type open flap (parachute valve) with a cord running back to the basket. Slowly the balloon crews began to unfold the giant balloons. They are made of paper thin fire resistant material. Once everything is attached, and the basket it laying on its side, it's time to inflate. Firing up the burners at this point would do no good as the balloon is flat on the ground and the heat would go up and not into the balloon. This is where the last piece of equipment is used, a large gas operated fan. It is placed on the ground at the opening of the balloon and air is blown into it. Even though the air is not heated, the volume is great enough to cause the balloon to fill, and begin to rise. This is continued until the balloon is sufficiently up righted to allow a short blast of heat from the burners. After that, the burners take over and the balloon is filled. One by one, these behemoths righted themselves and stood tall as the evening slid into night. In addition to the standard round type, there were shapes of everything imaginable. Each with its distinctive markings or sayings. As darkness settled in, we stood under a canopy of balloons and waited as the loud speaker ended a count down. Three, two, one and all the burners fired at the same time. Giant red and orange flames shot into the air causing each balloon to flicker as the roaring of the burners made them sound like so many angry monsters. This was quite an experience, like nothing I had ever seen before.
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