It was still dark when students of Dennis Chavez Elementary, along with their parents, siblings and teachers, took to the grass field on the school’s north side to take part in the annual Albuquerque Aloft fundraiser.
Every year, for the past 17 years, on the Friday morning before Balloon Fiesta kickoff, nearly 200 registered balloon pilots tether or launch their hot air balloons (depending on weather and schedule) from public schools in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. Put on by the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, in partnership with APS and RRPS, as well as KKOB AM Radio (which helps coordinate the simultaneous launches), the Albuquerque Aloft event has become one of the most popular school fundraisers of the year.
“It is a great way to kick off the beginning of the nine days of Balloon Fiesta every October,” said the Balloon Fiesta website (balloonfiesta.com). “Albuquerque Aloft also provides city residents and guests a visual preview of Balloon Fiesta, as balloons launch from different sites around the city simultaneously.”
Though different schools have different supplemental events alongside the balloons, Dennis Chavez Elementary School (7500 Barstow St. NE, dennischavez.aps.edu) elects every year to have coffee, breakfast burritos and donuts on hand. The line at the refreshments table was nearly as long as it was to get autographs from the balloon pilots. By 7:10 a.m., everything, save the coffee, was sold out. But attendees weren’t disappointed for long as the hulking shape of Airabelle, the Creamland cow balloon, sprang from the grass field and lifted itself into the air. Though it did not elect to lift off, the massive cow balloon, tethered to the ground, was still the star of the event.
“This is our second year doing this [at Dennis Chavez Elementary],” said Danny, a Creamland Balloon Team member. “We love it.”
According to the Creamland team, which can number between 50 and 70 volunteers according to Danny (roughly 20 were on hand for this event), Airabelle holds nearly 220,000 cubic feet of air. That includes the four legs, which do not contain hot air.
“They are all weight,” a team member said, referring to the four, cow-leg-shaped columns surrounding the balloon’s gondola. “It’s where all the cold air goes. It makes [the balloon] a lot harder to control, and of course landing is tricky. But we have an expert pilot.”
Airabelle wasn’t the only balloon on hand. There was another, more traditional balloon at the east end of the field, and though it lacked the eccentric angles and big, doe eyes of Airabelle, it was still a hit with the students, who stood in line until the bell rang at 7:45 a.m. to get an autograph from the pilot.
As students shuffled off to class, volunteers broke down tables, and parents headed off to work, the Creamland crew got to work packing up their balloon. After roughly 45 minutes, the 950-pound crate containing Airabelle was loaded (by nearly 10 men) into its trailer and hauled off, presumably to Balloon Fiesta Park, where it awaits its 2022 Balloon Fiesta premier.
Albuquerque Aloft is the only Balloon Fiesta event in which balloons launch from pre-designated sites outside of Balloon Fiesta Park.
The 2022 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta kicks off at 6 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 1, at Balloon Fiesta Park (4401 Alameda Blvd. NE) and runs through Sunday, Oct. 9. To get a special look at Airabelle and meet the Creamland crew, check out the Special Shapes Rodeo, a mass ascension event that will take place at 7 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 6, and Friday, Oct. 7.
For more information about the Balloon Fiesta, visit balloonfiesta.com.
Story, video and photos are by Neighborhood Journal contributor Taylor Hood.