ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (AP) -- Hundreds of colorful hot air balloons of all shapes and sizes and from all over the world will be lifting off this weekend for the start of the 44th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
The nine-day fiesta -- one of the most photographed events in the world -- will begin Saturday just after the sun rises as wave after wave of balloons take to the sky as part of the first mass ascension.
"Having 550 hot air balloons up in the air at once, that just doesn't happen anywhere else in the world. So this is, absolutely without a doubt, the Super Bowl of hot air ballooning," said Scott Appelman, a veteran pilot and founder of the balloon ride company Rainbow Ryders Inc.
Then there are the special shape rodeos, balloon glows in the evenings, flying competitions, a cross-country gas balloon race, and splash-and-dash flights along the Rio Grande.
Here are some things to know:
One of the big draws of the balloon fiesta is the ability of spectators to roam the city's 72-acre (30-hectare) balloon park to watch the morning mass ascensions. Sure, you can find a spot on the grass to lay out the blanket or set up the folding chairs, but it's more fun to stand next to the roaring fans as the balloons inflate or be just steps away from the gondola as the propane burners ignite. It's also not unheard of to be recruited to hold a tether line as a crew prepares for launch.
A combination of factors make Albuquerque in October the perfect place for fiesta: typically clear skies; cool mornings; and what is known as the "box" that's created by the mountains that border the city's east side; and weather patterns. When the box is in effect, the lower winds blow south and higher winds blow north, meaning balloonists can travel one direction, then backtrack to land near their launch site by changing elevation. That keeps the balloons bobbing over the city rather than drifting away.
More than 100 "special shapes" balloons are registered for this year's fiesta, from the famous kissing bees and a giant spotted cow to a saguaro wearing sunglasses, a bright red stagecoach and a Darth Vader helmet. The fiesta started the special shapes rodeo in 1989 with just 28 shapes. The event quickly became a favorite.
The balloon fiesta began in 1972 in a mall parking lot. The early events were organized and largely funded by the late Sid Cutter, who soon enlisted friends, aviation customers and politicians to help sustain the event. The city bought into it, hundreds of volunteers signed up and 170 balloons showed up for the fourth fiesta. Nearly three decades later, the fiesta marked record attendance at 1,000 balloons, and the event has become a fall tourism staple for the state.
A LITTLE HISTORY
The Anderson Abruzzo International Balloon Museum sits at the southern edge of balloon fiesta park. Inside are towering displays highlighting the equipment used by some of ballooning's pioneers, including the Double Eagle crew of Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman who spent 137 hours crossing the Atlantic in 1978. One of the newest installations is that of the Two Eagles capsule used earlier this year by Troy Bradley of Albuquerque and Leonid Tiukhtyaev of Russia in their record-breaking trans-Pacific flight.
If you go: http://www.balloonfiesta.com