Balloons taking off during the Mass Ascension at the opening of the International Balloon Fiesta at Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (© Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire/Corbis)
Dozens of balloons hover in the sky during the Mass Ascension at the opening of the International Balloon Fiesta at Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (© Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire/Corbis)
A balloon goes up with the Sandia Mountains in the background. Albuquerque's unique geography and location make it ideal for ballooning. (© Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire/Corbis)
The festival draws around 800,000 visitors—more than the population of Albuquerque. (© Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire/Corbis)
The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is the largest balloon festival in the world. (© Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire/Corbis)
548 teams are registered for this year's Albuquerque Balloon Festival. (© Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire/Corbis)
22 countries are represented at the 2014 Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. (© Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire/Corbis)
The Mass Ascension kicks off the festival with the launch of all registered balloons. (© Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire/Corbis)
The Balloon Fiesta is the largest annual international event held in the United States. (© Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire/Corbis)
In 2011, the balloon festival broke the world record for most balloons launched within an hour. (© Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire/Corbis)
Balloons at the festival come in all shapes and sizes—this year, there are balloons shaped like a frog, a blue whale, a diamond and a baby dinosaur. (© Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire/Corbis)
A pink elephant balloon can be seen during the 2014 Balloon Fiesta's Mass Ascension. (© Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire/Corbis)
Some of the many balloons that participated in the Mass Ascension at the opening of the International Balloon Fiesta at Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (© Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire/Corbis)
A volunteer helps hold down the tie line of a balloon as it is prepared for launch during the Mass Ascension at the opening of the International Balloon Fiesta at Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (© Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire/Corbis)

New Mexico’s Skies Burst With Color During World’s Largest Hot Air Balloon Festival

The 43rd Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta sends hundreds of hot air balloons soaring into the sky

smithsonian.com

For the 43rd year, hundreds of hot air balloons are taking to the New Mexico skies as part of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the largest ballooning event in the world. The nine-day festival lasts until October 12, and features over 500 ballooning teams from 22 countries, bringing in balloon pilots from countries as diverse as Jamaica and Lithuania.

The festival began in 1972 as a modest affair, with only 13 balloons taking flight from a parking lot at the Coronado Center Mall east of Albuquerque's downtown. The festival has since expanded into an international event, featuring several days of races and competitions. On this year's opening day last Saturday, balloon pilots took off at dawn, vessels glowing in the dark sky. Several hours later the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race began, a cross-country, long-distance competition won by the balloon pilot that flies the farthest distance (last year, the winners touched down in Ontario, Canada). The record distance was set in 2000, when brothers David and Alan Levin piloted their gas balloon over 1,998 miles, landing ten miles northwest of Portland, Maine. While it might seem terrifying to fly such a long distance in a gas balloon, such trips harken back to a time before the invention of the airplane, when gas balloons were the primary mode of air travel. Other competitions this week will test pilots' finesse and accuracy, with activities such as the ring toss, pole grab, key grab, and races that ask pilots to drop markers into designated areas.

The festival isn't all about competition, however. It also also honors the artistic splendor of hot air balloons through the Special Shape Rodeo, which features balloons shaped like giant frogs, blue whales, baby dinosaurs, and more. Visitors can also take advantage of booths and balloons selling memorabilia, and concessions dolling out traditional New Mexican cuisine, which are slated to occupy some 100 acres of the 360-acre Balloon Fiesta Park.

Albuquerque is renowned among ballooning enthusiasts for its ideal ballooning conditions, which occur thanks to the "Albuquerque box"—a specific wind pattern that allows balloon pilots to take off and land in roughly the same spot. The "box" occurs because winds at low elevations tend to move in one direction (often southerly), while winds at a higher altitude move in the other direction. Balloon pilots, then, only have to worry about maneuvering their balloons vertically, since the wind directions during their trip essentially cancel each other out.

Can't make it to Albuquerque in time to see the balloons take flight? The city is also home to the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, dedicated to the history and science of ballooning and located just outside of the Balloon Fiesta Park. 

Below, check out a stunning time-lapse video of last year's festival, put together by the folks at Roadtrippers.

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