SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
March 05, 1973
Albuquerque was a one-balloon town. Then they had a contest and 128 of them came bob, bob, bobbing along
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March 05, 1973

Up And Down And All Around

Albuquerque was a one-balloon town. Then they had a contest and 128 of them came bob, bob, bobbing along

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During a week of fitful weather in the dreary month just past, 128 hot-air balloonists descended on Albuquerque, turning the town into a kindergarten of delight. There were balloons everywhere. There were balloons way up high and there were balloons just over the rooftops, drifting this way and that. There were beautiful striped balloons and checkered balloons and red balloons and blue balloons and green and yellow balloons. There was a white balloon and even a black balloon.

All the balloonists had been invited to Albuquerque and, making the most of it, they dropped in everywhere. They landed in the streets and parking lots arid schoolyards and shopping centers. They settled down on suburban lawns, on golf courses and ball fields. They visited the Navajo Indians on their reservation and they wandered down on the high mesa west of town and in the frosty mountains to the east. Several balloonists happened onto restricted military land, where they were treated cordially and had their camera film developed (and inspected) without charge.

Never before have so many balloonists had such a free run of a town, and it is unlikely that as many will ever again. Certainly no city should try playing host to such a pack of gaudy drifters unless, like Albuquerque, it has a very plastic imagination and lots of elbowroom. Fifty of the balloonists came to enjoy a week of carnival and fly in minor competitions. The other 78 came hoping to emerge from the whole flurry as the first world champion hot-air balloonist. Before the four flights of the world championships began, 49 Americans competed in an elimination test to select four to represent the U.S. against 28 foreigners from 13 countries.

In the foreign field there were four Englishmen, four Swedes, three Canadians, three French, three Germans, three Belgians, one Finn, one Australian, one Swiss, one Dane and a Dutch lass. To round out the group in a sport where Irish luck counts for a lot, the Dublin Ballooning Club sent its entire fleet of balloons—both of them. The whole Italian fleet of one balloon also would have been on hand except that someone filched it out of a Milan warehouse three weeks ago. The Italian pilot, a handsome 72-year-old lawyer named Franco Segre, competed nonetheless in a borrowed English envelope.

In a world saddled with superseriousness, competitive ballooning is a step backward in the right direction. By its nature it is a haphazard and happy game, a heady mixture of skill and blind, stumbling luck. A balloon pilot may be totally charged up with desire, ready to do or die for God, country and Yale, but he is still dependent on his balloon. There's the rub. There is no such thing as an inspired balloon. All hot-air balloons are fat, indolent clowns, bulging with indifference. They can be made to ascend and descend, but they never go anywhere on the level unless pushed by the wind. Balloons simply do not care.

Considering that his craft is barely tractable, how does a balloon pilot prove his skill in a meet? There are many madcap ways. Forty years ago, when there were fewer power lines, superhighways, airliners and other hazards, gas balloonists often stayed aloft for two days and nights, stretching their luck to see who could go the farthest. In the old gasbag meets, the honors usually went to the crew who could best read the weather written in the clouds and had guts enough to throw their radio and everything else over the side to keep flying. Distance tests of short duration with a fixed altitude limit are possible in hot-air balloons today, but they prove little. In the few hours a hot-air balloon can fly, the weather rarely changes enough to test an expert. The winner is usually the man who gets to the altitude limit quickest and thus rides a fast wind for the longest time. In Europe hot-air balloonists have fun with a reverse sort of distance test: seeing who can travel the least distance in a given time. In such a competition the balloonists try to hang low and look for dead air or counter winds that will take them anywhere but onward. No one on the ground is allowed to assist the pilot in his attempt to go nowhere, but the pilot is permitted to drag a rope to reduce speed, and he may hang onto any tree until the irate landowner tells him to be off. European hot-air men often compete to see who can pick the greatest variety of leaves in flight, and to see who can dip up the most water without touching down. In England, where the terrain is accurately gridded yard by yard, balloonists try to see who can deviate the least—or deviate the most—from a prescribed heading on a chart. It does not matter how far a pilot travels in the event; he is judged only by his angle off the heading.

In the world meet at Albuquerque such events were not feasible. Compared to England, the open spaces of New Mexico have only been crudely gridded. To measure the deviations of 32 wandering balloonists accurately would have taken days, perhaps weeks. Collecting leaves or water also was out of the question. Once the wind carries a balloonist onto the arid flats around Albuquerque, there is not much water for the dipping or many leaves for the plucking. A balloonist leaning out of his basket to snatch at the sparse greenery on the desert floor, like as not, would get a handful of yucca spines. So to test skill as much as possible, the championship committee at Albuquerque decided on four events: one traditional game of hare and hounds and three barograph runs.

In hare and hounds a committee balloon leaves five minutes ahead, then the competitors take off in sequence and try to land where it lands. In such a game it is sometimes better to be first off after the hare and sometimes not. The pilot off early has the best chance of riding the same winds, but if the winds hold, then a pilot in the ruck can watch his rivals and their shadows coursing over the ground—he has, in effect, a pack of trial balloons showing the conditions ahead.

First off, last off; in the whimsical winds of Albuquerque it mattered not. The committee balloon put down 12 miles from the start, near a road on the Isleta Indian reservation. The pursuing balloonists scattered far and wide. Some of them could have done about as well blindfolded. The air for miles about was filled with the soft roar of drowsy dragons as balloonists here, there and everywhere gave short blasts on their burners, hunting for wind at some level that would take them the right way. Half of the pack landed more than two miles off the mark. Only nine came within half a mile of the hare. Commenting on his sorry performance, Dennis Floden, a Michigander who was to go on to win the world title, said, "As the Indians would put it, I landed many moons away."

A West German, Arno Sieger, third to take off, landed 911 feet from the hare. Janne Balkedal of Sweden, 11th off, closed the gap to 849 feet. Peter Langford of Britain, off late and profiting somewhat from the navigational disasters preceding him, won the event by hitting down 810 feet off the mark. Veikko Kaseva of Finland was the unluckiest wanderer of the lot. While Kaseva was sailing 3,500 feet above the ground, planning to drop in fast, his burner went out. In the 10 minutes that he fumbled vainly to relight it, he was caught in rising air on the windward side of the Manzano Mountains. He rode flamelessly over the mountains and was dumped six miles from the target on a snowy slope studded with pi�on trees. Before he could deflate his fabric with frostbitten hands, the pi�ons had put more than 100 feet of gashes in it. It was the only serious damage of the whole meeting. The next worst came during a barograph run when Horst Kallenbach of West Germany knocked down a telephone line in Albuquerque. On hearing of Kallenbach's misplay, Kaseva said philosophically, "That's how it is. The Finns get lost in the woods and the Germans invade the towns."

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