By Kim Vesely
On some magic fall evenings in October, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta becomes an enchanted forest where guests stroll through the twilight. A murmur of anticipation courses through the field, as they join in the count: three…two…one. The air explodes with light, heat and sound: the forest has become a magical glowing candy-colored canopy. Slowly the light and sound fade and are replaced by cheers, the jubilation and exhilaration of the crowd.
The Balloon Fiesta Balloon Glows are an event like none other. Nighttime balloon displays are now held all over the world, but nothing rivals the size and scope of the Albuquerque “glows.” Two now feature special shape balloons; a third serves as the sendoff for the America’s Challenge gas balloonists in their quest to fly the greatest distance across the country.
The Balloon Glow was not invented at the Balloon Fiesta, but it was invented in Albuquerque. The idea that a nighttime balloon display could be a successful spectator event resulted from the inflation of a single balloon. Its pilot had just taken delivery and couldn't wait another minute to see what his new balloon looked like. The sight of the balloon lit from within its burner, glowing like a giant light bulb, awed the other balloonists who were on the scene. "Maybe other people would like to see this."
It was not the first time a balloon had been inflated at night—it had been done several times before, mostly for advertising purposes and Dawn Patrol flights. But the idea of inflating several balloons together strictly for the enjoyment of spectators was totally new. The concept eventually took shape as the first Luminaria Tour Balloon Display on Christmas Eve, 1979. After all, luminarias (properly called farolitos) are nothing but bags with candles inside, and a balloon is a great big colorful bag with a great big candle. Albuquerque's annual luminaria displays were already world-famous—balloons would be a natural addition. Most of all, this display would give the balloonists the opportunity to say "thank you" to the citizens of Albuquerque who put up with them throughout the year.
Nineteen balloons, supported by dozens of ground crew, participated in the first display at the Albuquerque Country Club and the surrounding area. The sight of the colorful balloons—the flames from their burners flickering softly in the cold Christmas air—awed luminaria-viewing spectators and stunned even the balloonists themselves. An instant tradition had been created in the space of a few hours. In 2014, this Christmas Eve event, now dispersed on sites throughout Albuquerque, celebrates its 36th year.
Meanwhile, word of the Albuquerque display was getting around through the balloonist grapevine. During the next few years, balloonists in communities worldwide created their own nighttime displays. One of them, Bill Bussey from Texas, coined the term "balloon glow" to describe the event. The name stuck.
In 1987, the Balloon Fiesta decided to hold a "balloon glow" to celebrate the 75th anniversary of New Mexico's statehood. Like everything else about the Balloon Fiesta, this would be the biggest event of its kind ever staged, with 250 balloons participating. At dusk Sunday evening, October 4, the forest of balloons stood erect, and via a live broadcast on KOB radio, Assistant Balloonmeister John Davis counted down the first "all burn." The concussion of light, heat and sound as all 250 balloons lit their burners and the huge crowd erupted in cheers blew away even the hardened Christmas Eve veterans. Many balloonists who were there still get chills as they recall the thrill of that moment. As the sound faded, everyone knew that the Balloon Fiesta had another success on its hands.
Technically, the Balloon Glow is not a difficult event for the balloonists. The "glow" effect is created by a variation of the same basic burner system used in flight. Balloon burners use “pre-heat” coils, which partially vaporize the liquid propane passing through the burner. These coils help the burner work very efficiently, but the flame is a dull blue and does not throw a lot of light. When the coils are bypassed, the flame burns less efficiently but is a much brighter yellow. The balloon lights up like a light bulb.
Balloon manufacturers now routinely build into burners a second orifice and blast valve (think “on-off switch”) that bypass the preheat coils and create that bright yellow glow; it can also serve as a partial backup flight system. Little did the organizers of that first balloon display know that their Christmas gift to Albuquerque would eventually impact balloon design and revolutionize the way ballooning events are conducted worldwide.
At the Balloon Fiesta, the Balloon Glow has evolved as well from a one-night event on the first Sunday to five magic nights and even a few magic mornings. The first to be added (in 1993) was the Night Magic glow on the last Saturday of Balloon Fiesta; it is now preceded by the Music Fiesta. During the 1990s the afternoon Special Shape Rodeo events morphed into the very popular Special Shapes Glowdeos on Thursday and Friday. In 2007, the Twilight Twinkle glow on the first Saturday replaced a Saturday afternoon competition event for hot air balloons.
Balloons now even “glow” before some of the morning flights. In 2012, the Balloon Fiesta added the Krispy Kreme Morning Glow on mass ascension days featuring select balloons scattered across the launch field. On those days, the Dawn Patrol Show also functions as a small and eventually airborne balloon glow.
Like all Balloon Fiesta events, the Balloon Glow is sensitive to wind and weather. However, don’t assume that if it’s windy in the afternoon that the glow will be cancelled, since the winds usually diminish in the evening. On nights when it is too windy to inflate, pilots perform “candlestick glows,” where they fire off their burners with the flames soaring 20 feet or more into the night sky. These are followed by the AfterGlow fireworks spectaculars, which rival fireworks displays anywhere on any Fourth of July, a fitting end to a night of illumination unlike any other anywhere.
For more information about the daily event schedule of Balloon Fiesta, click here.
To book a hotel room near Balloon Fiesta Park, read more about our hotel recommendations.