Early Risers | Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Flying the dawn patrol at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
by Kim Veselya
On a cold October day in 1978, in the pre-dawn darkness, two California balloonists made history—and no doubt startled a few Albuquerque early risers—by ascending into the sunrise on the first flight ever of the Dawn Patrol. The flight was the culmination of six month’s hard work and the realization of a dream, in the words of pilot Ron Thornton, “to be able to see the sunrise from a couple thousand feet above ground and see the morning shadows recede from above.”
Ron Thornton and the late Ken O’Connor, balloonists from California, had been working for months with the Federal Aviation Administration to get their balloons certified for night flight. To do so, they had to develop aircraft warning lights acceptable to the FAA and to submit a ton of paperwork. They finally received clearance just days before the Balloon Fiesta. With no time to try a test flight in their home area, they brought their newly-certified equipment and their newfound passion to Albuquerque.
That day, Thornton and O’Connor became the first modern hot air balloonists to experience the beautiful and challenging experience of flying from the dark into the light. As the balloon slowly ascends, the ground fades into oblivion under the balloon. The city lights glitter like a million stars as the growing dawn, in shades of gray and pink and gold, breaks over the Sandia Mountains. At that pre-sunrise hour the air is very stable and the winds generally very predictable. Descending can be a bit spooky, dropping down into a seemingly infinite darkness, but as the flight progresses, the light grows and the ground becomes more visible, and that feeling quickly passes. Flown with due care and attention to safety, Dawn Patrol is a beautiful, unique flight
The sight proved to be equally spectacular and appreciated from the ground. Fellow pilots, particularly, love “going to school” on the Dawn Patrollers, since their flight patterns give them an early idea of what they can expect for their own post-sunrise flights.
From then on, Dawn Patrol balloons were a common sight in the pre-dawn Albuquerque skies. But these early members of the Dawn Patrol flew on their own, outside Fiesta airspace and at their own expense. The Dawn Patrol did not become a recognized Balloon Fiesta event until 1989.
The Dawn Patrol usually launches about an hour before sunrise and stays in the air at least until there is sufficient light so the pilot can clearly see obstructions on the ground below. Obstructions such as power lines, trees and even buildings are impossible to see in the dark; therefore, the pilot can’t land the balloon until there is enough light to see by. The difficulty of trying to land in the dark (especially in an emergency) is the principal challenge that distinguishes Dawn Patrol flights from major balloon operations.
Pilots flying in the Dawn Patrol are required to have equipment and experience beyond that necessary for pilots who fly under normal Fiesta conditions. Balloons and their pilots are normally certified to fly during daylight hours only. For night flight, the balloon must display aircraft position lights—solid red and flashing strobe lights suspended below the basket. The pilot must also meet training and experience requirements for night operations.
In 1996, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Fiesta, Dawn Patrol received a new twist. Craig Kennedy, an Albuquerque balloonist and the son of long-time Dawn Patroller Ken Kennedy, organized the first Dawn Patrol Show. This exhibition features the inflation and flight of a dozen or so balloons, choreographed to narration and music. The pilots communicate with each other and the event announcer through radios to synchronize their inflation and “glow” burns. The sight of the balloons “standing up” and glowing in mid-air in unison is truly an exciting one.
The pilots flying in the Dawn Patrol usually arrive on the field around 5 a.m. for the first of a series of weather briefings. A “fly-no fly” decision is usually made about 5:45, based on weather conditions and forecasts (the maximum wind requirements are even more strict for Dawn Patrol than for regular Balloon Fiesta flights). Because the Dawn Patrol balloons are usually off the ground by 6:30, guests need to arrive early at Fiesta Park if they want to see this unique demonstration. And of course, balloonists arriving on the field for Balloon Fiesta events are among the most attentive and appreciative spectators!
The Dawn Patrol Show is held on mass ascension days (Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesday), weather permitting. Balloonists from the original Dawn Patrol launch most days from the north end of Balloon Fiesta Park.
For more information about the daily event schedule of Balloon Fiesta, click here.
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