The 24-member Balloon Fiesta board of directors works year-round, in many capacities, to help plan for the annual event. Justice Judith Nakamura, of the New Mexico Supreme Court and balloonist, serves on the board of directors. Learn more about Justice Nakamura's Balloon Fiesta favorites in this month's Inside the Basket.
How many years have you been involved with the Balloon Fiesta Board and how did you get started?
I was elected to the Balloon Fiesta Board in 2011. My interest and enthusiasm for ballooning began during the 2003 Balloon Fiesta when I attended a mass ascension with visiting friends. It had been more than 10 years since I had made the journey to the Balloon Fiesta field. Usually I just observed balloons already aloft from a distance. What a different experience it is being on the field as crews and pilots are readying balloons and the launches occur all around you. We ventured over to the launch site of a pilot friend just as he was preparing to take off. Spotting me amongst others anxiously awaiting his launch he shouted “get in.” After a few seconds of indecision, I jumped in, tossing my friends the car keys. It was an exhilarating beautiful flight and I was immediately hooked on ballooning. That first flight led to me acquiring my private and now commercial license and of course owning a balloon! There is an old adage amongst pilots that that first free flight can become a costly obsession! A member of the Board sensing my enthusiasm for the sport and Balloon Fiesta eventually nominated me to run for a Board position.
What is your favorite part about being involved with the organization/event?
I have appreciated the opportunity to give back to an organization and sport that have enriched my life in so many ways. The Board members, pilots and hundreds of other volunteers, who work with Balloon Fiesta staff to put on this event on are knowledgeable hard-working people who give their time to ensure this event remains a permanent feature of our New Mexico landscape. The enjoyment visitors to Balloon Fiesta experience is wonderfully uplifting as I rarely encounter anyone unhappy as they experience the beauty of this fanciful spectacle. It is rewarding to be part of this non-profit organization that not only raises the collective spirits of our guests but is credited with contributing millions of dollars into our community's economy.
Do you have a favorite memory from a past Balloon Fiesta?
Yes, the year I was a prize grab winner when piloting my balloon. Envelopes were perched upon a few tall poles. Balloons had to launch at least a mile away and navigate close enough to a pole to grab an envelope that contained a cash prize. Everything went wrong that morning including my chase vehicle first getting stuck in sand and then breaking down! The crew eventually safely launched the balloon with little time left in the competition. As the field came clearly in view I was surprised to see a pole with an envelope still on it. As I flew by, a crew member reached out and snagged the envelope. The excitement of the competition and satisfaction from a challenging and safe flight remains a cherished memory!
Do you have a favorite hot air balloon?
Each time I look up I spot what I believe to be a new favorite! My favorite changes regularly as new creative balloons are built and come to Balloon Fiesta. If forced to select only one, it would have to be one of the ladybug balloons which is no longer flying. Spotting that balloon always made me smile. It was cheery, whimsical and visually striking just like the ladybugs we spot in our yards!
What advice do you have for first time Balloon Fiesta guests?
Be willing to move beyond the concession stands and balloons closest to you to have a more complete Balloon Fiesta experience. One of the unique features of Balloon Fiesta is the ability of guests to walk among the balloons as pilots and crew prepare for launch. Hundreds of balloons occupy a 365-acre field. Many guests never wander beyond the first few congested rows closest to the vendors. Walking less than 100' west dramatically enhances your visit. The further you walk, the fewer people you will encounter surrounding a balloon. You will find that pilots and crew members will have more time to visit with you and answer your individual questions. You will often have the opportunity to peek inside the basket, get close-up photographs and stand within an arm’s length of a balloon as it takes flight.
Justice Nakamura was recently featured on CBS Sunday Morning, during a profile piece about Balloon Fiesta. See the story here: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/up-up-and-away/