Paul Smith's involvement with the Balloon Fiesta goes way back to when he first attended the Balloon Fiesta as a crew member, 35 years ago. Since then, he's served as a pilot and a lawyer for the event.
Today he is the Executive Director and General Counsel of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Learn more about Paul's Balloon Fiesta favorites in this month's Inside the Basket.
How long have you been involved with the Balloon Fiesta?
I first attended the Balloon Fiesta as a crew member in 1981, as a pilot in 1982, as its lawyer in 1986 or 1987, and as its Executive Director in January 1997.
How did you become involved with the Balloon Fiesta and why?
It's difficult to live in Albuquerque and not be involved in Balloon Fiesta in some way. It's almost impossible to be a balloon pilot in Albuquerque and not be involved. After graduating from law school, a classmate and I took a balloon ride. While riding, we talked about law school and the law. Our pilot needed a lawyer for his divorce so after the flight he suggested he'd teach me to fly if I handled his divorce. It was either the best legal fee I've ever collected or the worst deal I ever made.
After learning to fly, I met a lot of other pilots, including several members of the Balloon Fiesta Board of Directors. Some of them contacted me to be the corporation's lawyer in the mid '80s. In 1995, some of those same Board members suggested I apply to become the Executive Director when Marge Ruppenthal retired. I declined because I enjoyed practicing law. In 1996 the Board hired a new Executive Director and I apparently mentioned to my wife that I disagreed with some of his decisions. At the end of 1996 I was again contacted about applying. I discussed it with my wife and she told she didn't care if I applied for the position but if I didn't, I needed to keep quiet about whatever decisions were made by the new Executive Director. I applied. I was hired.
What is your favorite part of your job and what is the hardest?
My favorite part of the job is watching little kids watching the balloons. It always amazes me that their parents can somehow get them out to a cold, dark park in the middle of the night. I don't hear complaining and I do see eyes wide open when they see the balloons. Their mouths are either curved into big smiles or just open in awe. It's these times that we can see families enjoying each other - experiencing the balloons while spending time together that we forget the long hours of work we devote to the event.
The hardest part of the job is hearing about how a guest wasn't able to enjoy the Balloon Fiesta in the way they hoped. It might be that the flights were cancelled because of weather or that the parking lots were filled before they could park. We realize that the Balloon Fiesta is on many people's bucket lists and some of them plan their trip for years before they can experience the balloons.
What advice do you have for Balloon Fiesta guests visiting for the first time?
The best advice I can offer is to come often and consider coming on a weekday morning. I was reminded this year how truly spectacular the Balloon Fiesta can be on a day with perfect weather. Opening day in 2016 was one of those days-both in the morning and the evening. Balloon Fiesta is spectacular whenever we can get 500+balloons on the Launch Field or in the air. However, on those days where Mother Nature adds to the show, the result is simply amazing, even for someone like me who has attended every session of every Balloon Fiesta for the past 35 years. If you're able to attend multiple sessions, your odds of seeing one, or more, of these spectacular events is increased. Conversely, if you plan to attend only one session, there's a chance you might be disappointed because of rain or wind.
Weekday sessions are generally less crowded than the weekends and I hate traffic. On these days guests will be treated by not only 250-300 balloons lifting off from Balloon Fiesta Park but they'll also witness another 250-300 balloons flying into Balloon Fiesta Park. Additionally, since the crowds are generally smaller, it's easier to get into the Park and guests can better experience the concessions on Main Street.
Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't also recommend arriving at the Park early. Some of our sessions will have 80,000 people in attendance. The vast majority of those people will want to arrive at the Park at about the same time. When you consider how many cars can enter the Park at the same time or how many buses can load and travel into the Park at the same time, you'll understand the lines. Our gates open at 4:30 in the morning and 3:00 in the afternoon. If you arrive at these times, you'll miss the bulk of the lines.
Do you have a favorite hot air balloon? If so, what is your favorite?
Of course, I have favorite balloons! But if I told anyone my favorites, I'd be in a lot of trouble.