Growing with New Mexico: Balloon Fiesta for the next generation

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Every year, the skies above Albuquerque come alive with vibrant colors, flames, and hot air. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has grown into a phenomenon that captures the ballooning community every year. 

In 1972, what was supposed to be the 50th anniversary celebration for KOB, when radio and television operations were in the same building, turned into a beloved tradition.

13 balloons took to the skies from the parking lot of Coronado Mall, marking the first Balloon Fiesta.

Over the years, the event has become the hot air balloon “mecca,” earning Albuquerque its title of the “Hot Air Balloon Capital of the World.” You can draw a direct line between Balloon Fiesta’s rich tradition, and families. Pilot and crew families play a significant part in keeping the tradition alive.

Scott Appleman, founder of Rainbow Ryder Balloons, acknowledges New Mexico’s deep connection with balloons.

“This is the motherland — the mothership, whatever you want to call it. You could compare it to Lambeu field for the packers, or Solider Field,” said Appleman. “There is what we call the greying of the industry happening… where some people have decided to retire from ballooning.”

Many experienced pilots like Appleman are eager to pass the torch to the younger generation, but attracting newcomers to the world of hot air ballooning remains a challenge.

“Trying to get the younger generation involved in Hot Air Ballooning is a big challenge right now,” Appleman said.

One beacon of hope lies in the Albuquerque Aviation Academy, formerly known as SAMS, where students like Kierstynn Wehner and Rebecca Posen are not only pursuing their primary education but also becoming certified pilots.

Wehner, discovered her passion for flying early on.

“I learned that I didn’t like my public middle school and I wanted something different. I had been ballooning my whole life [but I heard] there’s this pilot school — and the rest is history, now I’m a pilot,” said Wehner.

Posen, too, found her calling through the academy and aspires to pursue a career in aeronautics.

“I took the discovery flight here, and ‘Doc’, she let me fly it the first time. I don’t think I would have been a pilot if I hadn’t have come here,” said Posen.

“The best success story is our student who decided to be a pilot to teach other kids at his alma matter. Flying for me is secondary compared to the fulfillment I get being able to open doors for these kids,” said Dr. Lauren Chavez, director of Aeronautics at Albuquerque Aviation Academy.

She says it’s her goal to inspire and prepare future aviators. 

The Balloon Fiesta Field serves as a launchpad for these aspiring pilots, who dream of taking part in this iconic event. The festival not only ignites their passion but also provides an opportunity to keep New Mexico’s skies vibrant and glowing for generations to come.