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Ballooning in Albuquerque goes back to 1882. Just two years after the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad arrived in Albuquerque, “Professor” Park Van Tassel, owner of the Elite Saloon, had bought a balloon for $850. The balloon of black, rubberized cloth was 38 feet in diameter with a volume of 30,000 cubic feet.

The first ascension in Albuquerque was planned for the Fourth of July. All day long on July 3, Albuquerque Gas Works manufactured the Professor’s fuel, which was coal gas (a mixture of hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide) by burning coal in a low-oxygen environment.

Inflation of the balloon began at 5 p.m. on July 3. The next morning a crowd gathered on Second Street between Railroad (Central) and Gold avenues. They waited and waited. Finally, they went on to other events at the Territorial Fairgrounds near Old Town.

Word went out that the balloon would launch at 6:15 p.m.  People boarded mule-drawn street cars and made their way back to Second Street. The balloon was only two-thirds full, but it was good enough. The Professor climbed aboard, untied  bags of sand from the basket, and the “City of Albuquerque” rose above rooftops and floated slowly to the south. Then it appeared to stop its lateral movement and shot straight up among the clouds where another current of air pushed the balloon in a northwesterly direction.

It was the phenomenon that would become known to modern balloonists as the Albuquerque Box, in which air currents move one direction at a lower elevation and another direction at a higher elevation. The balloon rose high in the air until it was no bigger than a derby hat and soon reached a point over Old Town where it began to descend. The Professor landed in a cornfield at the rear of the Fairgrounds.  A number of men on horseback rushed to help the aeronaut and then emptied the balloon and loaded up the airship. They returned to the Elite Saloon for a lively party. The first ballooning adventure over Albuquerque was a great success.

Plans were made for Van Tassel to fly again during the second annual New Mexico Territorial Fair, scheduled to begin Sept. 18, 1882. On Sept. 21, 100 men towed the balloon towards the fairgrounds, but it got away from them, rose quickly about a mile high and burst directly over the Fairgrounds. That was the end of Van Tassel’s balloon. 

In 1889, again during the New Mexico Territorial Fair, Professor Thomas Scott Baldwin made a 3,000-foot ascension following two failed attempts the previous days.  On Sept. 18, 1890, a Professor Elmo only rose 200 feet above Albuquerque and escaped serious injury when it fell to the ground.

Ten years later, again at the fair, a Professor Zeno became tangled in the ropes of his balloon, and the wind blew his parachute, which had opened, and him into the air.

The next balloon pilot’s luck wasn’t any better. On the last day of the 1907 fair, Joseph Blondin flew solo in his poorly filled balloon. The day before, a company of 25 cavalrymen tried to fill the bag with hydrogen made from iron filings and sulfuric acid in a wooden vat. When that wasn’t satisfactory, the soldiers walked the partially filled balloon two miles through the South Valley to the city gas plant in order to continue filling it with coal gas.

At 10 a.m. the next day the bag appeared full, and the men walked the balloon back to the fairgrounds. After it lifted off, Aeronaut Blondin flew 18 miles up the Rio Grande Valley. Near the village of Alameda, irate farmers shot at him eight times but missed. The balloon landed safely near Corrales.

Afterward Blondin sold his balloon to Roy Stamm, a local fruit wholesaler who was secretary of the 1907 Fair Association, and went back to prospecting.

At the 1909 fair, Stamm and Blondin, with a 10-man crew, set to work with a wooden tank generator to produce hydrogen, which had at one point sprayed Stamm with acid. After 30 hours of inflation, the tethered balloon rose, where it could be seen by President Taft from his special train. The first passengers were the ground crew of Fort Wingate soldiers, followed by hundreds of men, women and children who paid $1 to ride – a lot of money in those days – for 10 minutes on a 500-foot tether.

The two couldn’t provide a real balloon launch during the fair, but afterward, they rose into the air from a vacant lot at Sixth and Railroad (Central). A large, cheering crowd, including Mayor Felix Lester, watched as the basket cleared the electric wire of the trolley. It rose a mile above Albuquerque, floated over the mountains and was lost from view.

On the other side, the warm air of Estancia Valley caused the balloon to rise to 13,000 feet.  As the aeronauts passed over the village of Estancia, they were shot at again. The balloon appeared to be headed for Vaughn but soon dropped and landed at the base of Pedernal Hills in Torrance County. They returned by wagon to Estancia and rode the train back to Albuquerque, bringing the balloon and gondola with them.

A two-hour flight had turned into a three-day return journey.

In the late 1950s a U.S. government research program built a hot-air balloon of man-made fibers and filled it with air heated by a propane flame. The modern hot air balloon was born.


Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta

In summer 1971 Sid and Bill Cutter, owners of Cutter Flying Service, bought a hot–air balloon from Raven Industries. Sid first flew it for their mother’s birthday party being celebrated in the company’s hangar at Albuquerque International Airport. The Cutters named the balloon “Betsy Ross.” It was the first hot-air balloon flight over Albuquerque. Maxie Anderson later acquired the balloon.

In November Sid, Maxie and seven of their friends founded the local balloon club,  Albuquerque Aerostat Ascension Association, which they nick-named the Quad A.  They signed up members to learn to fly. The Quad A bought a club balloon they named “Roadrunner.”  It was first flown in early January 1972.

Sid Cutter began organizing the first hot-air balloon rally in New Mexico. The sponsor was KOB Radio, which wanted to celebrate its 50th anniversary with an unusual event.  The largest number of balloons ever assembled had been 19 in England, and organizers intended to surpass that number.

They signed up 21 balloonists from Arizona, California, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and Texas to join the Albuquerque balloonists in April of 1972. But they didn’t arrive in time, so 13 balloons inflated on a chilly Saturday morning on the dirt parking lot west of Coronado Shopping Center. KOB announcer Tom Rutherford had stirred up excitement, and 20,000 people came to watch. Albuquerqueans were thrilled watching the brightly colored hot-air balloons, most trailing advertising banners, drifted away from the shopping center.

In this crowd was Don Kersten,  an official of the Balloon Federation of America. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale had directed him to choose a site for the first world hot-air ballooning championship. He was so impressed with Albuquerque that he encouraged the city to submit a bid to host the International Festival. Sid Cutter and Tom Rutherford organized World Balloon Championships Inc. and submitted the only bid to be a host city. They learned later that Albuquerque was the only city Kersten approached.

In February 1973 Albuquerque hosted its second Balloon Fiesta in conjunction with the first World Hot Air Balloon Championship at the State Fairgrounds, with 138 balloons flying from 13 countries.

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