ABQ Balloon Fiesta III -> Crewing & Flying
PRE-POST NOTE -This is another insanely long post, but hopefully it’s helpful. Last long one, I promise 🙂
I’d just come back from a 5-hour shift and I was utterly exhausted.This was our 5th day in a row getting up pre-dawn and the schedule was taking a toll on my delicate night-owl constitution. Instead of being in my warm bed in deep REM sleep dreaming of fluffy balloon bunnies floating thro’ the sky, I’d been on the field unpacking an apartment-sized whale. You might say the entire thing sounds kinda fishy and you would be absolutely right. Large fish were indeed involved, blue fish no less, glowing fish, flying fish I-bleedin-kid-you-not. WHY was I doing this to myself? Had I gone INSANE?
To understand the source of this craziness one must rewind several months to where I discovered the idea of crewing. The basic premise of this is that you can sign up to be a volunteer crew for one of the ~550 balloonists that attend Balloon Fiesta each year. Some balloonists come to Fiesta with a regular (fixed) crew, but many do not and/or they’re short on crew, so they rely on volunteers to make up the difference, and the Fiesta folks help them achieve that. The larger the balloon, the larger the crew required to wrangle the heavy fabric and control the inflation. Some of the biggest special-shape balloons can easily use 15-20 people!
For the folks who decide to volunteer it gets you right smack in the middle of the action and provides a much deeper experience than just walking around the field. Not only that but it gets you a FREE entry pass into the entire week of events at Fiesta, plus (and this is the super juicy bit) it typically also gets you the chance of a FREE FLIGHT!!!
Now I should mention here that volunteer crewing provides absolutely NO guarantee of a flight. It’s entirely up to the pilot’s discretion on whether or not they take any crew members in the basket when they go up. However it’s a well-known fact that many volunteers crew for the chance to fly, and the pilots are typically generous in returning the favor with a bit of balloon time.
In addition, the longer you crew the better your chances of going up.
If you just crew for a day or two you’ll still have an interesting experience learning the whole balloon business, but you probably won’t fly. However if you commit for the week & provide good support there’s a really, really good chance of flying. I talked to tons of different volunteer crew members at Fiesta and most of them got to fly at least once.
All of which explains why I was on the field at this ungodly hour instead of in deep bunny rabbit balloon REM sleep.
But before I get into the depths of my personal experience and whether all this was worth it, let me cover a few practical items first:
Volunteer Crewing FAQ’s
How Do I Sign Up To Crew? There’s a big sign right after you enter the Launch Field saying “sign up to volunteer crew here” so you can just walk in and sign-up anytime you wish during Fiesta. If you’re with the Boomers group you can organize crewing thro’ Judy (the main contact) before you get to Fiesta & she will coordinate w/ the Fiesta folks to assign you to a balloon. Otherwise just sign-up when you’re ready to work. The balloonists always need crew, so you’ll be able to get a spot any day of the week you’re here.
How Do I Meet My Pilot? Once you’re assigned you’ll either get the chance to contact him/her directly (if you’re given contact info) or just walk up to them on the field and introduce yourself as new volunteer crew. The Balloon Fiesta launch field is divided into a “grid pattern” of letters and numbers (there are big white posts to indicate them on the field), and each balloon is assigned a particular grid area for launch. So, it’s super easy to find your balloon once you’re assigned.
Do I Need Any Special Equipment? Just leather gloves. You can buy these for ~$3-5 at Home Depot. Do NOT use synthetic gloves because of the static burn that can happen with the nylon ropes that are used on the balloons.
Do I Need Any Special Training? You’ll typically be required to watch a safety video, but otherwise you don’t need any special training. Just be ready to listen to the pilot’s instructions and don’t touch or move anything on the balloon unless told to do so. Oh and the #1 rule? Never, ever step on the balloon material…pilots get kinda testy with that one 🙂
Do I Need to Be Physically Fit? Well…somewhat. You’ll be helping to pull out the big wicker baskets, pull out heavy balloons and holding onto the wicker baskets as the balloon inflates (or holding onto guide lines). Then you’ll need to help pack it all up again when the pilot lands, which often involves crawling around on your hands and knees to deflate/roll and hauling heavy balloon material into a bag. I found it fairly physically demanding, but not overly so. There are lots of older crew members who volunteer, but you do need to be mobile and willing to walk & haul equipment.
How Often Do I Need To Crew? Most pilots attend multiple events. The majority will go up every morning during Mass Ascension, some will do Dawn Patrol (= pre-dawn inflation & flight), and most will also do evening Glow (= post-sunset inflation & glow. This happens 4-5 times during Fiesta). As a crew member you’ll typically be on the field ~1 hour before whatever event you’re crewing for (so, for Mass Ascension that means you’ll be there between 6-6:30AM), and if the pilot is flying you’ll also be part of the chase and recovery team, which will usually take you off-site and consume several more hours of time after launch is done (you might not be done until 9-10AM). There’s no requirement for you (as a volunteer) to do everything the pilot does, but most pilots do come to rely on their crew and there’s a kind of mutual understanding that once you start crewing you’ll be there for them. Plus the longer you crew, the better your chances of flying.
Can I Crew Part-Time? It’s possible yes. Most pilots rely on their crew to be there once they commit, so if you can’t make make event, just be up-front with your pilot and communicate that ahead of time. The worst thing you can do IMHO is “ditch” your pilot with no warning.
Are There Any Extra Perks? Besides the free Fiesta entry pass & the chance to fly (which is really the ultimate perk!), many pilots will share goodies and/or time with their crew members. Amongst other things you might get free invites to some of the pilot events, you might get free breakfast badges for the pilot area, you might get a free crew parking pass, you might get a T-shirt or a balloon pin (which are coveted & traded items at Fiesta). Also some pilots are party animals and have tail-gate parties after every single flight, whereas others are more business-like and intense. It ALL depends on the individual pilot and since pilots are very individual the experience can be….well…individual (I’m quite the smarty pants, am I not?)
How Was Our Experience?
Interestingly enough our first pilot experience was a total bust. Our crew consisted of Paul, his dad, Jil & Tom and we’d signed-up beforehand thro’ the Boomers group. We arranged to meet the guy our very first day at Fiesta, but he didn’t really seem to need us (or even want us, frankly) and we ended up kinda butting heads for several days. In the end we politely left him and asked for another balloon, and thankfully our second pilot, Steiger was a winner.
Now Steiger is a rather intense guy who usually does technical, extreme stuff like flying over Zion and other such record-breaking things. He had no personal crew and had been ditched without warning by his first volunteer crew so he was pretty stressed/intense when we first showed up. But after a few days of working together like a well-oiled balloon machine he loosened up and we ended up with a solidly-tight crew & a totally enjoyable partnership. Plus he’s an all-round decent guy, travels with a lovely doggie (always bonus points in my book) and a super-sweet girlfriend Carla.
He flew two balloons at Fiesta, a regular round one Fleur De Lys and a special shape Baby Blue (a huge blue whale), and we crewed for both. I got to fly TWICE (!!!) the first time over an hour, while Paul and his dad flew along the Rio Grande & even dipped in the water. Pretty frikkin’ amazing!
In return we worked diligently for the guy every morning and several evenings too. Our last 5-hour epic-shift we even packed and inflated the balloon twice (once for launch, once again after flight because it was wet and needed to dry out). We also got crew parking passes, entry to pilot/crew breakfast area, a group meal at the Mule Barn and a margarita & potluck evening. Par-TAY, baby!!
All in all it was fun, socially intense, hard work, amazing & exhausting! I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Our Words Of Wisdom?
DON’T Crew Right Away -> In retrospect the fact that our first pilot ditched us was a total blessing in disguise. As first-time Fiesta people we got to walk around and just enjoy the balloons for the first 2-3 days without the interruption of work. It’s something I definitely recommend for all newbies, and if I were to do it over I’d delay our crew-start even a bit further. Take the first 3-5 days to just experience Fiesta. Go to the first Dawn Patrol, immerse yourself in the madness of Mass Ascension, hunt down all the special shapes and enjoy taking your first 5,000 pictures. Nothing can replace the freedom of just being there in the midst of it all. Once you start crewing you’ll be all work, and won’t get to walk around during the events. It’s also fun, but a different kind of fun.
DO Crew Later In The Week -> Crewing can be exhausting and crazy, but it’ll immerse you into the ballooning experience in a whole different way. You’ll get up-close to the action, you’ll bond with your team-mates & pilot, you’ll learn a ton about ballooning and maybe, just maybe you’ll get to rise up in the air and float the currents like a feather in the sky. There’s nothing quite like it.
If You’re Not Enjoying Yourself, Stop It -> This is a volunteer position & if you’re not meshing with your team/pilot or you’re not enjoying yourself, or you’re not able to manage physically you have the absolute right to call it quits. You can always switch balloons (like we did) or just stop the job altogether.
Are There Any Other Ways To Fly?
If you just want to fly you can easily pay for a Balloon Flight with the Rainbow Ryders. They have big-basket balloons that can accomodate 10 or so people at a time. They take off right after Dawn Patrol from the launch field and offer 4.5 hr rides. It’s not cheap tho’ as it’ll cost you $425/person (2015 rates).
That’s it folks….phew!!!! Balloon Fiesta is now over and we’re on our way West. I may do a last round-up post, but all the “practical” info is complete. Any questions, fire away below!
- ABQ Ballon Fiesta Safety Video -> Click HERE
- ABQ Ballon Fiesta Volunteering Info (for other types of volunteer positions) -> Click HERE