RAY BAIR FOLLOWED WHAT HE CALLS a “natural sequence of steps” into ballooning—from spectator to crewman to balloon owner to pilot. In 1973, Bair and his wife, Carol, attended the very first World Hot Air Ballooning Championship, in Albuquerque. “It just piqued our interest,” he recalls. The next year, they unofficially joined a chase crew by tailing a balloon in their car. Then, as crew members, the Bairs threw a small party at their home the Friday night before the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta—a tradition they maintained for years. A Balloon Fiesta Hall of Famer, Bair has piloted more than 2,500 flights in both traditional and special-shape balloons, trains and certifies new pilots, advocates for balloon safety, and serves as a Balloon Fiesta board member. Along the way, ballooning has truly become a family affair, as Carol ran the fiesta’s pilot hospitality center for two decades, and their sons, John and David, and granddaughter Erin are now pilots.

THAT FRIDAY NIGHT party represents the essence of Balloon Fiesta for us—a reunion of friends. We’ve come to call ourselves a family.

IT GREW TO A PARTY of about 80 to 100 people. No invitations were ever issued. It was a strange phenomenon. Carol and I sold our house this year, so the party will be no more.

I DON’T DIRECTLY FEEL THE EXCITEMENT anymore. But my passengers have that same sense of wonder. It makes me pleased that these people are enjoying something that I’ve got to offer.

THE FEELING is different now. It’s one of adventure.

THE GOOD THING about hot-air ballooning is you never know where it’s going to go. Some flights border on routine. Others border on chaos. It’s more the challenge of the flight now.

Read more: A retired cop steps off the beat and into the air.

ALBUQUERQUE IS JUST A WONDERFUL PLACE TO FLY, especially in the mornings. The air is frequently calm. The temperatures are cool. It’s one of the few places where we fly year-round.

THE “ALBUQUERQUE BOX” is a result of the terrain that surrounds the city. We have the Río Grande flowing from north to south at the low part of the valley. Then we have the mountain terrains that sort of close things in.

IN THE MORNINGS, we get a low-level flow from north to south, but frequently the winds aloft—winds maybe 1,000 feet in the air—will flow from south to north. You take off and fly to the south, go up 1,000 feet and you fly to the north.

IT HAS BEEN A REAL CHARACTERISTIC OF ALBUQUERQUE FLYING, particularly during the fall months when Balloon Fiesta occurs.

COME EARLY AND DRESS WARMLY. In early October, before the sun comes up, you’re going to wish you had a jacket. Dressing in layers is best.

YOU MIGHT AS WELL enjoy a traditional New Mexico breakfast burrito.

THE MOMENTS that I remember the most are usually after flying.

WE HAVE A GROUP—we call it the “H Row family”—because we all launch off the H Row. The fiesta organizers call it Bair Acres because so many of my friends request that area so we can launch together.

JOHN AND DAVID both received their pilot certificates in their 16th year, which is the youngest you can do it. David actually did it on his birthday. Along comes Erin, David’s daughter, and she does it on her 16th birthday, just to make sure that Dad couldn’t show her up.

EARLY ON there was what I would call expected apprehension. They are children doing something moderately dangerous and the consequences could be severe. But in fact, they were well-trained, very capable. Now it’s just the opposite. I look up with pride.

LAST YEAR, I received the Balloon Federation of America’s Ed Yost Master Pilot Award, given to pilots who have flown for 40 years without accident or safety incident. I’m very proud of that. I’ve been fortunate enough that things have gone well.

Read more: Photographer Ian Beckley offers a few tips to capture the colorful balloon-filled skies of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.


Watch Ray Bair pilot his Kaleidoscope balloon at the 50th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, October 1–9.