AT 5 A.M., DARKNESS HANGS LIKE A CURTAIN over Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta Park, hiding the riot of colors, shapes, and sounds about to be unveiled in the morning light. For now, you and the thousands of others entering the gates move like fireflies to the lights along the row of white concession tents.

An all-caps COFFEE sign anticipates both your caffeine needs and your alertness. Scouts shout, “Get your programs! Get your calendars!” But you’re on a breakfast-burrito mission.

At the Perico’s booth, the line is already four or five deep in all directions. No matter. You’ve got time and a craving for a sausage burrito with red and a bacon burrito with green—maybe a Frontier cinnamon roll to share. With your mission accomplished, you seek out a spot on the 84-acre launch field. Some folks have settled into chairs or on blankets there, while many just wander through the growing crowd.

Anticipation builds slowly. Trucks and trailers hauling balloon gear start to arrive. On Mass Ascension days like this one, about a dozen balloons come out early in a line for Dawn Patrol. Crews cut the inky morning with their burners until the envelopes—decorated in palm trees with tropical colors; red, white, and blue stars and stripes; and alternating rectangles of blue, yellow, and orange—lift off the ground. Away they go, one by one, magically reappearing each time the pilot hits the burner. A tradition since 1978, the spectacle helps other pilots gauge wind speeds and directions they can expect during the morning’s flight.

Dawn Patrol is more than just a stunning show. It also helps other pilots understand wind speeds and directions for later flights. Photograph by NMTD.

As the largest ballooning event in the world, Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (AIBF) attracts pilots from all around the globe. More than 550 applicants were approved to fly this year, including 113 special-shape balloons and 63 international pilots from places like Brazil, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Taiwan.

One of the many draws for pilots is a chance to fly the famed Albuquerque Box, where low-altitude winds carry balloons to the south as they ascend to higher altitudes, and northbound winds enable pilots to reverse their direction, simulating a box-like flight path. In ideal conditions, pilots finessing these currents can enjoy an hour or longer flight while they navigate their balloons back to where they first launched.

Last year, an early-morning synchronized drone show was introduced for the 50th anniversary. The entire nine-day event drew more than 828,000 visitors and generated an economic impact of $203.19 million. Over the past half-century, ballooning has become an inseparable part of New Mexico’s identity, with events taking place from Angel Fire and Elephant Butte to Alamogordo and Gallup.

“Unlike most places, we get to fly year-round,” says Paul Smith, the former executive director of Balloon Fiesta. “Here, if you want to fly, you go out and fly.”

The Special Shapes Rodeo launches on Thursday and Friday morning. Photograph by Aaron Blanc.

IN 1973, J.W. BYRD bought a balloon after attending the first Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque the previous year. His daughter Niki Byrd-Dickey got drawn in as a crew member. By 1981, she had her pilot’s certification.

But for her and so many others, ballooning has always been about more than flying. “It’s the connection, family, extended family, adventure, excitement, unique bonds, and opportunities to meet people,” she says, “and all of our combined involvement.” 

Now 65, Byrd-Dickey fondly recalls watching her daughters play in the dirt as kids on the West Mesa while the adults packed up the balloon. “Balloon Fiesta is like going to a reunion,” she says. “You get a chance to see people, friends from all over the world.”

While both her daughters are still involved in the sport—one as a pilot, the other as a crew member—and a new granddaughter might mean a fourth generation of balloonists in the family, Byrd-Dickey knows things are changing. “A lot of my friends are getting older,” she says.

Modern hot-air ballooning began in the early 1960s, when Ed Yost developed flight-changing technology that made ballooning accessible in new ways. A decade later, it had become a sport for the free-spirited and adventurous. Aspiring pilots could purchase new balloon systems for between $5,000 and $7,000. Components like burners and flight instruments were low tech and at times unreliable (and potentially dangerous). As technology and safety requirements improved, the cost also increased. Today, a new system can sell for $50,000 or more, not including the truck and trailer to haul it, which creates barriers to entry for new people interested in the sport.

Pilot Niki Byrd-Dickey, right, and her family. Photograph by Bryce Risley.

Longtime balloonists like Byrd-Dickey remember those Wild West days of the sport with affection, even while acknowledging how improvements have made it safer. “It’s the end of an era,” she says. “These people from the formative era of ballooning are leaving us. The whole feel and texture of ballooning is changing.”

And while it may not be noticeable to most attendees, this presents challenges for Albuquerque’s largest event. “How do we keep Balloon Fiesta, Balloon Fiesta?” ponders Jim Garcia, who serves on the AIBF board of directors and is the acting director of the Associated Contractors of New Mexico. “We have strategic problems that we’ve never had to deal with before: How do we find areas to land? How do we look forward to plan 10 to 15 years from now?” 

Ongoing infill and development throughout Albuquerque and Rio Rancho have removed and restricted launch and landing sites that enable balloonists to fly safely. As a result, the number of pilots participating in Balloon Fiesta is being ratcheted down. At its peak in 2000, Balloon Fiesta hosted more than 1,000 balloons. This year, the cap is set at 550.

Garcia spearheaded the X Marks the Spot initiative with AIBF in 2020, working with landowners throughout Albuquerque, Corrales, and Rio Rancho to lay out white sheets in the shape of an X, notifying pilots where they are welcome to land. “How do we approach environmental and business planning in the city so that things are more balloon-friendly?” he says.

Balloon Fiesta makes a beautiful backdrop for selfies. Photograph by Bryce Risley.

Albuquerque and Rio Rancho, when combined, host the largest community of balloonists in the world, and these balloonists fly year-round. Outside of Balloon Fiesta, most of the flying happens in Rio Rancho, north and west of Albuquerque. As these cities grow, transplants may be unfamiliar with what comes with our status as the balloon capital of the world. “You need to know that balloons are going to be a regular part of your experience here,” says Michael Kerns, a budding pilot and 25-year Balloon Fiesta crew member.

Changes can also bring opportunity, especially to make a sport with an aging pilot population more inclusive and welcoming to those who have been historically underrepresented. “You take a look around during the average weekend ballooning on the West Side here, the majority of pilots are white,” Kerns says. “There is a bit more diversity at the crew level,” a prime entry point to ballooning.

Drawing crowds from all over the world, Balloon Fiesta serves as a testament to ballooning’s universal appeal—and its potential. Fireworks displays, car shows, chain-saw carvings, concerts, and green chile cheeseburgers all add to the allure. Despite the changes, Byrd-Dickey chooses to remain positive about the future. “I’m hoping the young people today feel like it’s also a great experience for them,” she says.

The Balloon Fiesta attracts pilots from all over the world. Photograph by Aaron Blanc.

AS THE SUN RISES above the Sandía Mountains, balloons begin inflating and taking to the sky. A fleet of yellow Rainbow Ryders with Bucket List written on the side carry passengers into the bluing beyond for the ride of a lifetime. With so much activity, your attention ping-pongs from the crew members racing about as vibrant nylon envelopes inflate. A turquoise dinosaur snuggles up next to a green alien from the United Kingdom. Everywhere, people with cameras and cellphones snap pictures and point. Above the crowd, a single balloon floats across the rising sun, a magical eclipse that seems to only happen here.

“I see Balloon Fiesta still evolving,” Garcia says. “There are tons of other things we can do to keep this the best ballooning event in the world.”

Read more: After a 50-year career piloting for the likes of Kellogg’s and Wells Fargo, Jim Ahern still makes ballooning part of his life.

Seventeen-year balloonist Bryce Risley focuses his photography and writing on the culture and social history of the largest community of balloonists and enthusiasts in the world. His work is featured in an exhibition, Bryce Risley: Focusing Beyond Balloons, at the Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum.