Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
It’s an early weekday morning at North Domingo Baca Park and half a dozen hot air balloons swell, their colorful envelopes blooming as the sound of propane burners roars across the field.
Runners, walkers, and people taking their dogs for a morning constitutional stopover to watch the show, thinking exactly what they are seeing.
“That can’t be true, can it?” Robert Perez asks, stopping abruptly mid-stride in the damp grass, eyes narrowed as if to adjust his perspective. He smiles broadly. “Oh, I get it, they’re supposed to be like that,” he laughs.
Exactly, so don’t expect passengers to board these scale model quarterback radio-controlled hot air balloons.
“Think of it as a miniature mass ascension,” says Matt McKay, balloon master of what is unofficially known as the RC Ballooning Group, which will debut at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta later this week with a mini ascent of mass of 35 or more. RC balloons, which the fiesta presents under the name of Fiesta de los Globitos.
Of course, the word miniature is misleading because, when fully inflated, these scale models can be 30 feet or taller, and they require at least a few people “to set up and get started properly,” McKay explains.
Despite the size, the detail of these miniature balloons is eye-catching, given that they are not assembled from kits. Rather, they’re all handcrafted – from stitched fabric envelopes and hand-woven wicker baskets, to propane burners and burner frames. McKay is one of the few people in the area who designed and handcrafted the radio controlled balloons.
While these RC balloons have grown in popularity in Albuquerque and across the country, they have been a fan favorite in Europe for 30 years, particularly in Germany, he says.
In the United States, cameras have been mounted on RC balloons for aerial photography. Banners were hung on them for advertising purposes. They have also been used as an educational tool to teach children the science of hot air ballooning, while attracting adults enough to the sport to get a pilot’s license, says McKay, who works as a firefighter in Los Lunas.
No such license is required to operate RC balloons, which never fly more than 500 feet and more generally around 200 feet. And, unlike RC balloons in Europe, which are often operated in free flight, RC balloons in the United States are almost always attached, McKay explains. This means that the person operating the radio controller is essentially taking care of one function – triggering the propane burner.
As a child, McKay spent a lot of time in balloons with his mother and stepfather, both pilots. “When I was 16 I started going through the licensing process, but I got distracted by some teenage stuff and just never took it.” Today, he gets his hot air balloon fix by teaming up for flying friends, and building and operating RC balloons.
For RC pilot Michael Steward, who helps design and produce the balloon wraps, pre-launch details are as important in the RC ball as they are when preparing a full-size balloon.
“We all do the same preflight checks that we do with regular hot air balloons. We pressurize the system, check for leaks, check our burners and make sure everything is working before plugging in our jacket and inflating, ”says Steward, who works as a mechanical engineer at Sandia National Laboratories. “Basically, it’s a scaled-down version of the real thing.”
Most RC balloon envelopes measure around 3,500 cubic feet, while a full-size balloon typically measures around 90,000 cubic feet, says Steward. Although RC balloons take less time to set up and launch than a full-size balloon, and are cheaper to own, they still come at a serious price, ranging from $ 2,000 to $ 6,000, says he.
Another RC balloon enthusiast is Caryn Welz, who is also learning to fly life-size balloons under the watchful eye of her pilot husband. The couple’s balloon is called Guilty, and she calls her RC ball A Little Guilty. This is a replica of the full-size version – each of which is a bright yellow racing-style balloon with a large mustache adorning the envelope.
“I actually started doing RC balloons during the coronavirus break,” says Welz, a volunteer doula at the University of New Mexico hospital. “I love that it’s a mini version of a big balloon, and the kids go up and are fascinated because it’s kinda their size, so it gives me the opportunity to teach them how to ride a hot air balloon. “
The nacelle of his RC balloon actually has passengers – a duck, rooster, and stuffed sheep, animals that were technically the first aeronauts when the Montgolfier brothers launched them for a 15-minute hot-air balloon ride to Versailles, in France, in 1783.
Historical accounts indicate that the balloon landed smoothly, although an airborne altercation with the sheep left the duck with a broken leg.
A good reminder that, despite all its beauty, the hot air balloon involves risks.