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June 27, 2007

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                 Hot Air Ballooning

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A short six miles from the Hilton is the Albuquerque International Balloon Museum and Balloon Fiesta Park. This is where the world-famous Albuquerque Annual Balloon Festival takes place in early October when 750 hot air balloons ascend at the same time. I attended it back in 1997, when it was in a different location but my sister Georgette visited last year to cover the festival for (You can read her story here.) The hot air balloon museum doesn't sound that exciting and actually, I almost passed up my visit there but I'm glad I didn't. I found it fascinating, especially after going up in a hot air balloon (which I will tell you about shortly). The official name of the museum is the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum. Ben Abruzzo and Maxine Anderson, along with their partner Larry Newman, made history by being the first people to complete the first, non-stop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by a gas balloon in 1978. In six days, they traveled from Presque Isle, Maine to Miserey, France. For their achievement they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. I was fortunate enough to meet Ben Abruzzo's son, Richard Abruzzo, who is also a noted balloonist and in 1992 set the duration record flying 144 hours, 16 minutes from Bangor, Maine to Morocco.

Anderson and Abruzzo were both Albuquerque residents and put the city on the map for their achievement. The museum opened in October 2005 and cost $12 million to build. It's still not completely finished but it's dedicated to the art, culture, science, history, sport and spectacle of ballooning. Some of its highlights include more than 50 historic and contemporary gondolas, many accompanied by complete balloon systems. Some of the gondolas on display, related to record-setting flights are: Stratolab and Sky Car (stratospheric flight gondolas), Jules Verne (three around the world attempts in the1980s) and Steve Fossett's hyperbaric chamber. You'll also see French wicker baskets from the 1880s and a World War I observation balloon. Additional archival material includes manuscript letters by historic aeronauts (including Joseph Montgolfier, Pilâtre de Rozier, Madame Blanchard, and Graf von Zeppelin). The Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, 6121 Indian School Road NE, Albuquerque NM; tel.: 505-880-0500.

The first balloon flight with humans took off in 1783 from Paris. The balloon was basically cloth bags (sometimes lined with paper) with a smoky fire built on a grill attached to the bottom. At the helm was a physician named Pilâtre de Rozier, which is where the word "pilot" comes from.

The weather conditions are what make Albuquerque such an amazing place to fly a hot air balloon. The winds usually blow in three different directions depending on your height, making it possible to take off and land at the same exact spot.

The first morning, we all got up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 5:45am and met in the lobby, only to find out that our balloon launch had been cancelled due to high winds. The fear that had begun to take over my body began to ebb. I figured – well, at least I attempted it. We postponed our high-flying excursion for the following day. The weather forecast wasn't great for the next day either, and I almost didn't get up the next morning because I assumed the same thing would happen. Weathermen and airline CEOs seem to have the only jobs where you can always be wrong and not get fired! The next morning, the driver picked us all up from the hotel at 6:15am sharp. There was another couple in the van and they helped ease my tension. The middle-aged woman and her retired uncle (who was also afraid of heights) drove all the way out from Chicago just to live out one of their lifelong dreams; setting sail in a hot air balloon. It was their last day in New Mexico and for their sake I prayed that the weather would hold up. It did.

It was a 15-minute drive to the balloon launching site and the driver poked fun at me the whole ride there. All the girls in my party were ready to go and there I was, talking about backing out. What a wuss, I know! It was cold and luckily I dressed in layers as instructed. When we arrived, there were five other balloons being inflated, preparing for launch. Passengers are encouraged to help out with the inflating process. I snapped lots of pictures, admiring the beautiful sight as the sun began to rise. Near the launch site was a chain restaurant where waiting participants would go to get warm, use the toilet and grab some coffee. In there, I met an older gentleman from California who was by himself and assigned to our 12-person basket. We were both in the restaurant contemplating if we should attempt the ride or not and although we were complete strangers, we bonded over our shared fear. In the end, we found ourselves encouraging one another to take the chance. The company we used was Balloon Ryders. They are the official company used for the Balloon Fiesta, giving rides to tourists, and can launch as many as 400 people in any given day! Two days before, I grilled the Balloon Ryders reservations agent with all kinds of questions from, "how long?" to "how high?" The day of launch, I repeated the same questions to the driver and pilot to see if their answers matched up. They did. I also learned that these guys need a license from the FAA in order to operate a balloon and that the process is heavily monitored. What put me over the final hump was that they all said if you have a fear of heights but are thinking about doing this, that's half the battle and the rest would be a breeze. They also said that as long as you can go up an escalator (check), elevator (check), and a single house roof top (check!) you'll be just fine.

Our pilot looked young, almost too young, but he assured me that he had thousands of flying hours under his belt. "Trust me. Everything will be fine," he said. His whole demeanor and the way he looked me in the eye, instilled a sense of trust in me. Our group was in the company's largest basket. It holds up to 12 people – with two other couples joining us, we were maxed out. Can you believe that these baskets can hold up to 5,000 lbs? It took about 30 minutes to inflate the monster balloon and I was informed that the best place for me to stand (the basket is about 48 inches high) was in the middle. However, I was the first to climb in (you'd think I was eager or something!) so I couldn't back out. As the others poured in, it was a tight squeeze and I experienced a range of emotions. On one hand, excitement coursed through me but on the other, I was scared as hell.

The chase crew took some pictures of us and the next thing I knew we were airborne! It was magical. It was so quiet and smooth, except for the burners, which use about 50lbs of propane per one-hour flight, and were loud as hell (not to mention, if you're tall, they can be rather hot on your head!) But the burners did keep us warm on that chilly morning. The ride lasted about an hour and for the first 30 minutes, we floated gently between 10 and 300 feet above ground. This was my favorite part, even though it got scary when the pilot just brushed the tops of the trees (on purpose) to either show his expert maneuverability or to try and embarrass me in front of the girls so that I would have to go home and change my underwear. Either way, it was memorable. The balloon behind ours even purposely dipped into the Rio Grande River. At one point we were floating so low that I could've jumped out but guess what? I didn't want to. As we drifted just above and in between the trees, we spotted all kinds of wildlife including coyotes, jack rabbits and birds.

It wasn't all that windy except for a few seconds while we traveled through the middle wind. And then, in no time at all, we were up high. I'm talking too high. Can you believe we went up to 1,750 feet (17 HUNDRED and 50 FEET!) over the Rio Grande Valley? This was definitely the scariest moment for me. My hands began to sweat profusely and actually, are starting to sweat again now as I write this story, recalling my fear. We were only up at that altitude for about 15 minutes and our pilot refused my bribe when I offered him my baseball card collection if he took us down to a lower altitude ASAP. As we descended, it was cool to spot the chase crew following us below. They communicated using walkie-talkies and when we landed, the chase crew was there to help us. It was a smooth landing. We all braced, as we had been warned that sometimes the basket tips over when it touches down, though we were assured that it wouldn't hurt. Everyone helped to pack up and within 20 minutes, we were all back in the van, making our way back to the launch site (about five miles away). There, the balloon company offered riders a light, continental breakfast and a champagne toast, a tradition inspired by an Irish monk's prayer. The passengers on all five balloons were presented with a flight certificate and balloon flight pin to commemorate their aeronautical experience. It may sound hokey but nonetheless, it is something that I will be forever proud of. After all, I can finally say, "I did it!"

Rainbow Ryders Inc,: $160 per person (5 to 12 years old: $110.00). The price includes hotel pick-up within the Albuquerque city limits and Rio Rancho. Tel.: (505) 823-1111, 1-800-725-2477(AIRR).

Here's a short Johnny Jet video of my trip to Albuquerque. It's also on YouTube, so it only takes a few seconds to load (though the quality is not as crisp). We also have all the Johnny Jet videos ever made on their servers.

Next week, we travel back to LA before jetting off again, this time to an island in the northeastern Caribbean for some fun in the sun!

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Happy Travels,
Johnny Jet

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Note: This trip was sponsored by Ocean Properties.

Copyright 2007 JohnnyJet, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Pictures From

The Trip


Balloon Fiesta


Balloon Museum


Inside Museum


Richard Abruzzo


Pick Up






Our Basket






Almost Ready


Last Minute Group Pic




The Burners


So Peaceful


Look Out For the Trees!


I'm Flying!


1,750 Feet High


Over The Streets



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