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Mon, Oct 03, 2005

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Lifts Off

34th Annual Event Features Opening Of Anderson/Abruzzo Ballooning Museum

Clear skies, light winds and the unveiling of a new 60,000 square-foot museum greeted attendees of the opening ceremonies of the 34th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta this weekend.

The Anderson/Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum opened its doors following Saturday's mass ascension with a ribbon cutting ceremony featuring cake, mariachis... and certainly a more-than-ample supply of green chile breakfast burritos.

"I think my father would have thought [the museum] was way more than he ever dreamed it would be," said Richard Abruzzo to the Albuquerque Journal. "Its size, scale, color and dramatics are very reflective of what ballooning is all about, and you don't have to be a balloonist to appreciate it."

Abruzzo, a world-renowned champion balloonist in his own right, is the son of late ballooning legend Ben Abruzzo, for whom the museum is partially named. The senior Abruzzo, along with the late Maxie Anderson, completed the first nonstop Atlantic gas balloon crossing in 1978, along with partner Larry Newman.

The $12 million museum includes artifacts and exhibits tracing the history of hot air and gas ballooning since 1783, as well as a research library. "Balloon history goes back to 1783," Abruzzo said. "So there's more than 200 years of stories of invention, intrigue and tragedy to learn about here."

In all, 700 balloons are expected to participate in this year's Fiesta, down from an all-time high of close to 1000 a few years ago but still more than enough to fill the skies over Albuquerque with enough color and splendor to grab your attention away from the mountain and high-desert vistas surrounding the city.

(And traffic -- morning auto accidents typically increase dramatically during the 10-day fiesta, as people pay less attention to the road to watch the pretty, pretty balloons.)

In typical Fiesta fashion, heavy rains in Albuquerque last week gave way to clear skies and light winds by Saturday morning, ideal conditions to launch a hot-air balloon.

The weather also held through Saturday evening, allowing the twelve gas balloons participating in this year's America's Challenge and 49th Coupe Aeronatique Gordon Bennett gas balloon races to lift off on an all-out trek to see which team could make it the farthest distance from Albuquerque. 

This year's fiesta also marks the return of the Smokey Bear balloon. As was reported in ANN two months ago, the Smokey crew now has a new balloon following last year's accident, when a gust of wind blew the towering bear into a radio transmission tower west of the field. Longtime Smokey Bear Balloon pilot Bill Chapel and two young passengers managed to climb safely down the tower after the accident.

"I'm ready," said Chapel Friday night, talking about Smokey's scheduled return to the skies over Albuquerque the following morning. "I can't wait."

One of the passengers onboard Smokey's flight Saturday was 15-year-old Troy Wells, who was also onboard the Smokey balloon during last year's accident flight. "If you've ever been in a hot-air balloon before, you know how cool it is," said Wells.



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