The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is one of the highlights of this area. Every year I try to go at least once. I find it an interesting experience, with each year being at least a little different. This year no one wanted to come with me; their loss, as it turned into an exciting adventure.
As usual, my plan is to leave early to beat the traffic. This time it works, and I am just walking in the gate to Balloon Fiesta Field as the Dawn Patrol takes off. Dawn Patrol is a group of balloons that take off in the dark, just before dawn, for a final check of the winds aloft. Wind conditions are briefed to the pilots before the mass ascension. The balloons look very cool as the envelopes light up against the dark sky when the pilots burn propane.
My friend Deborah is on the ground crew for a balloon. She had invited me to come to their site, so I make my way over to R6 where itsa Touchie Subject was preparing to take off. They are in the first wave of balloons. Soon the envelope is spread out, the gondola is attached to the envelope, the fan is started, and cold inflation begins. A gas-powered fan fills the envelope with air as it lies on the ground.
The next step is to light up the propane burner, and heat the air inside. The heated air rises and lifts the envelope to vertical. The ground crew are hanging onto the gondola to keep it on the ground. The “zebras” give the word, and hundreds of balloons take off.
On Saturday a new world record was set for the number of balloons to take off in one hour: 345. Today there are slightly fewer, but still an awesome number.
I am asked to participate in the chase crew. We pack ourselves like sardines into three vehicles and take off in pursuit of the balloon. The chase crew is in radio contact with “Fergie”, the pilot. He is soon down in a field for a change of propane tanks. Creating the amount of hot air it takes to keep a balloon aloft uses a lot of propane.
Ballooning Over the Rio Grande
I am invited to ride in the balloon on the next hop. How exciting! I clamber into the gondola, and soon we are rising above the treetops. I can see the Balloon Fiesta Field where the last wave is just launching.
The Rio Grande and Sandia Mountain combine to form a phenomenon unique to Albuquerque, known as the Albuquerque Box. When the Box is in effect, winds aloft are blowing in different directions. By changing altitude, balloons can fly back and forth. The Box is in effect today, and we change directions several times during the flight. The box effect dissipates as the sun warms the ground.
Below us, a balloon is doing a “splash and dash”, where the pilot descends low enough to dip the gondola in the river. Fergie does not want to get the balloon wet, but he does descend very near the water. In fact, we startle a turtle and watch him frantically swimming under water, trying to escape the monster from the sky.
We ascend, cross Paseo del Norte, and fly over the ranches on the east side of the river. People are waving at us and taking photos. I wave back and take photos.
“Facilitate a Safe Landing”
Fergie is looking for a place to set down. A large green pasture presents itself, but in and around it is livestock: horses, a llama or alpaca, ostriches. Animals are often spooked by the sound of the propane burner and the pilot is responsible for any damages, so he elects not to land in the pasture.
The wind takes us back over the bosque. We are flying at treetop level, ready to take advantage of any open space to land, but none presents itself. Fergie descends, hoping to catch a change of wind, but it is not enough and we must ascend to get over some trees.
We are getting low on fuel, and it is becoming important to find a place to land soon. If we run out of fuel, we could be forced into an uncontrolled landing, and that could be dangerous. A large sandy area next to the river is coming up; this would be a good place to land.
Unfortunately the wind does not cooperate, and we miss the landing zone. The wind is taking us toward the river. Rather than taking a chance of a better landing spot, and perhaps running out of fuel in the search, Fergie elects to set us down in the shrubbery on the river bank. Three bounces and we are down.
The plan is to keep the envelope inflated, with just enough buoyancy to keep the gondola off the ground. The passengers would get out and pull the balloon away from the river bank, over the thicket, and to the sandy area. But the wind picks up and blows the envelope sideways so that the angle is no longer safe to light the burner. So Fergie deflates the envelope. We will have to carry all the parts of the balloon out.
Fergie places a call to the Fiesta office and help is dispatched. We are in an inaccessible area, so gates to the Paseo de Bosque bike path have to be opened to allow the chase vehicles to come closer. We meet a policeman patrolling the bike path and he helps us make the arrangements.
Eventually the chase crew arrives and with lots of hands the envelope, gondola, and propane tanks are separately carried through the willow thicket, across the sandy area, and through the tree line to where the chase vehicle, a 4WD Bronco, is able to drive. All parts are loaded into the trailer and the truck with trailer climbs the slope up to the bike path.
Back on the field, we have a tailgate party and the two “newbies” on the flight go through an initiation ceremony. I am now no longer a “virgin” balloonist.
The evening program is a balloon glow followed by fireworks. A balloon glow is held after sunset. Pilots inflate their balloons and their ground crews hold the balloons down so they do not lift off. Following instructions delivered by radio, pilots light their burners in synchronized patterns. I watch our balloon inflate and glow for a while, then wander off a short way to take pictures of other balloons glowing.
For this adventure I elected not to bring my Pentax K20D DSLR. I have many pictures of balloons and did not feel a need for more high quality photos. I took the new Panasonic DMC-ZS10 instead. This smaller camera can hang on my belt and not interfere with activities, yet still be available when needed. I also elected to leave the Garmin at home, relying on the built-in GPS in the ZS10 to geotag the photos.
iPhone and Apps
Of course, I had my iPhone 4 with me. I used it to post the adventure in real time to both Facebook and Twitter. For these type of immediate updates I usually only use Twitter, as in my opinion it is more suited to these types of ephemeral posts. But more of my friends are on Facebook than Twitter, so I used both this time.
The app I use is TweetDeck. It’s pretty basic: take a photo, write a short post, and send. TweetDeck posts to both Facebook and Twitter. I like that because I don’t have to post items twice, once to each service. When I want to real-time post a photo, I take it with the iPhone camera so it is immediately available to TweetDeck.
Most of the other photos were taken with the ZS10. I am getting more used to this camera. It takes pretty good pictures, and I like the 16x zoom. I still do not like the lack of a viewfinder. The auto-focus is slow, as is the zoom; between those two features, by the time I find the subject in the LED display, the action is often finished.
I took all the photos in the intelligent Auto mode. I wasn’t really interested in making art, just documenting my adventure. iA mode works pretty well in most cases.
The ZS10 has a setting called hand held night shot. Since all my shots are hand held, I turned this setting on when I first set up the camera. Today I found out what it does. This setting is actually an HDR (high dynamic range) mode. When iA mode detects a need, the camera will take multiple images at different exposures and combine them into one photo. How cool is that! What’s more, the camera appears to apply anti-shake and auto-focus tracking at the same time.
I was taking pictures of the Dawn Patrol. The sky is dark, but there are lights illuminating the ground. The balloons would light off their propane burners, making their envelope glow. As I pressed the shutter button, the camera indicated it was going to take multiple exposures and to hold it still. I did, but the balloon was moving through the frame. I expected nothing but a blur, but the camera compensated and created a pretty good image.
When I import images from the K20D, I first copy them to the hard drive, then geotag them with data from the Garmin before importing to iPhoto. The ZS10 has already geotagged the images, so I imported directly to iPhoto. At the end of the import process there is an option to delete the images from the camera, and I accepted that option.
To my consternation, iPhoto imported only the first frame of videos. The entire video was nowhere to be found, not even on the SD card as I had deleted the images after importing. (However, the 16GB SD card still had 2 GB used.) This led to some furious googling and I learned two things.
- By default, ZS10 records video in AVCHD format which iPhoto does not recognize. There is a setting to record in MOV format which iPhoto does recognize, by setting the REC MODE to Motion JPEG. I immediately set the camera to this mode, but of course it does not help videos that are already recorded.
- iMovie recognizes and imports AVCHD format. I immediately fired up iMovie 11 and sure enough, it found and recognized the video clips on the SD card. They were hiding in a folder called Private.
iMovie is a little intimidating at first, but after some time I gained some proficiency in the tasks that I needed to do, which is simply trimming clips, splicing them together, and adding a sound track. It’s amazing what a soundtrack will do for a video clip! You can see the fruit of my labor in this blog.
I used YouTube to share the videos. I had to create an account and a ‘channel’. I exported the video from iMovie to a file, then imported the file to YouTube. iMovie has an export option to directly upload to YouTube. I tried it, and although all indications were that the upload was successful, the video never showed up in YouTube.