Balloon Adventure

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.

Dawn Patrol

Dawn Patrol balloons fire their propane burners against the dark sky.


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.



Mass Ascension

Pilots test the propane burner before inflating.

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.

A gas-powered fan fills the envelope with cold air.

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.

345 balloons launch in one hour!

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.

The pilot sets down to refuel.

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

Only three instruments: altitude, vertical speed, and envelope temperature.

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.

Splash 'N' Dash

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.



"Mom, look at the balloon!"

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.

Except for the livestock, this pasture would be a good place to land.

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.

Any landing you can walk away from ...

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.

The chase vehicle tries to get as close to the balloon as possible.

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 chase crew has to carry the balloon, in pieces, through this willow thicket.

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.

Near-empty propane tanks are carried out separately to reduce the weight of the gondola.

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.

The envelope is gathered off the willows. There are no tears in the fabric.

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.



The gondola is disassembled.

Meanwhile the FAA shows up to investigate the “incident”.  There is no damage to the balloon, there are no injuries to any persons, and the landing is in an undeveloped area.  The pilot has “facilitated a safe landing”, so the FAA concludes there is no incident to report.

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.

Balloon Glow

Fergie fires the burner to make his balloon glow at night.

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.



Tech Notes

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.

Still Photos

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.

Videos

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Piedras Marcadas Canyon

As well as being part of the Petroglyph National Monument, Piedras Marcadas Canyon is part of Albuquerque Open Space. The city provides a parking area with a short walk through a neighborhood to get to the canyon. (Click any photo to enlarge.)

Petroglyph National Monument has several distinct areas.  The volcanoes had been visited last summer.  Today we visited Piedras Marcadas Canyon.  This is a short hike in the area where the west mesa joins the sandhills on the west side of the Rio Grande river valley.

Albuquerque can be seen on the east side of the Rio Grande.

It was a wonderful afternoon for a hike; some thin clouds diffused the sunlight so it was not too hot.  Rain the night before had cooled off the areas to a pleasant temperature.  The sandy path is along the base of the mesa, with opportunity to clamber on the basalt rocks if desired.

The basalt boulders on the slope, covered with a desert patina, are ideal for inscribing various images.

As its name implies, Piedras Marcadas (“marked rocks”) is known for the petroglyphs inscribed on the blocks of basalt.  In ancient times, a lava flow covered the area west of the river in a layer of basalt.  The flow stopped before reaching the river, and over time the softer soil was eroded from underneath the lava, leaving a ledge of rock.  The ledge eventually broke, creating a jumble of boulders along the edge of the west mesa.
Weathering created a patina on the rocks.  People would remove this patina to create contrasting areas that form the petroglyphs.

Aspiring artists across the ages have left their marks on the rocks.

I was not able to identify all the wildlife that was seen in the canyon.  There was a pair or mourning doves, a small sparrow, several lizards, a chipmunk, something that may have been a large chipmunk, gopher, or ground squirrel (it was far away and shone white in the afternoon sun), and a jackalope!  OK, so maybe it was only a jackrabbit, but it could have been a jackalope!

Later visitors don't always respect previous artists' work. Not the bullet holes some marksman has placed in the images of the hands.

I tracked the jackalolpe … er … jackrabbit across the canyon floor, attempting to sneak close enough to get a good picture, but the creature was too wily and cunning to allow himself to be captured that way.  These animals can blend in to the desert landscape so well that they become practically invisible unless they move.  When motion is first detected, out of the corner of one’s eye, this rodent can easily be taken for a coyote, based on size alone.  They can be huge!

Not all petroglyphs are from ancient times. People have continued scribing images int modern days. This one looks like Spongebob Squarepants to me!

I just bought a point-and-shoot camera and this was the first outing for the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10.  Why do I need this camera?  When hiking in the desert and mountains, one should always be prepared with water, jacket/blanket, first aid kit, etc.  A day pack works nicely for carrying this kit.  But I carry my Pentax DSLR in a Targus backpack, and this leaves no room for another pack.  A small P&S camera can be carried on my belt so that a day pack can also be carried.

Does this look like a musical note to you?

Of course, I always carry my iPhone with me, and it take good enough pictures for my purposes.  However, the iPhone (and most P&S cameras) does not do well for taking photos at a distance.  Birds and wildlife come out as little black dots because they are usually too far away.  The DMC-ZS10 has a 16X zoom, and this is the feature that sold me on it.  The features of this camera are:

The ZX-10 was not impressive in finding wildlife on the max zoom setting. Autofocus is slow, and without a viewfinder, I found it difficult to locate the aim point. Do you see a jackarabbit in this photo? Me neither.

  • 14.5 Megapixel resolution
  • 16X zoom, both wide angle and telephoto
  • Still and full HD video modes
  • GPS for geotagging photos
  • anti-shake

Of course, the rabbit did not make things easier by always moving to keep brush between himself and me.

Here he is in a rare moment out of cover.

Gotcha!

Bye-Bye!

Here’s what I learned about this camera today.  Note this is the first time I have used it, so there may be some learning curve still to come.

  • I was expecting the camera to have a “sleep” mode where the display would go off and the lens would retract after some time of unuse.  It does not have this, so I ended up turning the power off after each shot, mostly so the lens would retract and the camera would be easier to carry in my hand.
  • The zoom does indeed bring in distant objects and the anti-shake helps steady the photo.
  • There is no viewfinder; one uses the rear LCD screen to compose a shot.  I prefer using a viewfinder, but I did not expect lack of one to be as big an issue as it became.  Especially when zoomed in, I found it difficult to locate the subject on the screen.
  • The GPS has settings for ON, OFF, and Airplane.  The airplane mode turns the GPS on and off with the camera.  When ON, the GPS continues to run (and drain the battery) when the camera is turned off.  I elected to use the Airplane mode mostly so I would not forget to turn off the GPS at the end of the day.  However, this is not a good choice, as the GPS takes a while to locate itself when it first starts up.  As a result, my first few pictures on this adventure did not have a location.  Problem solved when I set the GPS to ON and let it run continuously.  Of course, I did forget to turn off the GPS when I got home, and by morning the battery was 1/3 depleted.

 

Adventure Maps

Short Hike in Piedras Marcadas Canyon at EveryTrail
EveryTrail – Find the best Hiking near Albuquerque, New Mexico