When Santa Fe native Nancy Abruzzo met her future husband Richard, a renowned balloonist from Albuquerque, she was a total novice in that world. But she was also game and she was adventurous. Richard’s passion for balloons, both gas and hot air, was contagious, and Nancy found herself not only becoming an aficionado but, eventually, a pilot, herself. The son of world-famous balloonist Ben Abruzzo who founded the Albuquerque Balloon Museum, Richard had won countless awards, capped in 2004 by the Gordon Bennett Cup, a prestigious international contest he won with co-pilot Carol Rymer Davis for long distance gas ballooning.
In 2010, Richard and Carol set out once more to compete for the Gordon Bennett Cup, this time from Bristol and across the Adriatic Sea to Croatia. As countless New Mexicans remember, shortly after the race began, news reports began coming in that Richard’s balloon was missing. Rescue crews searched the waters while Albuquerque’s entire ballooning community, along with well-wishers local and world-wide, held their breath, hoping for the best.
No sign of balloon or bodies was found for nearly two months, an agonizing time for Nancy and the couple’s two children. Once the tragic outcome was confirmed, Nancy had no other choice but to walk her children into the unavoidable pain, and through it, till they could reach the other side.
Her chosen method of healing such enormous grief, for herself as well as her kids, was to be proactive. So they planted the Lost Balloonist Tribute Tree together outside the museum; others are invited to plant trees there, too. And Nancy established the Richard Abruzzo Foundation, which raises money to support and create resources for the Balloon Museum and the Fiesta Park, with special interactive science and math exhibits and programs. “I evolved into this path,” she says. “I found a platform. It’s my joy to give back in any way that can help and to make it be a tribute in Richard’s honor.”
In recent years, she’s also taken on being head of the Welcome Committee that Balloon Fiesta created for first-time international pilots. “They can be overwhelmed,” Nancy says. “There are lots of moving parts in the Fiesta mechanism, and if you’re new, and your English isn’t fluent, it can be stressful. Fiesta makes this be as seamless a process as possible. Don Edwards, the event director, is a liaison with all the volunteers.” Body language, she says, and laughing, are the universal ways of communicating when a common language is lacking. Candid moments ensue and friendships are forged, often lasting a lifetime, between pilots and their volunteers.
Volunteer Cynthia Handfield says of her family’s experience, “We had so much fun that we look forward to doing it again this year. Our two pilots and their girlfriends were from Lithuania. We took them from the airport to get food and supplies, over to the house where they were staying, and then to pilot registration, where they saw many old friends from around the world.” The Handfields were also their chase crew, which meant meeting their pilots at the hotel every morning before dawn. “We got to go to the pilot tent for breakfast, attend the morning pilots’ briefing, then went to the launch site and got the balloon ready. We were clumsy the first couple of days,” she admits, “because we had never crewed before, but by the end of the week, we at least looked like we knew what we were doing! Being part of a chase crew was exhausting but exhilarating.
“Our pilots made new friends wherever they went—and were not afraid to invite themselves to any party along the way! We discovered that the ballooning world is just one big happy family. Mid-week we invited them home for dinner and they brought a very special bottle of vodka. One of the girlfriends told us that this was the best meal she had eaten in the U.S.” On the last day, Cynthia got a balloon ride, which thrilled her. Then they took their new friends back to the airport—“they were going on to their next adventures somewhere else in the world. We’ve kept in contact with them and look forward to seeing them again at this year’s Fiesta.”
“Balloon Fiesta,” says Nancy, “is the most intimate and hands-on spectator festival I’m aware of.” Pilots often initiate contact, asking spectators to hold the basket for launching or helping inflate the balloon. This is great for kids, with their tendency to be especially hands-on-friendly.
One of the most popular events among the many kid Fiesta attendees is the Special Shapes Glodeo, held Thursday and Friday nights. “The characters come alive in the sky in the glow of the early evening’s setting sun,” Nancy raves—clearly this is one of her favorite parts as well—“and international pilots tend to have excellent special shapes balloons. Especially the Brazilians! They reflect Brazil’s lively personality, tending to top each other’s fun year after year with pranks and practical jokes, not taking a day for granted.” And while the other countries bring some stiff competition—Belgium’s Darth Vader balloon, India’s Angry Birds, Canada’s “Airabelle” Creamland Cow and the upside-down-falls-on-his-crown American Humpty Dumpty—Brazil really does steal the show for humor and inventiveness, including an incredibly lifelike frog, Baby Dino, halfway out of his egg and a round aquarium full of fish and underwater plants circling its circumference.
Fiesta specifically honors its international pilots with a Flight of Nations dinner and then again with the Wednesday morning mass ascension, beginning with flights by representative pilots from each country, each flying their national flag. “Unity grows, and builds off itself each year as pilots return and everyone shares their stories,” Nancy says. “All of Albuquerque does a marvelous job of supporting this event. It’s a happy, festive time, which is universal for all the pilots, including those who are New Mexican, out-of-state and international. Restaurants and other local establishments offer discounts like the Show Your Pilot Badge.”
It’s a lot of work to make the 10 days appear as seamless as Nancy describes, but the Balloon Fiesta council has pulled it off for 44 years now. What does Nancy do during the 355 other days of the year? She gets to work on Richard Abruzzo Foundation projects, another of which is to visit schools to read “Pop Flop’s Great Balloon Ride,” the Fiesta kid’s-eye-view book she wrote. “That’s always a lot of fun. We demonstrate how gas ballooning works and the kids are fascinated with how do men and women stay aloft for three days. They ask the most creative questions!” She pauses. “The classroom,” she goes on, “is our future. For kids in Albuquerque, this is all second nature—they grew up with balloons in their backyards. Hopefully, we can keep that interest and intrigue alive.”
Filip Audenaert, a pilot from Belgium, says of Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta, “It’s beyond the imagination! It’s very fun, it’s huge, there are so many people on the field in the mornings. And the silence—!” There he stops, groping for words. With a similar level of the passion that Richard Abruzzo followed to the end of his life, these international guests value and appreciate this beautiful land and sky. And we get to share that with them, taking no day for granted.
Story by Gail Snyder