I asked Holly Lowe, the Administrative & Operations Manager of Albuquerque’s 5 Compass Balloon Museum, what she most wanted people to know about it. She told me that it covers the history of lighter than air flight and has no actual connection to the annual balloon fiesta even though it’s in the middle of the action. Officially the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, it’s in a huge building shaped like 2 side by side balloons and celebrated its 10th anniversary in October, 2015. It’s one of those places that begins entertaining visitors as soon as they step inside and never stops.
Lighter than air flight began in France in 1783 with the ascent of a trial balloon. Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes were aboard. Benjamin Franklin was in the audience. It flew 6 miles. Jacques Charles built the 1st gas balloon and floated 22 miles above the earth in 1783 to become the world’s 1st solo pilot. The next year women flew for the 1st time. Some females eventually became members of aerial acts that rose to 12,000 feet where they jumped out and drifted back to earth by parachute. Also in 1893, the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Etienne, built and launched 6 manned balloons. Kind of the Wright brothers of France, they benefited from the fact that their father made paper. They glued paper to linen and invented the hot air balloon. One of their 6 flights carried a sheep, a duck, and a rooster to see if animals could breathe at high altitudes. King Louis XVI witnessed this event, and Marie Antoinette put the surviving sheep in her menagerie. The first US balloon flight didn’t occur until 10 years later. Jean-Pierre Blanchard, another Frenchman, was in the gondola.
The complete story of balloon flights continues on 2 levels. I thoroughly enjoyed reliving Steve Fossett’s 6 attempts to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon since one of his launches occurred in St. Louis, where I lived. Fossett finally made a successful voyage. He left Northham, Western Australia, in the Spirit of Freedom on June 19, 2002, and landed 15 days later in Queensland.
Albuquerque has been host to the world’s best balloon fiesta for 45 years. It occurs each October; 2016’s will be from the 1st through the 9th. I asked Holly why this event is in Albuquerque and she told me about the box. A combination of desert altitude, cool evenings, and high mountains creates wind currents that let pilots fly in a box-like pattern. They often land just where they started. In 1996 a record 1,000 balloons were safely launched, but there are only 550 allowed now to ensure no collisions.
I asked Holly what is upcoming and she smiled. This is the kind of place where the answer to that question is always, “Plenty!” A new exhibit about an unsuccessful attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon in the late 1800s arrives in 2016. It’s fate is known because, even though the expedition members didn’t survive, their notebook did. Later in 2016 a STEM-focused interactive weather lab arrives. And finally, the Balloon Museum is building a theater to show a movie which will probably be about the Fiesta and uplifting advances in ballooning. You won’t find much, if anything, about the Hindenburg disaster here.