ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – It may seem like it’s always been synonymous with Albuquerque, but Balloon Fiesta is closer to middle-aged than ancient as it enters its 43rd year.
While it now features hundreds of balloons and draws hundreds of thousands of people, the event had a much smaller, but not necessarily more humble, start.
It all began in 1972 KKOB-AM came to aviation aficionado Sid Cutter to see if it could use his hot air balloon to celebrate its 50th birthday.
Cutter did them one better, floating the idea of trying to break the world record at the time of 19 hot air balloons at an event. 21 pilots agreed to show up, but bad weather limited the event to only 13. They took off from the parking lot of what is now the Coronado Mall.
Cutter’s dream of a world record was fulfilled a year later when he recruited the First Hot Air Balloon World Championships to Albuquerque. This time more than 130 balloons took off from the State Fairgrounds.
Not that the event went off without a hitch.
“What we didn’t count on was how close it was to the military base,” said Tom Rutherford, Balloon Fiesta’s co-founder. “So that very first day, despite all our promises to the contrary, all of the balloons went on to Kirtland Air Base.”
That event was the first for Balloon Fiesta veteran Tom McConnell. He says Cutter was one of the driving forces that allowed Balloon Fiesta to grow from there.
“He was so enthusiastic… he was so up and he had ideas and some of them were crazy,” McConnell said. “But many of them were not crazy because they actually happened.”
An early challenge came in 1975. Cutter had lost money on the previous year’s event and asked for help from local politicians like then-mayor Harry Kinney. A committee was formed.
“What they discovered is February is probably not the best month in Albuquerque to fly balloons,” McConnell said.
Two Balloon Fiesta events were held that year, one in February and the other in October with plans to hold the event in October every year after that.
The committee’s findings were proven out when balloonists at February’s event flew smack into a snowstorm.
“If we had not gotten the support of the mayor and some politicians and some business leaders I suspect it may have died right there,” McConnell said.
Getting over that hurdle allowed the event to grow along with Albuquerque, adding traditions along the way. Special shapes joined the party in the late 1970’s. The Balloon Glow was an instant hit in 1987.
In 1996, the event got its permanent home, Balloon Fiesta Park. Four years later, more than 1,000 balloons took off at that year’s Balloon Fiesta.
Sept. 11, 2001 presented an obstacle that nearly canceled that year’s Balloon Fiesta.
“They grounded all aviation in the United States and, well, balloons are aviation,” “It looked for maybe a week or two weeks that we wouldn’t have a Balloon Fiesta that year.”
Since then, cramped landing space in Albuquerque has forced organizers to cap the number of balloons allowed to fly. That hasn’t deterred crowds, which show no sign of slowing down.
“There’s a kid in all of us,” said McConnell. “I mean us adults wouldn’t still do this if there wasn’t a kid in there somewhere.”
Cutter died from cancer in 2011. His wife Jewel told News 13 a year later that she hoped her husband’s legacy would live on in the event he helped dream up.
“Right from the very beginning it was a first class event,” said Jewel Cutter. “I want my husband to be remembered for that.”