ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Without them, there is no Balloon Fiesta. Spiderpig, Darth Vader and Betty Jean the Butterfly might be the stars of this show but the guys and gals on the ground are the directors and the supporting cast. And even in the age of color, some things are better left in black and white.
“The black and white stripes stick out,” explained Bill Brennan, Chief Launch Official this year. “If we wore colorful clothing, we would just disappear in the balloons.”
They call themselves “Zebras,” and they can be spotted on the field by their stripes, and zebra memorabilia. They play traffic cop, letting each balloon pilot know when it’s safe to take off.
It’s a tall order when there are hundreds of balloons launching among tens of thousands of people.
“We’re conducting the flight tempo from the ground,” Brennan explained. Brennan is overseeing a group of 55 volunteer Zebras this year.
“We’re working together via radio, via eye contact, whistle communication,” explained Brennan. Their timing needs to be spot on.
The same thing goes for chase crews, who are in charge of getting balloons up and down safely.
“After takeoff, you’ll want to get on the west side of the giant arroyo,” “Terrible” Tom Schroeder called out over the radio to his crew during a flight.
Balloon pilots rely on their ground crews to follow the balloon’s every move. “Sometimes the communication is spot on, I can tell them exactly where I’m going, but in most cases, it’s just a general idea of, I think I’m going to be over there when I finish up,” said Schroeder.
Chasing the balloons can prove tricky, since the pilot can only control whether the balloon goes up or down; the wind may do the rest.
Most crews and zebras have been doing the same job for years. So what keeps them coming back fiesta after fiesta? For Brennan, his answer is simple: “These huge giants taking shape, and then you hear the burners, then standing up, the feel of it, you feel fiesta at that point.”
Several volunteers have been a part of Balloon Fiesta for decades.