ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – April 8, 1972, kicked off what would eventually become the largest ballooning event in the world. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is now home to the launch of over 500 hot air balloons each year. The nine-day October event draws pilots and guests to Duke City from all over the world, and one aeronaut who has been making the journey to attend the fiesta nearly since its inception is Mike Bauwens.
The Making of a Pilot
Bauwens has been flying balloons since 1974. His interest in hot air balloons came about while working one of his first jobs as an OSHA safety engineer. On the job, Bauwens was assigned to inspect a Raven Industries Aerostar balloon. “I was enamored with the entire concept of ballooning,” said Bauwens.
It did not take long for Bauwens to jump into the ballooning lifestyle; just a month after his inspection of the Raven Industries balloon, Bauwens and his roommate bought their first hot air balloon. Now, in his nearly 50 years of flying, Bauwens has owned over 45 balloons.
That first balloon interaction made a lasting impression on Bauwens. He went on to work as a Distributor for Aerostar and is currently a USA sales manager for Kubicek Balloons. Between all that work, Bauwens has still made time each year to travel to the fiesta from Colorado and Utah.
So what keeps him coming back? Bauwens said seeing old friends, flying among the other balloons in mass ascensions, a.k.a. “eye candy,” and chowing down in “the green chile mecca of the universe.”
Behind the Balloons
Among the multitude of balloons Bauwens has owned, a few have a special place in the pilot’s heart. The first hot air balloon Bauwens brought to the Duke City’s fiesta was “The Alaska Balloon.” Built by Raven Industries, Bauwens said the aircraft is “one of the most beautiful balloons [he] ever owned.”
One of Bauwens’ favorite balloons to fly is “Betty’s Baby Grand.” The balloon got its name when Bauwens’ wife, Betty, bought the aircraft instead of a grand piano. “Betty’s Baby Grand” is a 77-racer balloon, which is designed to go up and down at quick speeds. The pilot describes Betty’s hot air balloon as “a dream to fly.”
Years spent in Belize inspired Mike and Betty Bauwens to design a balloon in honor of the country’s natural beauty. “Laughing Bird” is designed around the Bauwenses’ memories of the palm trees, beaches, and their time spent in Belize.
Bauwens said his current favorite balloon, which his wife calls “White Lightening,” is an updated design of Kubicek’s older balloon model, the Grand Prix Racer. “It has the unique ability to ‘float’ between intermittent burns, even with a heavy load,” said Bauwens. The design of the aircraft allows it to accelerate quickly and directly downward, which Bauwens says “is a huge asset when trying to land or approach a target.”
A few of Bauwens’ favorite fiesta memories are being called to the tower by name at the pilot briefing, unforgettable pinning ceremonies, hotel check-in reunions with friends, and, in true New Mexico fashion, watching a giant tumbleweed blow into the original breakfast burrito tent. However, the highlight of the pilot’s time flying in Albuquerque was when he won the event in 2000; Bauwens describes that success as “a culmination of [his] aspirations as a balloon pilot.”
Bauwens will be attending the 51st Annual Balloon Fiesta, which begins on Saturday, October 7. Make sure to keep an eye out for this accomplished pilot and his eye-catching balloons up in the Land of Enchantment’s blue sky.