ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – On April 8, 1972, thousands of spectators looked toward the clear blue sky as 13 hot air balloons launched from the Coronado Center in Albuquerque. Few knew that what began as a small assembly of pilots would one day grow to become the largest ballooning event in the world.

Now, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the gathering site of hundreds of thousands of guests and more than 600 balloons each year. But what happened on that April day to make such a lasting impact?

The inaugural event was set in motion to celebrate the 50th anniversary of News Radio 770 KOB. During the “KOB Radio and Television International Balloon Festival & Rally,” the 13 original pilots inflated at the Coronado Center and took to the sky with gentle winds.

Dick Brown, a hot air balloon pilot, former Navy submariner, author, historian, editor, Balloon Fiesta Hall of Fame inductee, and Balloon Fiesta Heritage Committee member, is a man with numerous accomplishments under his belt. Brown was at the Coronado Center on the day of the first Albuquerque fiesta and played a pivotal role in documenting the event.

On that clear April day in 1972, Brown took his position on the east side of Coronado Center as a spectator and “unofficial photographer” for the launch. Although Brown was not officially hired to photograph that first fiesta, the moments he captured on camera have since made appearances in many publications over the years.

With between 10,000 and 20,000 buzzing spectators watching the takeoff of 13 hot air balloons, Brown stood among the crowd and documented what is now a momentous day for Albuquerque and the greater ballooning community as a whole.

  • Crowds gather for the first Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in 1972 | Photo by Dick Brown

Brown says it was evident on the first launch day that the ballooning event was an “instant success,” and he could not have been more correct. The first Albuquerque ballooning event was so successful that the following year, representatives from 13 countries came to the Duke City for the “First World Hot Air Balloon Championship.”

The Albuquerque ballooning events continued to grow and grow in size, reaching a peak of over 1,000 registered balloons in the year 2000. After a handful of moves, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta got its permanent home at Balloon Fiesta Park.

As the ballooning event increased in both size and popularity, a few other factors changed as well. In 1975, the event was moved from February to October, where it has stayed, housing the annual nine-day event. The expansion of the fiesta also led to the addition of more unique events. In 1981, the first Gas Balloon Race was held, followed by the first Balloon Glow in 1987 and the first Special Shapes Rodeo in 1989.

The 1972 inaugural event did not just change Albuquerque but also substantially influenced the life of Brown. The former Navy submariner just could not seem to keep his feet on the ground. Going from the deep sea to a gondola in the sky, Brown’s love of ballooning was sparked on that April day.

Brown joined Sid Cutter’s local balloon club, the Albuquerque Aeronaut Ascension Association, also known as “Quad A.” After getting trained and buying his first balloon, Brown traveled to France, Belgium, Germany, and New Zealand – all for ballooning events – and spent “every weekend and vacation” of the 1970s up in the sky.

The pilot went on to become the editor of the Quad A newsletter, then the editor of the Balloon Federation of America’s Ballooning Journal, and eventually co-authored five ballooning books. After volunteering at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta for decades, Brown was awarded the world’s highest ballooning honor, the Diplome Montgolfier.

Brown’s publications, including “The World Comes to Albuquerque,” “Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta,” and “50 Years of Magic,” have made a lasting impact on balloonists worldwide. Brown now holds a place as a member of the Balloon Fiesta Heritage Committee and has been inducted into the Balloon Fiesta Hall of Fame.

Brown is one great example of how the Albuquerque ballooning community has had a massive impact on the lives of many. Pilots still come from all over the world to attend Albuquerque’s nine-day fiesta, and the event won’t be leaving the Duke City anytime soon. So look outside on a crisp October day, and you, as well, may be impacted by the art in the sky.

Background information courtesy of Dick Brown and the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta