ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – One of the more unique features vital to a successful Balloon Fiesta is the Launch Director. Known affectionately as the “zebras,” you’ll find them scattered throughout the park grounds aiding in the taking off and landing of balloons.

Chris Padilla is the assistant chief of launch at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and has been a launch director for 18 years, making him the longest-serving “zebra.” He got the idea to become a launch director when talking with a friend about their hobbies. “He mentioned being a launch director and I said, ‘ya know, I enjoy the Balloon Fiesta in the past and I figured that would be a fun job to have,'” Padilla says.

After one year of shadowing, Padilla was brought on as a regular “zebra” the next year. He says the training process has become much more involved since he started. “We find something that, every year, there’s something that we can improve upon,” says Padilla.

In place now is a three-year probationary period for potential launch directors. The first year is spent shadowing an experienced launch director and by their second year, they’ll begin launching balloons with assistance from a launch director. by the third year, they’ll get their own row to be in charge of.

Padilla is part of a 56-person crew and says the thing that keeps him coming back is the joy he feels seeing people experience the Balloon Fiesta. “I’ve communicated with people all across the country; I’m met people from other countries and just to see the awe that they have on their faces and hear them say, ‘ya know, this is the most beautiful thing, this was a bucket list,’ and to be a part of this, it’s a privilege for us as volunteers to be a part of the biggest event in the state of New Mexico.