Zebras and chase crews: The unsung heroes of Balloon Fiesta

Balloon Fiesta

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – While most eyes are pointed to the sky, crews on the ground are busy making sure balloons get up in the air safely and back down to earth as softly as possible. Hearting the roar of the flames as the balloons inflate, catching your breath as they finally take flight — these vivid moments are more than welcome as the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta makes its grand return.

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“The launch directors are really excited to get back out there,” said Michelle Healy, chief launch director for Balloon Fiesta. “We miss our pilots, we miss seeing them.”

There are special teams on the ground to make sure these flights go off without a hitch. After getting the balloons ready to go up, chase crews are following every twist and turn of their balloon’s flight until the pilot and passengers land safely.

“Balloon Fiesta does a really good job on the fields, controlling how air traffic flows in and out,” said Healy. “They’re ready when the balloon takes off, they go out a specific gate.”

What about mass ascension where hundreds are taking off at the same time? That’s where zebras come in — but not the kind of zebra you’re probably thinking of.

“Zebras, we help a safe coordinated launch on the field. There’s about 55 of us and they’re lined up on the fields and wear black and white,” said Healy. “We help the pilots see overhead traffic, traffic in front of them, behind them, off to the sides, so they can get off the field in a safe manner.”

Directing from the ground, the zebras — more formally called launch directors — help the pilots see traffic from all sides. “We are air traffic controllers of Balloon Fiesta and we really are because of the winds,” said Healy. “Our job is to watch and as the winds change, then we have to be focused. It’s a fun job, but we take it really serious too.”

With the pandemic still an issue, Balloon Fiesta officials say safety measures like masks will be in place in crowded areas on the field, even for crews. There will also be distancing between launch sites.

“We’re doing everything we can to make it the best Fiesta that we can with everything going on that had happened,” said Healy. “The balloons are out spaced well, there’s a lot of ground to cover on the field because it’s large.”

This marks Healy’s 27th year as a zebra. However, she says the experience never gets old.

“The little kids, those are my favorite,” said Healy. “To see the little kids get up to a balloon and they want to touch it. so it’s always a lot of fun.”

There are more than 540 pilots registered for this year’s Balloon Fiesta. They’re coming from all over the country — and from faraway places like France, Switzerland and Brazil.

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