Dozens of students and their family members were lined up outside Ernest Stapleton Elementary at 6:40 a.m. Friday as the sun rose over the school.

As they filed out past the playground onto an open field, Rio Rancho pilots Michael Carpenter and Mark Komadina were preparing their balloons, Sweet Caroline II and Never Forget, respectively, for the annual Albuquerque Aloft event hosted at elementary schools in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho.

“It’s basically an outreach from the [Albuquerque International Balloon] Fiesta and the pilots to reach the younger generation,” Carpenter said. “It’s something exciting for them, if they can’t make it to the fiesta, to have a balloon at their school.”

The event places pilots at the schools every year the day before the Balloon Fiesta officially kicks off. Principal Cheryl Clark has been at ESES since 2013, and she said the balloons have been coming long before that.

Komadina, a police officer who had his law enforcement memorial balloon custom made in 2017, has been appearing at the event for several years now as his children, now older, once attended Ernest Stapleton. “I just enjoy coming out here,” he said. “Some of these kids don’t get the opportunity to go to Fiesta, sot it’s a good chance for them to see balloons up close.”

“The kids are really excited about it, and it’s fun for us to do it,” Carpenter said.

“That first time they fire, they (scream),” Clark said of her students. And it wasn’t just the two balloons taking off from the field the kids had a chance to see. As Never Forget and Sweet Caroline II prepared for flight, several balloons could be seen floating over the school and on the horizon. “We have a great view from our field of all the balloons taking off,” she added.

For students Kobie Milburn, second grade, and Macie Mae Milburn, kindergarten, the event was nothing new to them. When asked what made her want to come out, Kobie’s answer was simple: Her mom does it. Alana Milburn said she’s a student-pilot that’s been involved in ballooning for about four years.

“We’ve done this before, so it’s not our first time,” Kobie said. Her favorite part? The heat the flames provide.

However, Maggie Mae had a different answer. “I liked when it was taking off and chasing them,” she said. The girls have also had a chance to ride in a balloon, which they also enjoyed.

As the children and their families waited for the balloons to take off, they had a chance to eat donuts and drink hot chocolate sold by the PTA.  Despite increasing inventory from years past, they still sold out, Clark said.

She also said the event has turned into a great way to get students’ families involved. “A lot of our older kids that went here are out on the field with their families,” she said. “We always have a good turnout. It’s a fun event that gets a lot of the parents out.”

“It’s turned into a family event, which is great,” Komadina said. “Hopefully, some day, this will inspire them to be a balloon pilot.”