Those who don’t want to wait for October to see a plethora of balloons flying at once are in luck as the Friends and Lovers Balloon Rally returns to Rio Rancho Feb. 10-11 at Campus Park in City Center.

With the cooperation of the weather, several dozen hot air balloons are expected to participate in the event, which is hosted by the Albuquerque Aerostat Ascension Association (Quad A) as a celebration of pilot crews. Registration is currently at about 60, but the event typically sees about 80-100 pilots, making it one of the larger ballooning events the metro area sees.

“The tradition of celebrating the hot air balloon crew is a cherished part of the Friends and Lovers Balloon Rally, recognizing their integral role in ensuring a successful flight,” a press release on the event states.

“The pilot really can’t fly without the crew; it’s a celebration of them,” said Kristelle Siarza, special events committee chair for Quad A. That celebration includes an award for a special flying event and balloon crew of the year.

The typical size for a balloon crew, she said, is one to three people for a remote-controlled balloon and five to seven people for hot air. Both types of balloons will be featured at the Rio Rancho event.

The pilots she said, are constantly thanking the crew for getting up early, chasing the balloon, being patient, properly handling all the balloon components and more. This event is part of that thank you and will include a party at noon Sunday to celebrate them. “Our pilots always take care of us,” Siarza said.

The rally is also known for naming a Balloonmeistern, a term of German origin that refers to the person responsible for coordinating and overseeing all ballooning activities at an event. “Traditionally, a woman fills this position at the Friends and Lovers Balloon Rally, illustrating our event’s commitment to female leadership and inclusion in aviation,” Quad A states in its release. This year, Debi Ostgulen will serve in that role.

Friends and Lovers began in the 1970s and originally flew out of Rio Rancho. It started as a strategy to garner interest in 1975 World Hot Air Balloon Championships and the fourth Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which was rescheduled from February to October that year.

Eventually, it moved to Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque to take advantage of “the box” and the 73 acres of flying space. This year, the rally returns to its Rio Rancho origins in response to FAA guideline changes.

“Quad A has decided to relocate the flying event to Rio Rancho as a proactive response to align the event with FAA guidelines, and the decision underscores our commitment to creating a safe and enjoyable experience for all participants,” the release states.

“I am very excited to have the Friends and Lovers event back in Rio Rancho,” Mayor Gregg Hull said. “Rio Rancho welcomes the ballooning community along with those visiting our community. I look forward to seeing all the amazing and colorful balloons filling Rio Rancho’s sky.”

Siarza said the conditions in Rio Rancho make for good flying as well. “The winds in New Mexico are some of the most challenging winds to fly in, which is part of the reason, in general, it is the hot air balloon capital of the world. It’s a challenge, in a good way, to fly (here).”

Additionally, she said Rio Rancho’s layout makes it a convenient place for pilots to take off and land. “While Rio Rancho is expanding, it’s expanding responsibly, so it’s not difficult for a pilot and crew to land and fly. Where it gets tricky is in congested areas,” she said. “The nice thing about Rio Rancho is there’s flexibility.”

And while flying during the winter months may sound counter-intuitive to some, Siarza called it “the optimal time to fly,” saying flying in the colder air takes less propane and less effort on the equipment to get it up. However, there is a caveat: “It has to be picture-perfect weather,” she said.

That’s where the event’s flying director comes in. They meet with the pilots early in the morning for briefings on weather and regulations to ensure operations are safe. “It’s a very orchestrated event that the public doesn’t see that goes on behind the scenes,” Siarza said.

And, it also serve’s as a celebration of the upcoming holiday, with people often dressed in Valentine’s Day gear.

For the public

Flying is scheduled to begin at sunrise (about 7 a.m.) the days of the rally, weather permitting, from all areas of City Center. Residents can view the launch, inflations and competition events and participate in activities in Capus Park and around the amphitheater.

Those attending should bring a chair and/or blankets and dress for the weather.

“We are asking the public to access the area via King Boulevard or Civic Center Circle from Broadmoor,” Siarza said. Parking will be available at City Hall with overflow at the HP parking lot.

The event is free for the public to view, and food trucks will be on site for those wishing to purchase refreshments.