The crew works to inflate the Smokey Bear balloon, which lifted off with two other hot-air balloons, at Joe Harris Elementary Friday morning. (Herron photo)
I’m up at “zero-dark-30,” on a Friday that won’t end until after a football game at Cleveland High, for a cool adventure: a ride on a hot-air balloon.And, mind you, not just any hot-air balloon; this one is the iconic Smokey Bear balloon, long a favorite of balloonatics everywhere, and that’s where it flies.
This week, of course, it gets nine days at the 50th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Smokey is a huge, special-shape balloon, with a hat that measures 72 feet across and a head under it that require 145,000 cubic feet of hot air to get off the ground.
Smokey Bear and two other balloons are inflated at Joe Harris Elementary, from where they’ll lift off to the delight and applause of parents and students below. I have been asked to do a story on a ride, and veteran pilot Elizabeth Wright-Smith, who’s been piloting balloons for 44 years, following her balloonist father, consented to take me along.
Because of Smokey’s enormous size, it takes about an hour to get the balloon splayed out on a large tarp, get a head start with cold air blown from a large fan, and then the blasts of hot air by Wright-Smith to get him vertical.
Wright-Smith oversees her chase crew’s work to get Smokey airborne, and, as they say, “It takes a village”: men, women, a few kids.
Wright-Smith, born in Minneapolis and raised in South Dakota and Iowa, “before I started moving west.
“My dream job was to be a line-boy at the airport; that was my dream in high school, because I knew kids who were doing it.
“My dad flew airplanes, besides balloons,” she added, and his initial interest was piqued when he was asked to help inflate a balloon, which he’d never seen before.
“He went over there to see if he could help,” she recalled, and barely two years later he was off flying or crewing seemingly every weekend. She was about 10 at the time, and the dream began, although she went to college and later was a teacher.
For the next half-hour, we drift slowly in a southwest direction, a 2-3 knots-per-hour breeze providing power.
Along the way, Wright-Smith talks more about her life, how balloons are considered in four categories (sport, rider, competition and corporate); Smokey is “non-profit,” she adds, with its theme: “Going to greater heights to prevent wildfires.”
In fact, at most of its appearances around the country, area forest service and other firefighters are “enlisted” to serve on the chase crews. At Joe Harris Elementary, there were two tables, one of which was to educate children more about the dangers of wildfires and forest fires, and the other with pamphlets and other information. (To learn more, check out smokeybearballoon.org.)
Wright-Smith, who trains future balloon pilots and sells Cameron balloons at her Airborne Heat training facility in Albuquerque, piloted another popular special shape: the Wells Fargo stagecoach, for 14 years.
“That thing was more of a beast than this thing is to fly,” she said, but in 2021, Smokey’s flight took her too close to the Albuquerque Sunport and Kirtland Air Force Base, “and I find out it doesn’t stop.”
But, she added, “I always have a plan and two or three back-ups. If I get to Plan G, I’m in trouble.”
That doesn’t happen Friday morning, as she spots a wide, welcoming, sandy arroyo to drop Smokey into.
Two or three bounces later, it – “Most balloons are a she, but this balloon is a he,” Wright-Smith said earlier – comes to a stop.
She gets on the radio to chat with the chase crew, and it isn’t long before several vehicles, including the beautiful 1949-built American La France Foamite fire truck, are in the arroyo, with help dashing over to Smokey to enable the pilot and her passenger to disembark.
The air is then released, the envelope rolled up and the basket taken apart before it’s all packed away in a trailer, awaiting a similar mission the next nine days, but at the balloon fiesta grounds in Albuquerque.