During the early morning of Oct. 6, the Joe Harris Elementary School community bundled up in jackets and blankets to enjoy their Albuquerque Aloft celebration.

“We are really excited to see the balloons; we got here at 5:30 to help make burritos, and Jackson, my son, is excited to see the Smokey Bear balloon,” Joe Harris teacher Kelli Summerbell said.

The Joe Harris parking lot filled up quickly, and families paced toward the school’s entrance with nothing but smiles.

Joe Harris students were allowed to dress in their favorite pajamas, and some staff members rocked theirs well.

Albuquerque Aloft is a tradition at all Rio Rancho Public Schools elementaries and has become an exciting way for all students to kick off the Balloon Fiesta season.

“This is a perfect place to be working; this a great,fun, family activity and hopefully we can promote some good practices about fire prevention,” U.S. Forest Service employee Teresa Rigby said.

Some of the festivities included breakfast burritos, cookies, drinks, prizes from the representatives of the Bureau of Land Management, Harley (the Joe Harris mascot), a Smokey Bear mascot and the Smokey Bear hot air balloon.

“Every year, I get to see Smokey the Bear fly off into the air, and it’s just really pretty,” Joe Harris student Eliana Miller said.

As the Smokey Bear hot air balloon began to rise, cheers and applause could be heard from the school grounds. As parents were snapping pictures, students were jumping with excitement, and others just stood there in awe.

Hot air balloon pilot Beth Wright-Smith has been piloting Smokey Bear since 2020, and she has been flying for more than 45 years.

“This is a great start to the Balloon Fiesta. The kids are accumulating this early in the morning, and they love Smokey Bear!” Wright-Smith said. “This is a lot of fun.”

The Smokey Bear hot air balloon was the only hot air balloon to take off. However, no one in attendance was disappointed; the energy was electrifying and positive.

“I love working at Joe Harris, it’s just a really positive place. I love all the people who work here,” Summerbell said. “Our admin is amazing, our students are amazing, and you can feel it when you walk into the building.”