This event occurs annually, every autumn, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is the largest gathering of hot air balloonists in the United States and, possibly, the world. It's held on an extremely large field next to the General Mills plant on the outskirts of town, usually for about a week. During this time there is a mass flight every morning, beginning with the Dawn Patrol , a few contests, and a special shapes flight.

Nearly everyone has seen pictures of a balloon meet but, like many things, it's completely different when you see it in real life. To be surrounded by a dazzling array of over a thousand large, colorful objects floating in mid-air is utterly enchanting, and something you won't get anywhere else. (Not legally, anyway.)

Many vendors also appear there, forming a linear collection of stalls such as you would find at a county fair. Sitting in the sun most of the morning, (or working if you're a member of a balloon crew) can make a glass of freshly-squeezed lemonade taste like nectar of the gods.

People come from all over the world to participate in and watch this event. Many of them are especially enraptured by the special shapes. Balloons with unorthodox forms that diverge from the normal bulb shape. Many of these are just bloated, flying, advertisements (kinda like the ones at the Macy's Day parade without strings), such as the Winston cigarette pack or the Pepsi can. They can get pretty wild.

Add a trip there to your list of things to do before you die.

It’s fun to drive to work in Albuquerque the first week in October: it’s time for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Looking north from my house, there are hundreds of black dots, like a flock of birds. As I get closer on my commute downtown, the dots assume all colors imaginable, and some rather odd shapes. There are often a few stray balloons scattered around the city, but most of them manage to stay in a certain area around the Balloon Field, 800-900 of them on a mass ascension day. How do they do that?

Balloon pilots have no directional controls. They can turn on their propane burners to go up, and vent hot air to go down, but otherwise are entirely at the mercy of winds. Albuquerque, however, in the fall, has a meteorological pattern which gives pilots more control. It’s called the “Albuquerque Box”.

In stable conditions, with clear skies, low humidity and light winds, the air near the ground cools at night. Air cooled during the night is denser and runs downhill like water, and collects in the Rio Grande Valley near Albuquerque, where it forms an inversion layer: a river of cold air that gently flows downstream from higher to lower elevations. This southward flowing airmass is only a few hundred feet high. Above the inversion layer, warmer air flows according to the prevailing winds in the region: from the south or southwest.

The cold, relatively stable inversion layer is perfect for launching hot air balloons by the hundreds. They then drift south in the river of air, until the pilot takes the balloon up to catch the prevailing winds, and head back over the Balloon Fiesta Field and to the north, where the pilot can then drop back down into inversion layer and return to the Field.

By midmorning, the air near the ground heats up and the inversion layer disappears. Thus, all the ballooning activity in the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival takes place in the early morning.

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