Last weekend I made the drive down to Alamogordo, New Mexico to participate in the White Sands Balloon Invitational (WSBI). In so far as I know, this is the only balloon festival that I’ve encountered that takes place within National Park grounds. I’ve visited White Sands Nat’l Monument once earlier this year, and I was thoroughly impressed by it. So… balloons + white sand dunes should be a winning combination. Well, it sure would be but, I just didn’t get the chance to photograph what I wanted. More on that later.
For this balloon festival, I was crewing for Janet Soffera’s “Vacation” again, as she and Robert are such lovely folks to be with! Plus, her balloon is pretty dang cool. Some of her close friends and family also turned up to crew as well.
The WSBI takes place over three days, and I just didn’t want to spend the money on hotel lodging. There are some campground solutions but, the KOA within Alamogordo is $20/night which is a bit expensive for pitching a tent, and the nearest state park campground demands a lengthy drive back to Alamogordo.
So, being the genius that I am, I decided to skip media & sponsor day, and come in on the 15th. I left my place at 12:45 am, and got to my pilot’s hotel at 3:50 am. If I was spending the night in Alamogordo, it was only going to be one night. To my great fortune, I was able to stay with the lead organizer’s family thanks to their son being a close friend of Janet resulting in no lodging fees. Connections are handy outside of the workplace too! Also, making the early morning drive like that wasn’t a smart idea. Everybody could see the exhaustion on my face, and I was certainly feeling it too.
Just to make things clear, the WSBI only flies one day within the national monument. The other days are flown in Alamogordo. The 15th was the day when the festival was taking place in the national monument.
If you’ve already taken a look at the photos below, you’re probably wondering where the photos of the balloons over the white sands are. Was it canceled? Did I die? No, neither of those happened. Balloons did fly over the white sand dunes but, with some inconvenient limitations.
You see, White Sands National Monument is surrounded by MANY weapons testing sites. There is only one allowable path to fly should the balloons leave national park grounds: towards the southeast going to Hwy 70. The winds weren’t blowing southeast that day, and instead were blowing to the northwest. What this meant was that the balloons had about half a mile of accessible road to fly over, and no one had any intention of going towards the missile ranges.
But there was some good news though. Those unfavorable winds were 500 feet above ground level. Great, the pilots have 500 feet of play... That’s not much space considering how large hot air balloons are to start with. Plus, flying low meant that there was the risk of hitting spectators who stood on top of the sand dunes. You may think that people would be able to avoid a 4 mile-per-hour balloon but, you’d be surprised how stubborn some people are when they have planted a chair already. They would rather try to stop a heavy balloon system with their face than to stand up, and walk five paces.
All-in-all, the result for many of the pilots was a 7-15 minute flight time. Considering that the usual flight time of balloons during festivals are 30-50 minutes, this was asking for a lot more effort (because of the sand) to fly for a fraction of the usual time. Some pilots tried to overcome the limitations by towing their floating balloons with their vehicles but, the park rangers were very displeased by this.
Janet made the call to just not fly. “Vacation” is a 105 thousand cubic foot balloon, with a heavy basket, which is on the larger end of the spectrum for personal balloons. Having to wrestle with this equipment over soft sand for a short flight was just not justifiable. Janet, and the crew were to leave the national monument before the already horribly crowded roads get worse.
So this is when being crew and being a photographer can clash. Janet absolutely made the right call to pull out early, and leave the park before we could be trapped in vehicular purgatory. But, the photographer-me wanted to stay. But, I came in with them so, I had to leave with them. We did eat a nice breakfast though! I always appreciate food.
A conflict of interests
That is why I don’t have many pictures of the festival over the sand dunes. Am I a little disappointed? Yes. But it’s nobody’s fault, and I really did enjoy crewing for Janet for the rest of the event. It’s just one of those moments where I need to better evaluate when I should crew, or not crew.
Crewing is a great way to get hands-on experience with balloons, and really get intimate with the ballooning community. However, your commitments as crew must come before photography though. No pilot is going to ask you to crew for them again if you place your photography over their balloon, and their safety (they’re counting on you to do your role which ensures that everybody is safe). You are also bound to stay by the balloon. There may be brief moments when you can walk away, and snap a few photos but, if you’re wanting to capture the entire festival, you can’t be crewing. It’s really a tough call because crewing is such a great experience, and there are still plenty of photographic opportunities while crewing.
Perhaps next year I will have to pass on crewing for anybody, and just be a little bit more selfish to get my photos. This may also have to apply towards some of the upcoming festivals later this year as well.
The balloon glow
Didn’t happen. Too windy. There was a rainbow though, and a lot of food. I like food.
The last day
The final day of the WSBI ended with a good day of flying over Alamogordo. Sure, the town isn’t as picturesque as White Sands but, it was enough for me. I did miss a great moment though.
While the crew and I were chasing the balloon, we had to stop at a railroad crossing because a train was about to come through. I was somehow completely oblivious to this, and was fumbling with changes my lenses. Then, the train came through. Dave, Janet’s friend, got a spectacular shot on his phone, and I was just agonizing over how I missed such a opportunity. Next time, Elliot. Next time…
Janet landed in a Walmart parking lot, a unique way of going to the store I guess, and we also helped another balloon land safely in the same parking lot. Ending with some celebrations for the passengers that had their very first balloon ride, I went home.
I sure hope to visit the White Sands Balloon Invitational next year. I may have to go at it alone though rather than being able to enjoy the perks of being a crew member. One thing to note though is that this year’s balloon rally had some difficulties to overcome. I won’t delve into detail, as I don’t think it’s appropriate to share, but there were some potential show-stoppers by external human forces that could have canceled the festival altogether. Hopefully things will be smoothed out for next year.
Please do take a look at the photo gallery below. While I’m missing some critical moments, and locations, I hope that this is enough to convince you to visit the White Sands Balloon Invitational next year!