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You don't need an airplane to fly the friendly skies: a balloon will do. The idea of gently floating with the winds, up, up and away, without the roar of engines, or a protective metal shell brings out the kid in us all. At the Kodak Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta the sky really is the limit!

For nine days every year in October, the blue skies of Albuquerque come alive with a riot of color and shapes. What started twenty eight-years ago, with a meager 13 balloons in a shopping mall parking lot, has now grown to become one of the most photographed festivals in the world. Each year brought more balloonists and more spectators, especially eager to see the mass ascensions of the balloons. In 1998, a total of 873 balloons participated, quite an increase from the first year and the popularity of this festival shows no signs of stopping.

A million people now attend this festival (over the nine day period) and news coverage comes from 50 countries. As the largest ballooning event in the world, pilots come to test their skill and expertise in competitive events.

Although October of 1960 is the official birthday of modern hot-air ballooning, the origins go back further. A sheep, a duck and a rooster were the first passengers to ride in a balloon in 1783, in France. That same year the first recorded manned flight also took place in that country. Balloonists recount the story of French farmers so frightened by the strange objects descending from above, they attacked them with the quickest available weapon...pitchforks. Fortunately, today's balloonists have no such problems.

Hot air balloons have been put to many uses, besides just the thrill of the ride. Sportsmen, explorers and scientists, as well as military units have all utilized balloons.

Besides the popular mass ascensions at the fiesta, the night time "Balloon Glow" transforms the dark skies into an eye-catching fantasy land. The whimsical balloons, called "special shapes," such as giant cows, huge Pepsi cans and dreamlike castles, never fail to please. Where else can you watch a enormous pink Energizer Bunny, sailing through the sky? Who would ever think to create a balloon shaped like a Canadian Mountie on horseback? Someone did!

If all this talk of balloon rides gets you in the spirit, aeronautical adventures are always available during the festival. The "official" ride operators are Rainbow Ryders and they will pick you up from your hotel. At the launch site you can sit back and watch the balloon inflate, or gets hands-on experience assisting. After your inflight adventure you get a champagne breakfast and flight certificate. For more details including rates, visit their website.

Visitors at the 1999 festival got some real experience at the first balloon "explorium." The interactive displays illustrated the principles of lighter than air flight, the history of the sport and safety aspects of ballooning. Another exhibit targeted at kids, featured an actual hot air balloon basket in which the kids can "burn" the burners and simulate a flight, just as if they were actually piloting a balloon. Other exhibits show videos of balloons and high wind landings. Ever popular electronic games will dealt with the history of ballooning. The explorium was open during all major Balloon Fiesta events.

We'll end with a balloonist's prayer:

May the winds welcome you with softness.

May the sun bless you with its warm hands.

May you fly so high and so well that God

joins you in laughter and sets you gently

back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.