Competitive hot air ballooning is very real, and very intense

Hot air ballooning is popular for its scenic views and typically calm rides. Often a bucket list item, people travel hundreds of miles - or even internationally - to attend hot air balloon festivals where they can take a ride or just watch.

But it’s about more than the ride for some pilots. Last week, at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, hundreds of balloon enthusiasts competed in a series of challenges to claim cash, prizes, and of course, bragging rights.

“It’s kind of a personal challenge. Just the fact of flying is good enough for me,” said Gary Michalek, a pilot from California who competed throughout the week.

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Competitive hot air ballooning is quite difficult: Pilots are tasked with piloting their balloons and drop markers on targets below. Although it’s not physically strenuous, the pilots need to choose just the right place to take off and use winds to navigate their balloons. They're also constantly making adjustments to their altitude in order to steer.

Friday morning was the last day of the Albuquerque competition, and Michalek was sure to take his balloon up for one final flight. He took off a mile southwest of the targets, and, unfortunately, the winds pushed him further south. But looking at flags and trees, and even spitting into the wind, Michalek was able to find the right winds to help navigate him through the Albuquerque skies. Nowadays, there's even an app that shows wind directions at different elevations.

Michalek rose up and down, at points up to 4,000 feet above the ground, and then down to just a couple hundred. It took him an hour and a half to get anywhere near the field.

“Ballooning is patience. Don’t make any quick decisions. Look around you, see if you see some better place to land, or if a balloon is going in a direction you want to get into,” said Michalek.

There are also rules to competitive ballooning. In the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, which  dates back to 1972, pilots take off at least one mile from the targets and drop their markers in the allotted time. Pilots also are instructed to fly above 200 feet over Fiesta Park, but as they get closer to the field they can drop to 75 feet, and even ground level when they get closer to the targets.

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Michalek has a whole team to help him get prepared for his flights. At the Albuquerque event he also had help from three locals who helped him set up the balloon and basket on Friday. Then they followed him in a truck and helped him take the balloon down during landing.

Although the team doesn’t fly in the basket, they’re an integral part of a pilot’s success.

“[It's rewarding] knowing that, at least in some small part, that, maybe who knows, we all get lucky and get a nice shot at the target and be able to do something with it,” Albert Phillips, one of Michalek’s chasers.

Thoroughout the seven-day fiesta, a team on the field coordinates all the balloons as they take off and keeps the field clear while they’re flying, so they have safe access to the targets and unobstructed landings.

The team of launch directors are called "the zebras," and they most certainly dress the part wearing black and white stripes like referees.

“With the launch directors, it’s always … a safe coordinated launch,” said Bill Brennan, chief launch director for the Fiesta.

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Michalek didn’t score any points during last week’s competition; he ran out of time before he could navigate over the target and make a drop. 

But Michalek said he was just glad to be up there.

“I just love to fly. I mean, look, it’s a beautiful morning, you’re floating over houses," he said. "It’s just a completely different experience."

Ray Bogan is a Fox News multimedia reporter based in El Paso, Texas. Follow him on twitter: @RayBogan