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Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta to Begin Under Sunny Skies

Hundreds of colorful balloons will dot the blue skies above Albuquerque, New Mexico, this weekend as the 43rd annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta gets underway.

The fiesta, which runs from Oct. 4-12 and expected to attract crowds of nearly 80,000 people, will begin with pleasant and mostly favorable weather conditions for flying.

Clear skies with plenty of sunshine are in store for the beginning of the event on Saturday and Sunday, with high temperatures settling near 80 F both days. Senior Meteorologist Dave Samuhel said daytime temperatures will be higher than normal, while low temperatures will remain below average throughout the weekend.

During this time of year, Albuquerque is known for its tremendous amount of cloud-free conditions and abundant sunshine, according to the organization's website.

According to the National Weather Service, a feature known as the "Albuquerque Box" produces an atmospheric wind pattern that results in balloons remaining over the park during the morning hours.

Additionally, the NWS stated that that this weather pattern occurs under stable conditions during the fall when no strong weather systems are affecting the area.

Don Edwards, the fiesta's event director, said they have a waiver issued from the Federal Aviation Administration, which states that if winds exceed 10 knots (11.5 mph), then balloons are not allowed to take flight and the launch field will be closed.

Samuhel said winds will be stronger on Saturday than Sunday due to a weak weather disturbance that could make conditions turn breezy.

Winds out of the northwest could reach up to 10 mph at times on Saturday, he added.

In past years, Edwards said there have been situations where surface winds were under the waiver requirement at around 8 to 10 mph, but higher elevations had winds around 20 to 30 mph.

"In that case, we have actually inflated the balloons and had them stay as a static display on the field," Edwards said.

More than 500 balloons will make up Balloon Fiesta Park's 78-acre launch site, which is the equivalent of 54 football fields.

On Saturday morning, the fiesta begins with a mass ascension when all of the balloons take flight from Balloon Fiesta Park.

Fiesta organizers are well prepared for any type of severe weather, said Edwards who also used to pilot balloons in this event.

Edwards said that each year they apply to have their own radio frequency, which is used to communicate weather conditions to the pilots that are up in the air. They also have a resident meteorologist who works closely with fiesta officials to monitor the forecast.

There are 14 sessions that will see balloons inflated, with nine scheduled for the morning and five scheduled for the afternoon, Edwards said.

Hot air balloons can become more responsive in cooler air, which is more common in the morning. However, the downside is that propone tanks are less responsive in cooler conditions, resulting in a smaller flame. The propone tanks are used to fuel burners which heat the air inside the balloon and allow pilots to control their ascent or descent, since warmer air is less dense and thus more buoyant.

"It's kind of a catch-22," Edwards said. "The balloon likes it when it's cooler, but the propane isn't [as] responsive."

The fiesta also incorporates a competition, held strictly among gas balloons, known as the America's Challenge. It is a distance competition where gas balloons, which rely on a lifting gas such as helium or hydrogen, will fly for up to three days and land anywhere along the East Coast of the U.S. or Canada.

The pilots in this competition receive a very extensive forecast, according to Edwards.

"At different altitudes, the wind goes different directions and different speeds, and they use that to guide the balloon in a general direction of where they want to go," he said.

Edwards said if conditions are appropriate, he hopes the balloons in the America's Challenge event will launch around sunset on Saturday.

"We're all expecting a real good first weekend," Edwards said.