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A sight like no other

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What it takes to put on an amazing balloon rally

The Gallup skies will soon be full of bright colors as the Red Rock Balloon Rally welcomes about 140 pilots to town on the weekend of Dec. 2.

In an interview with the Sun, Bill Lee, the president of the Red Rock Balloon Association, said the event usually brings in about $2.5 million to the City of Gallup’s economy as people from around the world visit hotels and eat at restaurants. He said last year saw a record attendance number after they took a year off for COVID; roughly 30,000 people attended the mass ascensions.

To prepare for such a big event, the committee in charge of coordinating it began meeting in June to prepare for the December balloon rally. As the event gets closer, they start meeting every week.

Each person in the group has a list of responsibilities. Someone has to coordinate with the hotels that the balloonists stay in; someone else sends out the invitations to the balloonists; and then there are the people who look at the logistics of Red Rock Park and prepare the launch squares that the balloons will take off from.

Lee said the Red Rock Balloon Association sent out 160 invites to balloonists this year, and he expects about 140 pilots to show up.

The Red Rock Balloon Rally was once the second largest balloon festival in the world, with only the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta beating it. Lee said the rally is still within the top five international events when it comes to the number of balloons flown.

The balloon rally is possible thanks to many sponsors. McKinley County is the main sponsor though, and Lee said the county really stepped up a couple years ago after the Gallup Refinery, formally a major sponsor, shut down in October 2020.

Gallup Propane also sponsors the event. They used to provide all of the propane, but now they sell it to the Association at a discounted rate. Any excess propane is donated to the Manuelito Children’s Home to help keep the kids warm during the winter.

Lee said one of his favorite parts of the entire weekend is the Thursday evening when the pilots arrive, calling it “a homecoming” for the pilots.

“It’s all of our friends who are really like family,” Lee said. “We have a Ballooning Family. Many of these folks have been coming for years and years and years, and even the folks who haven’t been here before, who are brand new, to see the smile on their face and to welcome them into our part of the world or our balloon family here because they’re so excited to see the Red Rocks, they’ve heard so much about it.”

Besides reuniting with old and new friends, Lee also said he loves the first mass ascension that takes place Friday morning.

“To see all of the balloons fill those canyons with just so many vibrant colors from all the balloons is just spectacular. To be in the sky and see that, that’s a real blessing; that’s not a view most people get,” Lee said. “It’s really spectacular. It’s really wonderful from the ground too, but I just can’t explain how grand that vision is, how much joy that brings me.”

The Red Rock Balloon Rally will take place Dec. 2 – 4. For a list of events, visit redrockballonrally.com or turn to page 10.

By Molly Ann Howell
Sun Correspondent