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FAA workaround allows hot air balloons back into the heart of Albuquerque

 A view from inside the Rainbow Ryders’ ‘New Mexico Zia’ balloon after the flight across western Albuquerque
Emma Gibson, KUNM, Mountain West News Bureau
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A view from inside the Rainbow Ryders’ ‘New Mexico Zia’ balloon after the flight across western Albuquerque

Just before 6 a.m. on a day in early March, tourists started to fill the Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Ride Co.'s garage in Albuquerque as the crew prepared for some sunrise flights.

A couple dozen people, including Canadians and Midwesterners, were bundled up as temperatures hovered around 40 degrees with a slight breeze. For some, it was their first hot air balloon ride. Lizzie Meier was with her family and said she was a bit nervous

“Just a little bit — not so much about being up in the air, but taking off,” Meier said, her family quick to reassure her it'd be peaceful.

Peaceful, sure, but this flight wouldn’t quite offer the experience that’s made Albuquerque the “hot air balloon capital of the word,” thanks to an unexpected Federal Aviation Administration restriction that took balloonists aback.

 Tourists line up in the parking lot of the Cottonwood Mall to load the basket of the Rainbow Ryders’ ‘New Mexico Zia’ balloon just as the sun topped the Sandia Mountains.
Emma Gibson, KUNM/Mountain West News Bureau
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Tourists line up in the parking lot of the Cottonwood Mall to load the basket of the Rainbow Ryders’ ‘New Mexico Zia’ balloon just as the sun topped the Sandia Mountains.

Last fall, enforcement of a new FAA rule requiring advanced surveillance technology effectively barred balloonists from flying over much of the city, depriving balloonists of a birds-eye view of the Sandia Mountains. Nor could pilots “splash and dash” — dipping the balloon's basket into the Rio Grande.

Instead, Meier’s flight had to stay out of much of Albuquerque and float over a bunch of cookie-cutter subdivisions on the outskirts of the city.

But a workaround announced last week has the city's hot air balloonists flying high again.

Rainbow Ryders' founder Scott Appelman was one of several pilots concerned that the FAA rule overlooked ballooning and could negatively impact the region's economy and culture. Before the update came down, he said the rule “could literally be terminal to hot air ballooning over the City of Albuquerque.” He estimated his company could lose up to $1 million in 2022.

Local and state officials were worried the rule would impact the local economy — just one event in 2019 brought $186.82 million to the Albuquerque-metro area, according to a Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta economic impact report.

The 2020 FAA rule limits where aircraft can fly without a certain piece of GPS equipment. Pushback by Appleman and others led to the agency creating a one-year waiver for balloonists who sign a letter agreeing to “proper” procedures in Albuquerque.

“I’m flying in the sky without my balloon right now because we got it done, and it was very humbling to see so many folks support us in our cause,” Appleman said.

The rule requires aircraft flying in Class C airspace — like that around a mid-sized airport like Albuquerque’s — to install a piece of equipment called an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast. It receives the craft’s GPS location and that data is sent to other aircraft and air traffic control.

Hot air balloonists generally don’t have that expensive equipment, forcing them to avoid the airspace that Appelmen estimates covers 90% of the city.

Peter Cuneo is vice president of the local ballooning club Albuquerque Aerostat Ascension Association. He says the FAA rule requires the equipment to be permanently mounted and have an electrical system, and neither makes sense for a wicker basket attached to a fabric balloon.

“The regulations were not written with balloons in mind,” Cuneo said.

New Mexico’s governor, the mayor of Albuquerque and other officials have advocated for the balloonists and are pleased with the one-year stay set to expire in March 2023.

“I appreciate the FAA’s work to identify a solution, recognizing that Albuquerque’s ballooning community has operated with a dedication to safety for over fifty years,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wrote in a press release.

FAA Regional Administrator Rob Lowe says the agency’s working on a longer-term solution, which will be determined by a safety risk panel the governor says will include community stakeholders.

In the meantime, Rainbow Ryders agreed to the FAA’s waiver and its balloons are once again flying over downtown Albuquerque.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.