Up, up and away


It has become a Valencia County tradition — a flying tradition.

The St. Patrick’s Day Balloon Rallye has lifted off from a local spot since 1984, and next weekend residents will again be able to look up and see the wonderment in the sky.

News-Bulletin file photo: Residents will get to see plenty of colorful balloons as about 40 hot-air machines will fly near Eagle Park in Belen for the 29th annual St. Patrick’s Day Balloon Rallye, which is sponsored by the Valencia Flying and Retrieval Society, the city of Belen and the Greater Belen Chamber of Commerce.

The Valencia Flying and Retrieval Society will host its 29th consecutive event March 15-17 at Eagle Park in Belen.

About 40 balloons and special shapes that include Smokey Bear and The Old Woman in the Shoe will be in sight.

The main event is on Saturday, March 16, and residents are welcome to come out and volunteer to help get the balloons ready to fly.

There will be a drawing for a balloon ride for two people on March 16. Entries will be accepted on the field from 6 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. Winners must be 18 or older or be accompanied by a parent.

“We need volunteers for this thing,” said Grant Crawford, a member of the Valencia Flying and Retrieval Society who helped organize the event. “We need crew people.”

Those who volunteer have a chance to get a free ride, though rides aren’t guaranteed.

Crawford said the event has become a customary thing to do in Valencia County in March and some have made it a memorable part of their lives.

One couple from Texas decided to get married at a previous St. Patrick’s Day Balloon Rallye, he said.

For Crawford, his love for ballooning started more than 30 years ago and has been going strong ever since. He joked that balloonists buy their balloons after their first ride.

“It used to be when I started, your first ride was free and the second cost you $8,000 to $10,000,” Crawford said. “Now, your first one is free and your second cost you $30,000. It’s very expensive anymore to get into.”

Balloonists from Arizona, New Mexico and Texas are expected to fly high next weekend.

Don Boyer, this year’s balloon-meister, said the event will again give residents and opportunity to be “up close and personal” with the pilots and their hot-air machines.

“To see that many in one place is very rare in Valencia County,” Boyer said.

He said the pilots aim to “put on a show” for residents who haven’t necessarily seen a balloon up close.

Boyer designed the T-shirt that features this year’s fliers.

On Saturday, there will be a balloon tethered to the ground and will go up and down for those who want to ride. The ride is free, with a cash donation to a local charity.

Brenda Gurule, director of Belen’s recreation department, said the event will bring an economic boost to the city.

News-Bulletin file photo: A balloon takes off over the trees near Eagle Park. There will be a Fun Run and Walk at this year’s event. The walk starts at 9 a.m., Saturday, March 16, at the Belen Community Center.

“(Some of) the pilots are going to stay at area hotels and eat at our restaurants,” Gurule said.

Vendors will also be selling breakfast burritos and doughnuts and coffee for the event.

Gurule said the annual St. Patrick’s Day Balloon Rallye gives the city “a lot of exposure” and said the city could eventually be known statewide for holding the rally.

She wants the city to be known for the event like Bernalillo is known for its wine festival.

“It would be nice to be known for this,” Gurule said.

Outside of $1,000 for propane, the city is contributing, she said the pilots are absorbing the entire cost of the event.

“We appreciate it,” Gurule said. “It’s a big expense to them.”

Good weather on March 16 is expected and the city will also host a St. Patrick’s Day 5k Fun Run and Walk at Eagle Park the same day. The event starts at 9 a.m., and the first 50 participants get a free T-shirt. For more information, call 966-2700.

Gurule said the ballooning event should draw a substantial crowd while promoting health and wellness.

“People like balloons,” Gurule said.

In the past, Crawford has said he would like to see the rally grow to about 100 balloons with 15 to 20 special shapes.

He said this year, Boyer and Cheryl Rider were among those who helped make the event happen.

He said Boyer was a big help getting the balloonists to commit to the rally.

“Don has been a big part of this,” Crawford said. “Without Don’s help, we couldn’t do any of this.”

Crawford said he helps put on the event for the community to help “spread the joy” and to give people a chance to see the sight of dozens of balloons in the air.

He said the Valencia Flying and Retrieval Society needs sponsorships, and this year the group received more support.

Sponsorships range from $250 to $1,000 and give people a guaranteed spot for a balloon ride on the day of the main event.

Local businesses, such as the Super 8, have donated some free rooms for out-of-state pilots.

He said the group has stayed in Belen over the past few years since the city of Belen has offered benefits such as the free use of Eagle Park.

Crawford said the Valencia County Chamber of Commerce tried to lure the group to Los Lunas this year. The group previously flew at Los Lunas Heritage Park and the Los Lunas Sports Plex before a falling out brought the flying society to Belen.

He said the group plans to stay where it’s at, provided that there is community support.

“We aren’t going away.” Crawford said. “We’ll do it in Valencia County somewhere.”

Members of the group are excited to put on this year’s event.

Boyer, a Belen resident, has flown since 1990 and said the flying tradition will bring other people from other places to Valencia County.

“The best thing about it is that it brings people from Albuquerque down,” Boyer said.

He said “it’s a blast” being up in the open air without the noise and vibration people feel from another aircraft. He said people should come to Eagle Park to experience “a unique thing to do” on the weekend.

Boyer said the event will bring attention to residents across the state.

He wants residents to get a simple message that participating in the 29th annual St. Patrick’s Day Balloon Rallye could be eye-opening,

“Come on out,” he said.

-- Email the author at bruffner@news-bulletin.com.