Darth Vader Rules Hot-Air Balloon Event This year, 850,000 visitors are casting their eyes heavenward at the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, N.M. The star of the show is Darth Vader, who comes with his own security detail.
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Darth Vader Rules Hot-Air Balloon Event

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Darth Vader Rules Hot-Air Balloon Event

Darth Vader Rules Hot-Air Balloon Event

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JAMES HATTORI, host:

One of New Mexico's most colorful events comes to a close today - Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta began last weekend. Hundreds of balloonist from around the world have been decorating the sky. And more than 800,000 spectators have been watching, in many cases, from 1,300 feet above the ground.

NPR's Josh Rogosin was among those in attendance.

(Soundbite of air fan)

JOSH ROGOSIN: It's just after dawn on a clear and grizzly day at the Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Pat Newer(ph) and his crew are using a cool air fan to fill up his envelop or deflated balloon.

Mr. PAT NEWER (Balloonist): Heat makes it go up. As it cools, it comes down. The scary thing is that you're going towards power lines.

(Soundbite of whistle)

ROGOSIN: Wind, speed, and direction seemed to be on every pilot's mind this morning. But balloons are being launched in all direction like a carefully choreographed dance.

Ms. SARAH FIRMS(ph) (Balloonist): We need either (unintelligible) on the optima group silver balloon please.

ROGOSIN: Sarah Firms has been launching balloons at Fiesta Park for 10 years and is one of the conspicuous zebras on the field. So-called for their black and white stripes (unintelligible) like uniforms.

What's the most unique design that you've seen today?

Ms. FIRMS: The really popular one today has been the Darth Vader balloon. He even came in with extra security the other day. If I know he comes with his own storm troopers.

ROGOSIN: But there's just have storm troopers?

Ms. FIRMS: Yes, they are.

Mr. BENOIT LAMBERT (Balloonist): My name is Lambert. I'm coming from Belgium. It is the Darth Vader balloon from "Star Wars." One day, I ask to Lucas if I can make a balloon and after reflection, Lucas sent me an e-mail yes, why not?

ROGOSIN: Is it more difficult to fly a balloon like Darth Vader because it's shape?

Mr. LAMBERT: Yes. It's more difficult but the force is with us.

(Soundbite of drum roll)

ROGOSIN: By 9 a.m. there are about 200 balloons aloft, but there are still a number of them inflated but not quite willing to take off.

Tony Polito from Atlanta Georgia has been piloting here for 20 years. His 80-foot-tall bright yellow balloon he calls Retro Bird is wavering in the wind when I catch up with him.

Unidentified Man: Uh-oh, the black (unintelligible).

Mr. TONY POLITO (Balloonist, Atlanta, Georgia): It's the most simple concept. Hot air is lighter than cool air. And so the object is just to heat the cool air in the balloon, and then when you want to drop fast, the red line here is the vent line, you pull on it and you drop. The winds are most calm early in the morning and right before sunset. It's because the way that angle of the sun hits the earth and that it creates thermos, which creates unstable air. Lighter than air is what this is, so anything affects it, down draft, up draft, wind shear, but that's part of the challenge.

ROGOSIN: On my way back home, I heard that a team's balloon got snag on a fiber optic line on Monday morning and a woman fell to her death. Fatalities are rare. The last in Albuquerque was in 1998. The 36th Annual Balloon Fiesta ends today in the enchanted land of New Mexico.

Josh Rogosin, NPR News.

HATTORI: You can take a look at the Darth Vader hot air balloon and other unique balloon designs at npr.org.

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