New map app will guide hundreds of balloon pilots gathering for annual New Mexico fiesta

Like invisible roadblocks, altitude restrictions clutter the skies above Albuquerque. The ground is its own mine field, with utility towers, busy roadways and plots of restricted land.

Finding the sweet spot has become a complicated ballet for the hundreds of hot air balloon pilots who are drawn to the city each October for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

This year, they have a new tool to help them navigate.

Fiesta organizers are equipping all 550 pilots with tablets capable of running a special map application that will help them steer clear of obstacles and avoid areas that are off-limits to landing.

There are restrictions around the city's airports, above the Petroglyph National Monument and throughout Sandia Pueblo, the Native American community just north of Balloon Fiesta Park. Other sensitive areas include the zoo and horse stables scattered throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

The city has grown exponentially since the first fiesta more than 40 years ago, making flying and landing more challenging.

"Landing spots are scarce, so this will help them a bunch," said Mike McKnight, the fiesta's technology manager.

McKnight first developed a map for use on smartphones and GPS devices a couple of years ago. With the map now available on tablets, it's easier to see than trying to peer at a tiny screen, or unfolding and folding large paper maps in the confines of a balloon basket thousands of feet high.

"I like the idea of a large format map that you can see, and it keeps track of where you are as you're flying," said Albuquerque pilot Neal Smith.

The app has the ability to record each flight, including details about the balloon's altitude throughout its journey. Weather stations are also identified on the map so pilots will know the precise conditions in an area when they get ready to land.

The map, which covers more than 500 square miles of the metropolitan area and includes a detailed layout of balloon fiesta park. It's also available to fiesta-goers staying on the ground via the Avenza PDF Maps app for iOS and Android.

The pilots will get to test the navigation system starting Saturday, when hundreds of colorful balloons — from traditional globes to complex special shapes — take to the skies during the first mass ascension. The fiesta lasts nine days.

The event draws tens of thousands of spectators from around the world each year. The atmosphere is unlike any other, organizers say, since there are few boundaries for spectators.

"A lot of folks get to come out onto the field and experience ballooning up close and personal," Smith said. "You can touch the basket, you can talk to crew members, and that tempo of excitement as the balloon is being put together and getting ready to fly is infectious."


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