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New Mexico balloon fiesta hits sky

October 4, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (AP) — The mass ascension of hundreds of hot air balloons above Albuquerque went off without a hitch Saturday morning.

Pilots began launching shortly after 7 a.m. at the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and landed safely around the city a few hours later, authorities said.

This year’s colorful balloons include one shaped like the head of Yoda and another like Darth Vader from “Star Wars.”

Organizers have equipped all 550 pilots with tablet computers capable of running a mapping application that enables them to steer clear of the many restricted areas or prohibited zones like airport flight paths, the zoo and other locations.

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

Last year, three people were seriously injured in separate incidents at the fiesta. A 61-year-old woman suffered a broken leg on the event’s first day when she was a passenger in a balloon that made a hard landing on a golf course.

Five days later, a balloon pilot and his passenger were hurt when their balloon struck power lines and fell 40 feet (12 meters). Passenger Daniel Lovato was severely burned and had to have his arm amputated.

The technology that pilots are testing this year was developed by 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.

The event, which lasts nine days, 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 attendees.

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