BELENIt’s that time of year again in the Hub City, so prepare for the roar of the cold-inflate fans and the hiss and pop of the dragon’s breath of propane that will take dozens of colorful hot air balloons aloft this weekend. 

The 38th annual St. Patrick’s Day Balloon Rallye will be lifting off — weather permitting — Friday, March 15, 16 and 17 — at Belen Eagle Park, 305 Eagle Lane. 

News-Bulletin file photo

Since 1985, the Valencia Flying and Retrieval Society has continuously hosted the rallye, bringing a diverse collection of balloons to the event, expanding it over the years to include everything from skydivers to radio controlled balloons to evening balloon glows. 

This year, the city of Belen is partnering with the VFRS to bring a slew of balloon-related activities and fun to downtown Belen along Becker Street following the events Saturday morning at the park. 

VFRS Vice President Nancy Aubol-Hanks said the annual rallye is a chance for spectators to get an up close look at balloons for free. There’s no charge for parking or to get on the field to watch the giant colorful nylon envelops fill with hot air and stand up.  

The public is welcome to come onto the field and wander amongst the balloons as they inflate, Aubol-Hanks said, and talk to the pilots and crew, if they aren’t in the midst of last-minute preparations for launch. 

“Everyone is usually more than happy to answer questions and explain what they are doing,” she said, “but there are times they can’t, so spectators should just be aware.” 

So far there are about 45 balloons signed up to fly this weekend, as well as 12 remote control hot air balloons, which will fly at Eagle Park after the “big” balloons launch Saturday morning and be featured in a balloon glow on Becker Avenue that evening. 

Balloons are scheduled to launch at 7 a.m., weather permitting, all three days. In addition to the radio control balloons, there will be a balloon rallye Car Show at the park until 12 p.m., as well as food trucks and vendors. The Belen Veterans Memorial visitors center will also be open to visitors during the rallye. 

The VFRS refreshment partners, Business Women of Valencia County, will be selling hot coffee, tea, cocoa and doughnuts from 6-9 a.m., Saturday, March 16, to raise money for home-bound seniors. 

Pilots & Balloons

Nancy Aubol-Hanks: Giggles & Grins

Rod Baca: Farmer’s Insurance

Kelli Balengee: Evil Twin

Peg Billson: Smokey Bear

William Blizzard: Desert Arura

Don Boyer: Evil Twin

Michael Carpenter: Sweet Caroline II

Colin DeGattis: Happy Endings

David Eichorn: Marauder’s Mark

William Fitzgerald: Head Over Heels

Doug Gantt: Hamlet

Gregory Garcia: Ella-Vation

Tom Gardner: Ajuaa Dreamer

Michael Gonzales: The Journey

Gerry Graff: Lofty

John Green: Intrepid

Jeff Haliczer: Synchronicity

Sharon Hartshorn: Seeking Nirvana

Mark Heideman: Desert Fling Viking

Mark Hofheins: With Oden’s Breath

Hank Humiston: Flamebuoyant II

Daniel Hyde: In-Cline

Dane Karrison: Hamlet Blair

Kaufman: Hearts Desire

Craig Kennedy: Chicklet-Chick-Fil-A

William Manus: MEH

Frankie Martinez: RAKS balloon

Jaybird Mason: Pink Lighting

William “Squid” Mast: Raven

Judy Nakamura: Fiesta Gold

Nestor Pena: Empty Nestor

Katelyn Salazar: Pixie Spirit

Rex Smart II: Air Play

Neil Smith: Indecisive

Keith Takach: Takach Another Breeze

Brian Victor: Itsy Bitsy

Beth Wright-Smith: Alha

Loretta Zamora: Saki Bomber

This year’s rallye will honor Ken “Fergie” Ferguson, an active member of the VFRS for more than 20 years, who died in late 2023.  

“He was one in a million,” Aubol-Hanks said tearfully. 

Ferguson flew “Itsa Touchie Subject” for many St. Patrick’s Day Rallyes and in the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. His balloon will be featured on this year’s pins and shirts, which will be for sale during the event. All proceeds from the rallye are donated to Valencia County charities.  

Over the years, Aubol-Hanks has raised thousands of dollars for local charities, such as Valencia Shelter Services, Valencia County Animal Services, various food banks and veterans organizations and more. A silent auction during the Friday night pilot and crew dinner is the primary source of the funds, as well as the shirt and pin sales. 

News-Bulletin file photo

Once the balloons have taken to the sky and the car show has decamped, visitors can cruise down to Becker Avenue for a plethora of events geared to young and old. There will be the Gondola Experience at Second Street and Becker Avenue, where anyone can ask questions about the world of hot air balloons and snap fun selfies.  

Trax, the mascot for the New Mexico Rail Runner Express will be at the Belen Public Library for a meet and greet, plus there will be make-and-take crafts. 

As the sun goes down, the remote-controlled balloons will light up the sky with a balloon glow at the empty lot between Second and Third streets, where Sugar Bowl Lanes used to stand. 

Free kits and books for children can be found at Books on Becker and the Belen Art League Gallery and Studio 508 will be open all afternoon. Food trucks will be set up along the street for a bit to eat. 

To cap off the weekend an Irish breakfast will be served at the Harvey House Whistle Stop Cafe on Sunday morning. 

A pilot for more than 40 years (which is strange, considering she’s only 49, she quips) Aubol-Hanks says flying clears your mind and can be meditative. 

“When you’re up there, all you hear is the burner, maybe some birds or dogs barking on the ground,” she said. “Depending on where you are flying, it can be spiritual.” 

At the mercy of the winds and air currents, flying a hot air balloon truly puts a pilot’s skills to the test, Aubol-Hanks says, noting that often those flying airplanes and helicopters view balloons as simply “being in the way.” 

“Ballooning is the oldest and first form of aviation. We came before the Wright brothers,” she reminds those who would dismiss the sport. “If we don’t keep the tradition alive, it’s just history.”

St. Patrick’s Day Balloon Rallye Schedule of Events 

News-Bulletin file photo

Friday, March 15 

Eagle Park, 305 Eagle Lane, Belen  

7 a.m.: Sponsor and media flights (weather permitting) 

Saturday, March 16 

7 a.m.: Balloon launch (weather permitting) 

7 a.m. to 12 p.m.: Food trucks and vendors; Veterans Memorial visitors center will be open 

8 a.m.: Remote control balloon launch (weather permitting) 

8 a.m. to 12 p.m.: Balloon Rallye Car Show 

12-8 p.m.: Becker Avenue Balloon Walk 

12-5 p.m.: Books on Becker will be giving out free kites and books for kids 

12-5 p.m.: Gondola Experience, Second and Becker (Kids can dive into the world of hot air balloons, ask questions and snap selfies) 

12-5 p.m.: Art Extravaganza; explore the Belen Art League Gallery and the last day of Monica Kemsley’s show at Studio 508 

2-4 p.m.: Trax the New Mexico Rail Runner mascot will be at the Belen Public Library, 333 Becker Ave., plus free make-and-take crafts 

5-8 p.m.: Hot Air Balloon Glow with remote control balloons, between Second and Third streets 

Sunday, March 17 

7 a.m.: Balloon launch (weather permitting) 

10 a.m.: Irish Breakfast at the Harvey House Whistle Stop Cafe, 104 N. First, Belen 

What’s your Reaction?

Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.