As we reflect on another year of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, we recall what the Fiesta means to New Mexico. The sight of hundreds of balloons suspended in the morning sky as we go about our daily lives never ceases to feel like magic. But it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to get those hundreds of balloons safely in the air for Balloon Fiesta’s mesmerizing morning ascensions.
That’s where the “Zebras” come in: volunteers clad in referee black and white. The familiar field mainstays are the unofficial ambassadors of Fiesta. Formally addressed as Launch Directors (LDs), their main focus is safety as they act as air traffic controllers from the ground. LDs begin training in June to prepare for the responsibility of coordinating the daily ascensions, with every volunteer completing the same training whether it’s their 3rd or 30th year as a Zebra. In 2022, the Fiesta had 56 Zebras to coordinate the ascension of 650 pilots.
State ECU recently connected with a dedicated Fiesta volunteer to better understand how this behemoth of an event manages to lift off each year, and it sent us into an unexpected deep dive into Zebra sub-culture. Here’s what we learned:
Zebras Have to Know Everything
A Zebra’s first training starts with a video about the history of ballooning and evolves into sessions with real pilots and extensive balloon scenarios. With their noticeable outfits, LD’s are approached by a good amount of the three-quarters of a million people that make the trek to the Balloon Fiesta with questions that range from Albuquerque Box science to porta potty locations. They happily answer these questions, all while focused on safely launching hundreds of balloons in a narrow window of time.
Zebras Work With the Same Balloon Fiesta Pilots Each Year
To maximize safety and minimize communications errors, Zebras are paired with many of the same pilots year after year. This creates a familiar working relationship and contributes to the goal of the safest possible launch every morning of Fiesta. Zebras resolve issues for pilots, communicate with crews, check tie-offs, and deliver important information.
It Takes Three Years to be a Full-Fledged Zebra
To experience being a Zebra, volunteers make a minimum three-year commitment and go through multiple interviews. First and second-year Zebras are called Zebras In Training, or ZITs, and have the privilege of wearing bright red hats around the field designating them as such. They must stick to simple striped referee shirts and white pants since Zebra fashion expression isn’t allowed until they enter year three, the same year they’re finally allowed to handle launches. Then they’re free to don lit-up zebra ears, black and white tutus, fancy fascinators, or anything else that helps their pilots find them easily on the field.
Zebras Put Their Lives on Hold for Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta
As with many of the 1,000+ volunteers that keep the not-for-profit festival running, a Zebra’s life is absolutely overtaken by Fiesta when October hits. Rising well before dawn, Zebras start their Fiesta days at 4:30 am and continue through a packed morning of briefings, row supervision, and pilot and crew communication. As one Zebra puts it, “My husband knows he doesn’t have a wife for nine days.”
With all of the time and effort that goes into being a Zebra—or Fiesta volunteer in general—what does one get out of it? “It feels like a family,” shared a 7th-year Zebra. “I tried to take a year off and had withdrawal. Once it’s in your blood, it’s there.” That would explain how Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta developed from thirteen original balloons into the massive scale it is today. The culture that grew from this one-of-a-kind global event is what sustains it. Thousands of New Mexicans have worked for free for 50 years to bring the Fiesta to life for attendees from around the world. Even those of us who groan at the traffic recognize there’s a unique feeling to October in Albuquerque. Each fall as we gaze up in wonder, we know once again that we truly live in The Land of Enchantment.
To all the Balloon Fiesta Zebras, State ECU would like to extend our heartfelt thanks for all of your hard work. It’s because of you that we are all able to enjoy this fantastic event. Thank you Zebras!