Balloons fill the sky at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in 2021. This year’s event, marking the 50th anniversary, starts Friday with 13 balloons launching from the original site at the Coronado Mall parking lot. Liftoffs continue through Oct. 9.

Hot air balloon pilots are preparing to fill the New Mexico skyline with a kaleidoscope of colorful balloons at the 50th annual Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.

More than 650 pilots, flying hot air balloons of all shapes and sizes, have registered to participate in an event that grew from just a handful of participants a half-century ago to one that has become one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions.

This year, the festival will kick off Friday with a launch of 13 hot air balloons at Coronado Mall to commemorate the event’s first flight in 1972. This will coincide with the Albuquerque Aloft, where pilots launch balloons from public schools around Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. The first mass ascension, which draws tens of thousands to Balloon Fiesta Park on Albuquerque’s northern edge and usually snarls traffic for hours, is scheduled for Saturday morning.

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