Up, up and away!

UP IN THE AIR is where you’ll find fans of one very buoyant sport, refining their skills just ahead of their big annual gathering next month. But it’s going to take a lot to top their LAST get-together, as Lee Cowan shows us in our Cover Story:

They arrive long before dawn, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. Some are on foot, others with trailers in tow.

It’s a dark pilgrimage, but it doesn’t stay dark for long.

Off in the distance, what look like giant multi-colored turnips start to awaken, fed by the blue-green belch of a propane dragon.

By sun-up, gravity is given a pass -- and the spectacle everybody came here to see finally lifts off the ground and floats away on the wind.

Every October for the last four decades, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta turns the skies over New Mexico into a kaleidoscope -- a feast for the eyes, the heart and, for some, their soul.

“You fly in an airplane and you’re looking out a little bitty hole,” said Ken Draughn. “You fly in a helicopter and you’ve got all this noise, and you can’t hear. You fly in a balloon, and you’ve got a 360-degree of view of everything that you see.

“It’s probably the closest thing to being a bird that a human being can do.”

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The scene at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, N.M. For balloonists, reality becomes suspended when floating up into the air.

CBS News

The sheer scale of it is overwhelming. More than 500 hot air balloons are all in the air at the same time.

Crowds cheer as the balloons lift off one by one in a colorful wave, some just seconds apart.

It’s a delicate dance, all choreographed by so-called zebras -- dressed like NFL referees so the balloon pilots can see them in what looks like organized chaos.

“I’m like a kid in a candy store when I see all the balloons all up in the air; I love it,” said zebra Pam Wilson.

As spectator sports go, the Balloon Fiesta is pretty laid back. In fact, the best way to watch it all is on your back, to prevent a kink in your neck.

The Balloon Fiesta has been on Susan Brooks’ bucket list for years. She came all the way from North Carolina to see this heavenly sight: “I say, ‘God, thank you,’ because He has blessed us with a beautiful world, and it’s just another way that we can see it. And I just, I love, I just absolutely love it.”

Ballooning was man’s first form of flight. It happened in Paris in 1783. The Mongolfier brothers believed it was actually smoke, not hot air, that caused things to rise. Although they were wrong, they still got quite a ride, says historian Troy Bradley.

“They didn’t get a lot of lift, but they got enough to get it up to probably to have a spectacular view,” Bradley said. “And coming back and telling stories of this aerial view had to have been pretty remarkable.”

“But at the time, going that high was a pretty death-defying feat,” Cowan said.

“It’s amazing. It was exactly -- and especially in the balloon that they were flying. That’s a scary contraption. Not sure that I would have wanted to do that!”

And that’s saying something. Last year Bradley and Russian pilot Leonid Tiukhtyaev broke two world records -- flying their helium balloon farther, and staying aloft longer than anyone, a total of more than six days. 

But ballooning is not without its dangers.

In July a sightseeing balloon carrying 16 people crashed in Texas, killing all on board.  

But accidents like that are rare, even among those who use their balloons to compete.  

The point is to maneuver the balloon over a target and hit the bulls-eye with a bean bag tossed from the basket. 

There are few better at it than the Heartsill family.

“It’s not hard; you just have to be lucky,” said Joe Heartsill. “I’ll wear a belt that’s got Indian head nickels around it, I got a silver dollar in my pocket. You just want to be luckier than the other guys!”

It’s a family affair for them. Joe and his two sons all fly; the rest of the family help out on the ground.

They’re all about exposing newcomers to the sport, and it’s a pretty easy sell. 

Judy Nakamura has been piloting hot air balloons for almost a decade. Although before she took Cowan up, she had a confession to make.

“Here’s the funny thing: I’m afraid of heights!” she said. “I wasn’t going to tell you that until it was all over.”

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Judy Nakamura and correspondent Lee Cowan mid-flight.

CBS News

She’s a fan of the truth; she has to be. She’s a state Supreme Court justice, a job that obviously requires a lot of control -- which ballooning doesn’t really offer.

“If you are a control freak, ballooning is not for you,” Nakamura said. “If you need to know, Lee, where you’re going to land today, you better not get in this basket.”

That all sounded pretty good -- and so we were off!

The ascent is so smooth you barely realize you’ve left the ground. There’s a gentleness about it -- and a silence.

Cowan asked, “Does it ever get old?”

“No, it’s different every time.”

But it can’t last forever.  After reaching 6,300 feet, she started to descend.

Landings can be the tricky part. “Any landing that you walk away from is a great landing,” she said.

Sometimes you glide right into the hands of a waiting crew. Other times the ground comes up to meet you pretty hard.

And sometimes you come down and don’t always stay down.

Such is the nature of hot-air ballooning. It’s not always an exact science; it’s more of an experience.

In these days when flying is more drudgery than anything, here it’s all about whimsy -- a place where pigs fly and hound dogs hover -- and where reality seems silently suspended.

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A menagerie at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

CBS News

      
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