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Darth Vader, Spider-Pig fly at International Balloon Fiesta

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta hosts hundreds of hot air balloons. Some geeky gems are among the flyers.

Darth Vader balloon
Darth Vader has a big head.
Amanda Kooser/CNET

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- In all my years of living in Albuquerque, I have managed to completely miss one of the city's marquee events, the nine-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. This year, I finally dragged my sorry self out of bed at 3:30 in the morning, caught a school-bus shuttle, and arrived in the dark and cold to huge crowds and hundreds of balloon teams setting up on a massive field.

I knew hot air balloons were pretty. What I didn't realize is just how geeky they can be. Among the usual colorful entries there was a certain contingent of balloons that stood out on my geek radar.

The event kicked off with a dawn patrol, in which a dozen balloons take flight in the darkness to get an early look at wind conditions. The balloons light up dramatically on the ground before launch. One of the early risers was an Intel-branded balloon. Neighboring Rio Rancho is home to a huge Intel chip plant, so it makes sense to see a company-sponsored balloon here.

The term "mass ascension" sounds like a religious affair, but it's really the mass launch of hundreds of balloons shortly after the sun peeks over the nearby Sandia Mountains. I hunted through the crowded field to uncover sights like the Spider-Pig balloon (a "Simpsons"-inspired mash-up of a pig and Spider-Man). As it launched, I heard random people in the crowd singing the Spider-Pig theme song.

Farther away, a massive orange astronaut named Cosmos 1 stretched across the field, slowly inflating before it could stand upright. At more than 100-feet tall, it's one of the bigger balloons on display.

Two different fractal balloons passed by overhead before I finally tracked down the famous Darth Vader balloon and its entourage of costumed "Star Wars" fans from the local Dewback Ridge Garrison of the 501st Legion. As Vader rose up into the blue sky, I overheard a mother pointing it out to her son. "Where's the rest of his body?" the little boy asked, sounding worried.

Hot air balloons are the granddaddies of manned flight, dating back to the first untethered flight in 1783. The concept behind it hasn't changed. Heated air inside the fabric (usually nylon) envelope of the balloon makes it rise. Today's balloons use propane to provide the open flame to heat the air.

There's something joyful about seeing an old transportation technology taking on the shape of modern icons like Darth Vader's mug. It's surreal and delightful to watch Stormtroopers surrounded by hot pink, yellow, and red balloons. Who knew the Dark Side could be so colorful?

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta 2013 runs through October 13, so there's still time to hunt down Spider-Pig, marvel at the flying fractals, assess the astronaut, and pose for a pic with Boba Fett as Darth Vader looms in the sky above you.