Day 24: Sam Baxter Balloon Send-Off

Oct 23, 2011 | 7 comments

Day 24: A Balloon Fiesta for Sam Baxter

Samuel “Sam” Houston Baxter was honored at a hot air balloon mini-fiesta. On a perfect morning for ballooning, several hundred people gathered at Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta Park for a warm and colorful sendoff for a warm and colorful man.

His sister Marj wrote the obituary for Samuel Houston Baxter that drew me to this event:

A native of New Mexico, took his final skyward journey on October 12, 2011. Sam was a veteran balloon pilot, instructor, mentor, and the founder of “The Adams Family” balloonists. Sam was a man of vision, deep and thoughtful, giving and absolutely passionate about all that he loved!

His work at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta as Field Manager spanned 14 years. Balloon Fiesta was a passion that he shared with his field crew, the volunteers and the AIBF employees who create this spectacular event each year. He was the recipient of the AAAA Sid Cutter Award and was inducted into the AIBF Hall of Fame.

He was truly the epitome of a “life well lived” and was known as “quite the Guy”! He knew no bounds and the legacy he leaves is strong and inclusively magnanimous. Please join us at sunrise for Flying and a Celebration of Sam’s life on Saturday, October 22, 2011 at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Field with a tailgate afterwards and “circle the wagons” as we say goodbye and Godspeed to “Papa Adams”.

Sam brought the first Adams hot air balloon to New Mexico in 1988. Adams balloons were designed and built in Georgia, where the abundance of trees required the ability to land quickly to avoid getting dragged into obstacles. The Adams’ unique design enabled the pilot to “pop the top” of the envelope to facilitate a speedy descent and deflation in seven seconds.

Circle of Angel Balloons

His first and second Adams balloons were set up first and stayed tethered for the event. The red and white Angel Wings and the multicolored Jaded Angel both featured triangular pennants attached to the envelope. Attendees wore jackets and T-shirts with the names of other Adams balloons, all with “angel” in the name: Midnight Angel, Angel in Disguise, Angel Danzer, Painted Angel, and so on. A golden angel pin is given to those who ride in these balloons.

Angel Wings & Jaded Angel

(L) Angel Wings (R) Jaded Angel

Longtime friend Ken Paulk said, “Sam had a dream that the angel would protect us while we’re flying. That’s why they all had ‘angel’ in their names.” There were about 18 Adams balloons at the height of the collection in New Mexico.

Attendees were given multicolored helium filled balloons as they gathered in the predawn light. Before the hot air balloons took flight, everyone let their helium balloons fly at one time.

Helium Balloon Salute

As the hot air balloons inflated across the field, Sam’s wife Shannon was busy greeting the many people who had come from all over the state for this event. People came from Raton up north, Las Cruces down south, and Gallup to the west. “Sam was a character to say the least,” she said. “He’d say, ‘And your point is? Is this going to be a long story?’ Once you got past his gruff exterior, he was such a gem.”

At least two dozen hot air balloons took flight in Sam’s honor. One person commented, “Sam gave us steerage this morning.” He was referring to the “Albuquerque Box” phenomenon, where a balloonist can change direction by changing altitude.

About 9:00 a.m., the balloons came down and the tailgate party was set up. People “circled the wagons” and all sorts of wonderful food was set out for all to share. Laurel Hull explained the tailgate is a traditional part of the ballooning experience. “It’s a thank you to the crew for all the work that they do, and it’s a chance to count noses to see if everyone’s accounted for and made it safely back,” she said.

Tailgate Buffet

In his role as the Field Manager for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (AIBF), Sam was in charge of everything that had to do with the grounds and physical plant at the park. Everything from electrical and plumbing to flags and walkways was under his direction.

The president of the AIBF board, John Sena, said when he started the Taos Mountain Balloon Rally in 1982, Sam was the first balloonist to register. Sam participated every year until he couldn’t attend any more. He said they’ll probably do a special salute to his memory at the event in Taos, held two weeks after the Albuquerque Fiesta.

“The man had a soul that was twice as big as a person,” he said. “It’s kind of hard not to hear his laughter and seeing him walking around, can in hand. He would give you his sweater if you asked for it, and he wouldn’t ask for it back.”

Memorial photo boards were set up on the back of Sam’s truck. Attendees wrote their stories and memories in a composition notebook on the tailgate.

Tailgate Memorial

Tailgate Memorial

Sam loved to fly in the Gallup Balloon Rally that takes place the first weekend in December. His birthday was December 7, so it was an annual birthday treat for him. Sam’s cremated remains will be scattered over the red rocks there during the upcoming rally.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the New Mexico Cancer Center (NMCC) Foundation, 4901 Lang Ave NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109, in Sam’s name. May he fly with the angels for eternity. Godspeed, Sam Baxter.

Time to Launch

Time to Launch

Balloons for Sam Baxter

About a week after this great event, The Albuquerque Journal did a news obituary about Sam that ran on October 28, 2011. Some highlights:

Baxter got his start in ballooning in the late 1970s when he worked as a crew member for a balloonist at the fiesta. He quickly bought his own balloon and began learning how to fly.

“In his younger years we called him ‘Captain Cactus’ because when he was practicing his landings he would come in and take off the tops of the cactuses,” said his younger sister, Marj Baxter.

Baxter’s first balloon was called Angel Wings, which was made by Adams Balloons. He eventually got together a group of about 15 balloonists who all had balloons made by Adams and christened the group The Adams Family. They were a Balloon Fiesta mainstay for years.

“Ballooning was his passion,” said Baxter’s wife, Shannon Baxter.

Sam Baxter was awarded the Sid Cutter Award by the Albuquerque Aerostat Ascension Association in 1995, and this year he was inducted into the Balloon Fiesta Hall of Fame.

“He was great. He was a man of vision. He visualized a lot for this field that got accomplished,” said his assistant field manager Janie Jordan.

Shannon Baxter said her husband helped plan and install the flag poles that surround the field as well as the tall benches people can lean or eat on, among other improvement projects at the field.

“He was in construction his whole life. He married his two loves of construction and ballooning,” she said.

Baxter enjoyed the outdoors and was an enthusiastic camper and boater. He also enjoyed NASCAR racing and gardening.

“He was a larger-than-life kind of guy. He drew people to him with his personality. He was not afraid to speak his mind but, for the most part, he was pretty quiet,” Shannon Baxter said.

Marj Baxter said her brother was good at getting people to volunteer to help out and inspired loyalty in the crews he worked with during Balloon Fiesta.

“If you were liked by Sam then that meant something,” Shannon Baxter said.

Marj Baxter said he was not a particularly religious man, but he was a very spiritual.

“He always told me that when he was up flying, that was his kind of church. What he got from flying was that he felt like he was just right there and close and in the middle of everything that made a difference,” she said.

Ballooning was a perfect outlet for his adventurous nature, she said.

“Sam always would watch which way the winds were blowing and he would take pride in trying to find the winds that would take him the other direction, so as crew, we knew we were going to be picking him up from the opposite direction of the most of the rest of the pilots were flying in,” she said.

“He lived life to the fullest. He may have been cut short in the years, but not necessarily in the mileage,” she said.

A Good Goodbye