Rolinda "Sam" Tzamaloukas of Rio Rancho has flown in balloon shows all over the Southwest.

But even though this is going to be her 15th year flying in the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, it never loses its charm.

"The Balloon Fiesta is an absolutely phenomenal event," she said. "Even for long-time balloonists, the people who have been into this stuff for 30 or 40 years, there's the same excitement of the first time they were flying."

There's just no way to describe what it's like to be among some 600 hot-air balloons all aloft at once.

"It's like the greatest show on earth," Tzamaloukas said. "I still get such a big thrill (out) of all the balloons in the air at the same time."

For newcomers, of course, the feeling is even more magical.

With more than 600 balloons, it's the largest event of its kind in the world. It's the most-photographed event in the world. And it's the largest annual international event in the country.

It all starts Saturday morning at daybreak with the Mass Ascension, with some kind of event daily through Oct. 9.

And Tzamaloukas couldn't be more pleased to be a part of it, especially when she gets to introduce to a balloon neophyte.

"They are just so in awe," she said. "They just keep turning around and looking. They don't even realize that we've taken off."

A retired nurse, Tzamaloukas said the experience of serenely drifting above the city is unlike any other.

"I love the feeling when you're floating," she said. "It's one of the most magical feelings. It doesn't matter how stressful your day or week has been, when you're up in the balloon, it's like a whole new life. I love it."

Like many pilots, Tzamaloukas began her infatuation with ballooning by starting as a chase crew member for other pilots.

"I just got more and more involved," she said.

Then in 1990, her husband asked her what she wanted for her birthday and she said a hot balloon.

"He asked me, ‘Who's going to fly it?' and I said ‘I am," Tzamaloukas recalled.

She began taking piloting lessons and soon earned her license, then began the process of qualifying for the Fiesta.

This is her second balloon, and its name is a tribute to her husband.

"He's Greek," she explained. "And Aeolos is the mythical Greek god who is the keeper of the wind."

Usually that wind is blowing in her favor, even on occasion dropping her in her very own back yard.

And sometimes, it's blowing against her.

"I've taken out fences and other smaller things," she said, adding she once even wrecked a cable television set up on a house near Raton. "But I took the repairman for a ride, and he didn't charge anybody."

She acknowledges that ballooning carries a certain amount of risk, but a quotation on the back of her trading card sums up her life's philosophy.

"Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming, ‘Hot Damn, what a ride.'"