12th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta By Karlo N.B. Samson
Heavy traffic is the last thing you want to be trapped in when you’re in a hurry, and here I was inching my way toward the Omni Airfield behind a pickup truck blasting a Journey tune over its stereo. Time again for the Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, the 12th since 1994 when then-tourism secretary Mina Gabor put up the first one. It was a bit past five and dawn was breaking to the east, a fine Saturday morning and the third day of the event. Traffic was already hell.
Perhaps an argument with my wife over the ungodly hour we were setting off was not the most auspicious way to begin a day trip to Pampanga. We left the apartment at three in the morning, traveling with a grand sum of two hours of shuteye between us. We have to get to Clark before first light, I insisted, or else we miss the chance of seeing the balloons inflate. You’ve hardly slept, she pointed out. You’ll be running around all day and you’re not young as you used to be. Just a few years shy of forty I was. Certainly not a spring chicken but not quite over the hill.
I had been to this event eleven years before, in 1997, back when I was young. It was my first-ever field reporting assignment for the newspaper I worked for, the first time I was ever bestowed a media pass and a tape recorder. I flew to Clark in a vintage prop-driven plane with Captain Joy Roa of Air Ads, Inc., balloonist extraordinaire and big cheese behind the fiesta since 1996. I’d be flying in one of the balloons, I learned. Needless to say, I was thrilled with the chance.
To add quaintness to my neophyte journalist experience, I was billeted by my paper at a cheap motel in the sleazy part of town. This would be my base of operations for the next three days. I’d leave the motel before sunup to cover the day’s activities and return in the evening to organize my notes and write my copy. Pinch me, I thought. I’m on an honest-to-goodness assignment.
This was only the fourth fiesta since its inception in 1994. Few concessionaires were about, and the audience was mostly made up of Angeles residents. There were no big crowds back then. The fiesta did not have the benefit of a massive information campaign and Internet bloggers firing up interest. Even so, despite its humble scale, the event attracted thirty balloon teams from around the globe, and I was supposed to go up with one of them. “Supposed” being the operative word. My ex-editor dropped by unexpectedly and invoked seniority to snatch the ride from my grasp. Determined to fly, by any means possible, I managed to snag a flight on an ultralight. The fact that I had to leave the fiesta, find another airfield and pay my way to get my feet off the ground never bothered me. I just had to fly, so I made it happen.
Now, eleven years and eight fiestas later, no amount of grim determination and will power was going to get me to the airfield before 6am. A fine Saturday morning, but where were the balloons? Had they already left? I woke up my wife and our friend in the back seat and told them, I think the balloons are gone.
For the sake of those who’ve never been to the Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, a typical day starts off at dawn. Balloons are inflated just before the sun clears the horizon and take flight at around half past six. They linger in the sky over the airfield for a few minutes before they drift away on winds and are chased by 4x4 jeeps of the Angeles City Four Wheelers Club. The balloons either fly back in late in the afternoon or are hauled back and reinflated for a short evening flight. Why so early? Because hot air is more buoyant when the air is cooler. For balloons to take off safely, wind should not exceed a maximum 3kph.
The man on the loudspeaker announced that winds were whipping at a 12kph clip. We had not missed the morning launch. The balloons were grounded. A few attempts were made to do a cold inflation, but to no avail. The wind simply wasn’t cooperating and the morning launch was called off.
Despite the fiesta’s balloon-centric name, the event is a full-fledged air show. A fiesta of ‘everything that flies’ says the banner. When they say ‘everything’ they aren’t kidding. From kites to helicopters, ultralights to model planes, even rockets and jets, all manner of flying things other than balloons have their 15 (or more) minutes of fame in front of a cheering audience. Fearless soldiers fall out of the sky for daredevil sky diving performances. Master flyers of the Kite Association of the Philippines display precision kite flying. Scale model planes and helicopters courtesy of the Philippine Aeromodellers Club whiz by, looking quite like the real thing. Of course, demonstrations by the real thing are the crowd favorite. High speed fly-bys of jets, aerial antics by choppers, aerobatic finesse by expert pilots all serving to fire up every child’s innate dream of flight and rekindle those same dreams in grown-ups.
On the ground this year were booths for the various branches of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, exhibiting equipment, vehicles and uniforms. Photo opportunities galore for the kiddies with the men in uniform. It’s a rare chance for folks to see our soldiers up close and learn about who they are and what they do. Too often, we only know of our military from coup-d’etat coverage on the evening news, which isn’t exactly the best way to pay respect to the soldiers who keep our country safe.
The main event, of course, would still be the balloons and we stuck around for the afternoon launch. Having had our fill of rockets and helicopters and cam-whoring with guns on a jeep, we wanted to see some hot air balloons. The crews were busy with preparations, their balloons unfurled and their propane tanks topped up. We watched the orange wind sock, still turgid with wind, and waited for it to go limp. We waited and waited and waited. Despite frantic attempts by teams to inflate several balloons, the weather would have its way and deny the audience a balloon-filled dusk sky. With music playing over the loudspeakers, the pilots instead performed a synchronized burn, sending plumes of fire into the air from their propane burners in time with the music. The audience had traveled too great a distance and waited too long a time to be denied a spectacle. Like the burning oil wells in Desert Storm Kuwait, majestic displays of flame peppered the landscape, serving to salute the audience and perhaps to vent much frustration from the grounded pilots.
Balloons fly on the whims of the wind. The next morning, Sunday the fourth day, the balloons flew. But, we weren’t there anymore. Disappointed? Sure, but not entirely. It wasn’t a day wasted. I had my fill of aviation sights and sounds, but most importantly, I had seen the balloons up close. And, though they never flew, I witnessed the camaraderie and teamwork it takes to loft these giant beasts into the sky. We’ll be there again next year, but my wife insists that I finagle her a media pass so she can actually go out on the field. She also insists I sacrifice a goat to the four winds to make sure the weather cooperates. I tell you, I just might.