Up in the air

Ballooning is mid-sky meditation.


WORDS  AGBAYANI P. PINGOL II | IMAGES  JOHN K. CHUA, ADPHOTO

When you’re a thousand feet up in the air, you lose your sense of speed. You know that you’re moving — given that your countryside vista shifts, turning earthbound people into anonymous specks — but you have no idea how fast. It’s cold, nerve-wracking (for the acrophobic), and exhilarating. These are the sensations of riding a hot-air balloon. And the best part? You get an uninterrupted 360-degree view of the world.

Ballooning is an affair in tranquility. There’s no noisy motor or engine that powers your ascent. It’s just you, your fellow ballooners (and their occasional gasps of awe), and the crackle of the burner. As you glide through the clouds, you realize that one simple truth keeps you afloat: warm air rises.

Once a year, in some 100 kilometers north of the Metro, in the far-flung transportation hub of Clark, Pampanga, we celebrate this simple truth. Yes, I’m talking about the annual Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, where colorful blimps put smiles on the faces of the thousands who have gathered to witness this majestic sight.

Being a habitué of the festival for the past five years, I’ve come to realize that “hot air” is more than just the steady ride and the wonderful view. It’s an art form in itself: think of polyester intricately woven into a people-mover. For balloon riders, it’s like meditation in mid-air. For the people watching from the ground, it’s a dance of color against a clear blue sky.

This year’s festival is rumored to be the last. And if that is indeed the case, then it’s high time that we give this fading art form the spotlight it deserves.

CELEBRATING NOVELTY

The Festival is singular when it comes to showcasing the novelty of an obsolete way of traveling and turning a supposedly forgotten aspect of aviation into a pop-culture symbol.

Long before Disney told the story of UP, the mystique of hot-air balloons grew when Jules Verne penned Five Weeks in a Balloon, or, Journeys and Discoveries in Africa by Three Englishmen. (Contrary to popular belief, Phileas Fogg and Jean Passepartout never rode a balloon in Around the World in Eighty Days. It was the film adaptation of Around the World, which probably incorporated parts of Five Weeks in a Balloon, that made the balloon an indelible part of Fogg and Passepartout’s grand adventure across the globe.)

The ripple of Verne’s novel was massive. It spawned movies, TV shows, video games, and countless homage across media. I’d go so far as to say that Verne along with Nellie Bly — who married fiction and reality by racing to beat the fictional record in Around the World in Eighty Days — entrenched hot-air balloons into modern culture.

People today celebrate hot-air balloons through festivals that boast the sweet science of piloting as well as the artistry that comes with designing them. Most of the festivals are held in the US, with a few others in Europe and in Asia. Some of the most famous ones are the iconic Cappadocia Hot Air Balloon Festival in Turkey and the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico.

The Philippine event, the International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, was inaugurated in 1994, with the main goal of uplifting the local economy and morale of communities in Central Luzon, following the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. What started as a passion project with 21 balloon pilots from 10 different countries became the longest running sports aviation event in Asia.

WHERE THE WIND BLOWS

The festival isn’t just about hot air either. It’s a venue for intrepid gourmands who sample food tents scattered around Clark Air Field. It’s also perfect for kite lovers, concert-goers, and campers, making it a great family getaway whichever way you slice it.

Gates open as early as 4 a.m. with many camping the night before just to be first in line. Most festival goers settle for being spectators. At around 6 a.m., they watch as balloons shaped like animals, cars, clowns, dinosaurs, and beloved characters like Donkey Kong, Yoda, and Darth Vader prepare for take-off.

The anticipation continues to build as the crowd gathers for another 30 minutes until the first balloon takes off. Then, it becomes a selfie frenzy that eventually mellows as the last balloons disappear into the horizon. After that, most go their separate ways to enjoy other attractions while others go home early knowing they got what they came for. For those who have US$350 to blow on a balloon ride, the festival turns into an intimate and surreal experience.

If you do decide to ride a balloon, you’ll float in the air for about 30 minutes, depending on wind conditions. You will literally go where the wind takes you; destinations range from small towns to remote places that you’d never visit any other way. After landing, you jump into a 4×4 for a free ride back to the fiesta grounds.

SALUTING HISTORY

Today, ballooning is purely for recreation. But back then, it was — in fact — the pinnacle of aviation. Humanity tried and failed to fly for 5,000 years before stumbling upon the idea of using controlled heated air to fly. It wasn’t until the Montgolfier brothers of France redefined buoyancy in August of 1783 by launching the first hot-air balloon. The first passengers: a sheep, a rooster, and a duck.

Soon after, the hot-air balloon would become the first successful human-carrying flight technology, allowing man to complete the trifecta of travel: land, water, and air. Balloons would also play crucial roles in shaping history as they aided military operations in reconnaissance, communication, and transport. Soon enough, however, the balloon would fade into obscurity with the invention of the airplane, only to be resurrected by Ed Yost in the 1950s into the balloons we know.

In a way, participating in the Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta — or any hot-air balloon festival for that matter — is a way of saluting history. The next time you take a montgolifière up in the sky, say a quick thank you to Jules Verne, to Nellie Bly, to the Montgolfier brothers, and to the anonymous dreamers who conquered the sky.