Story & photos by Gretchen Filart Dublin
One balmy and bleak Thursday dawn, the Omni Aviation complex gates opened to throngs of spectators, all excitedly taking their spots on the grassy field. As early as 4 a.m., people lined outside the gates in anticipation of the opening of this year’s Philippine International Hot-air Balloon Fiesta.
The only festival of its kind in the country—and the longest-running too, at 21 years—the hot-air balloon fiesta is held annually at Clark Field, Pampanga, gathering thousands of global attendees each year. Some have come from as far as Europe to showcase their colorful balloons, but many travel from the capital and nearby provinces for a glimpse of them flying off to the horizon—which they can experience for as low as P350 (general admission).
As it is every year, the opening precedes a massive four-day festival, culminating in “A Weekend of Everything That Flies.” The venue tends to get packed on weekends and the roads leading to Clark Field more trafficked than usual, this being the only opportunity for viewing hot-air balloons up close in the country. (There is a hot-air balloon in Fort Ilocandia, Ilocos Norte, that takes guests 20 feet above ground for a few minutes, but the balloon is tethered, so the ride is rather stationary).
My family and I waited for two hours before the event kicked off with the national anthem at sunrise, followed by a skydiving exhibition by Filipino pilots. Jumping off a helicopter thousands of feet above ground, the skydivers made circles in the morning sky while carrying the Philippine flag. These adventurers are said to be so precise and skilled that they can land from over 10,000 feet on a P5 coin.
The stunt was followed by a choreographed paragliding routine by world-renowned Twinz Acrobatic Paragliders Timothy and Anthony Green, who jumped off from a hot-air balloon suspended 3,000 feet in the sky. The highlight of the fiesta, however, was the hot-air balloons themselves. These oldest human-carrying vehicles fly with the help of an envelope pumped with heated air. This heat source possesses lower density than cold air that enables the balloon to fly.
This year’s balloons come from 15 countries across the world. Their pilots are trained and licensed, and a few fortunate ones experienced being lifted on them. Priced at $350 per person, hot-air balloon rides afford guests an airborne journey over flatlands and lahar-covered terrain—depending on weather and wind conditions, of course. For those with less to spend, all they have to do is register for a free balloon ride for about a couple of minutes. The balloons often set off in remote locations, with the help of an off-road chase crew.
People, us included, waited and watched each balloon get inflated to its full size, from dawn until the sun was scorching hot. I imagined it to be less dramatic than a flight done at sunrise or at sunset, but for a first-timer like me, it was nonetheless stunning. To see colorful balloons soar up in the sky, each of a different form—a house, a car, a soda, even Yoda—until they become a speck, is amazing. At dusk, the balloons fly a second time in time for sunset.
Other flying activities
Now on its second decade, the Philippine International Hot-air Balloon Fiesta began in 1994, after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Pinatubo. Then-Department of Tourism (DOT) Secretary Mina Gabor spearheaded the launch of the first hot-air balloon fiesta to boost Central Luzon’s economy and revive the livelihood of affected communities. Captain Joy Roa, the first and only licensed Filipino balloon pilot, led 21 balloon pilots into what will be the “longest-running sports aviation event in Asia”.
Staying true to the fiesta theme, Roa also pushed for the inclusion of other aviation disciplines.
Today, fiesta highlights include diverse aerial exhibitions, such as paragliding, kite flying, ultra-light flying, skydiving, radio-controlled aircraft, gliding, balloon bursting and formation flying. At noon, gliders and micro flight pilots descend from the sky one by one in a spectacular display of well-coordinated routines. For a fee, guests can also do tandem paragliding and tandem skydiving alongside expert pilots.
During the event, Tourism Undersecretary Kat de Castro said the government’s efforts are geared for attracting more international aviators, to help boost the contry’s tourism for the next two decades.
Visitors on ground were in for a treat with diverse cultural presentations on stage, from the Angeles’s children’s choir to a local dance from Turkish nationals.
After a long festival day, refreshments and grub were in order. We did not have a hard time looking for one, as The Fly Market was dotted a wild assortment of food and beverage stalls that stretched a few meters from the entrance to the end of the complex. With kiosks ranging from vendors selling P50 combo meals to popular doughnut and chicken joints, attendees did not run out of choices, whatever their budget was.
The fiesta was a hit among children and families, too. Families camped in tents across the food trucks, sharing homemade meals (camping is allowed until 10 p.m.). Zoocobia offered animal sightseeing in its booth, while some children played in the Oculus Archery or had selfies with scale models of planes and helicopters spread across the field. Shops selling various souvenirs and merchandise were available on site, as well as rental stalls for kites, which transformed Clark’s horizon into a vibrant canvass.
For those who had more to spend, there’s a P6,000 VIP pass that includes priority entrance, buffet breakfast and lunch, access to balloon launch patio, air-conditioned lounge and toilet, plus tea. If these are all on the roster of activities for the next fiesta, there is no doubt it will be, again, a weekend of everything flies—spirits, included.