What Really Happens to the Hot Air Balloons During the Fiesta

I unsuspectingly learned that hot air balloons “race” in my first ever Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta last year. I thought I was just going to see colorful balloons in the sky and take lots of pictures while they floated away. Me going away with the balloon was one fat chance. This year, the things I learned from not seeing them up close and from a real live Air Boss, my pilot friend Carlo, just blew me away. I wish I knew these before I even went to the Fiesta. I want to leave my readers with this experience of flying and another one on the next post. For now, it's never too late to have that hot air balloon experience.

Why Hot Air Balloons in the Fiesta Depart Early in the Morning

The hot air balloons in the Fiesta are inflated by 6:00 a.m. and ready to fly by 7:00 a.m. At early dawn, there is light for visibility and the wind is cold enough to complement the hot air inside the balloons and make them fly.

Gone With The Wind

Once the hot air balloons lift off, there is no telling from ordinary spectators if they are ever going to come back. There is no assurance unless you can tell the direction of the wind for the day. We were there at take off just before dawn last year. The balloons came back after a few hours. This is called the lucky “box effect” where the wind takes them back to the original takeoff site.

We were late and saw the balloons from afar this year. I told them not to worry because they would always come back based on my experience last year. It was almost 8:30 and the sun was getting hotter by the minute. No balloons came back, hence the quest to learn more about the balloons and the wind.

Pilots and Chasers

People actually need a license to fly that hot air balloon. (There is only one balloonist in the Philippines today.) Aside from the fact that they are at the mercy of the winds, the pilots can only steer the balloon and control it vertically through the burner (up or down). They would need to master looking for ways to tell if a particular altitude level could bring them left or right and determine wind direction from up there. One of the ways to tell the direction was to release a smaller balloon up in the air to see what the wind direction was like if they choose to ascend. Another funny way was to spit down and see where it goes (left or right) if they choose to descend.

Chasers follow the hot air balloon off the beaten track with a retrieve vehicle. This is another all-terrain adventure to tell and experience. (Click on the link for my Chaser experience.)  Radios or shouting is used to communicate (cellphones are not advisable).

The Hot Air Balloon Race That is Not a Race

Because the balloons came back last year, I noticed people throwing something from the baskets before they landed. I figured there must be something more for hot air balloonists to come all the way to the Philippines from all over the world.

International bragging rights for their unique and awesome hot air balloon designs were one. Last year, there was a smiling sun balloon, a barn balloon, a beer balloon and a turtle balloon. 

This year, there were more hot air balloon shapes and characters including a Darth Vader balloon, a boy in a barrel balloon, a snowman balloon and a mushroom house balloon.

There are many versions of the “race” but one thing in common is that the balloonists don’t compete against time and the fastest doesn’t necessarily win. One balloon will go first and the other balloons will try their best to follow that balloon hoping for gentle winds. The one who throws the marker nearest that target balloon or mark in the ground before they land wins. They say a very grand prize awaits the winner. I never knew this as part of the admiring festival-goers.

Being Up in The Air, Balloons and Air Travel

I have a slight idea out of my imagination – probably thin air of oxygen but then again you’ll have a breath-taking view literally and figuratively. Utter and ear-splitting silence probably follows. You let go and the experience follows. In a sense, you are at the mercy of the winds but you know the pilot can control it somehow. Either way, you are in something that can take you up to touch the clouds so different from that well-known experience in a window seat.

- Originally written on February 13, 2011 (Sunday)