February 14, 2008
A WELCOME CHANGE FROM AIRPLANES
The weather forecast was positive: It was going to be a beautiful Friday morning. Being the responsible Jolly Jetsetter that I am, I decided to take a 4:00am drive to Pampanga, so I could make it back for my 10:00am meetings. It was dark and the streets were mostly empty, so a brisk 200kph average had us at the balloon field early enough to enjoy a warm cup of crappy coffee. I have to say that I was quite disappointed with the organization of the Balloon Festival. I try to attend this event yearly because of the skydiving jumps and my interest in the gyrocopters business that is being launched in the Philippines. It is a yearly event with amazing potential that has been reduced to the cheesy afternoon carnivals you find in Cavite or Laguna. The mix of a poor choice of events and vendors, loud dance music from 5:00am onwards, poor logistics, and crappy marketing force me to give the balloon festival a fat thumbs down.
Fortunately I did not have to stick around for too long, by around 5:30am we were being whisked into the staging area for the balloon pilots who were preparing for the game of hare and hound. In this game they send a lead balloon (Hare) ahead by about two minutes, after which the remaining 16 balloons (Hounds) start the chase. The Hare’s objective is to land and drop a marker, the hounds that place their marker closest to the hare’s marker get the highest points. Sounds easy enough no? Well do not forget that you cannot steer a balloon. It floats according to the wind, which is in constant flux. To change directions, you need to catch a stream of wind by either raising or lowering the altitude of the balloon. Note that these streams of wind go in varying directions, travel in varying speeds, and are of different temperatures (which requires more or less hot air in your balloon). So chasing a hare can be quite a challenge, requiring a keen sense of direction and an ever-calculating mind.
Before I get ahead of myself, let me just relate how I got into the balloons in the first place. UPS is one of the largest sponsors for the event and decided to assist me in securing a place on one of the balloons. I guess all those packages I send out have finally paid off! They bring me into the briefing area, where the lead organizer and pilot proceed to shout: “There are a pair from UPS, anybody want to take them? (Silence) Anyone? (Silence) UPS is one of the largest sponsors and would like you to take them, anyone? (Silence).” This went on for quite some time. My companion and I were being whored out to the different pilots and out of a group of 17 balloons; only the Gulf Air team was kind enough to take us both onboard. Not that I can blame them, the additional weight does add a different component to steering the balloon.
After a short set up period, we were off. Once you are in the balloon, you do not really do much except enjoy the view. Give or take a few planned dips, the ride was smooth and gorgeous. Even our landing, which involved quite a bit of dragging and bouncing (your tossed all around the basket), was relaxed and almost elegant. I can understand why this was such a popular sport for the upper society of Europe. We ended up fairly close to the hare, but did not receive any points, as we were unable to find our marker when we came back for it (you don’t actually land to place it, its dropped). I would say that with a ready bottle of champagne and a tin of beluga caviar, I may just consider ballooning as a new sport! It’s fairly reasonable considering that a fully set up balloon costs roughly $30k (lasts many years) and the gas used to fuel the burners is propane.
I was a bit late for my meeting, but I’d have to say, it turned out to be a spectacular Friday morning! Now to figure out where to get a balloon and how to learn to fly it…