Words and photos by Ian Antaran and JC Soliman
This event started in 1994, three years after the whole province of Pampanga was devastated by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, when then Tourism Secretary Mina Gabor along with few other foreign hot-air balloon enthusiasts thought of some ways to jumpstart the local tourism industry and, most of all, to help bring back the “colors” for the province of Pampanga. The Philippine International Hot-Air Balloon Festival (PIHABF) was born and 18 years later, it has become the biggest aviation sports event in the Philippines attracting hordes of local and foreign participants and spectators every year.
This year’s venue was moved for the first time to a 250-hectare property in Brgy. Prado Siongco in Lubao, some 33kms away from Clark Freeport Zone where it has been held for the past 18 years. The reason given by Mr. Noel Castro, the chairman of PIBF, was that they realized that they might inconvenient the flights within Clark International Airport and they were compelled to comply with the aviation regulation of a 25 km no-fly zone within Clark.
The venue in Lubao is a promising tourism site that has a theme park being constructed, a golf course, which is now on its planning stage, 57 world-class villas already in placed and operational, and the biggest wakeboard park in Southeast Asia. The hometown of the former President and now Congresswoman, Gloria Arroyo and incumbent Governor, Mrs. Lilia Pineda, the town of Lubao surely wants to make its presence felt in the tourism industry of Central Luzon.
Hot-air balloon consist of 3 major parts, first the balloon, which is also called the envelope, is made of rip stop nylon material which is a similar material used for parachutes. The only difference is that the inner side of the hot-air balloon has special coating to withstand hot air. The second part is the basket, also called gondola, and is made from wicker or woven twigs similar to your household wicker baskets and furniture. It is reinforced by metal tubes with wooden floorboards to give the basket a lighter weight and flexibility during flights and landings. The third part is the liquid propane cylinder attached to a burner, which then emits a controlled flame to make the air inside the balloon hotter than the outside. Basic scientific law: hot air is lighter than cold air, thus making the balloon float.
A deflated balloon is first spread on the ground with the basket already attached but turned sideways with the burner facing the balloon. It will then be filled with air with the use of an industrial fan before the burner is activated blasting flames until it floats on its own and released in the open air.
Once airborne, the balloon will gently glide along wherever the wind blows. It has no steering capability and the pilot can only control the ascent and descent of the balloon. After a short flight that would last for about an hour, the pilot will choose an open space to land the balloon. This is where the job of the chase crew comes in. From setting-up the balloon in the staging area, chasing it using different types of 4×4 vehicles, and bringing the balloon and its pilot back to the venue, being a chase crew, which I was a part of for two years now, was equally fun and exciting as riding the balloon itself.
One of the biggest balloons ever made in the world participated in this year’s event. It was a giant superbike balloon owned by Lindstrand Hot Air Balloon of UK, one of Europe’s leading hot-air balloon manufacturer. The balloon measures a towering 37 meters in height and 47 meters wide.
The gargantuan task of setting-up and chasing this humongous flying machine was assigned to Club Overland, a local Off-Road vehicle club founded three years ago by its president, Mr. Dale Nepomuceno Antonio, and the club VP, Mr. Juan Carlos Soliman.
Club Overland has some of the most impressive line of rigs in today’s 4×4 standards. They are weekend warriors who share a common passion for all things automotive and love of the outdoors. They can be seen with their ”toys” in Sapang Bato, Pampanga, a very popular off-road destination among 4×4 clubs in Central Luzon and NCR. From Mitsubishi’s Type 73, Land Rover Defender 110, Discovery 1, Range Rover P38, Lexus LX450, Land Cruiser 80, to Toyota FJ Cruiser, Club Overland is always ready to get down and dirty where the road ends and the adrenaline pumping trail begins.
The club officially started three years ago when Mr. Dale Antonio gathered all his motorhead friends who was then into race cars, circuit driving and car shows. Since the landscape of Pampanga, particularly in Angeles-Porac, area was changed forever by the lahar flow, it has become the premier playground for offroaders. It is now a 4×4 wonderland and Club Overland was born. Besides their regular weekend trail activities, these gentlemen are always ready to extend their rigs and own resources in times of natural calamities in the province of Pampanga by collecting relief goods amongst themselves and deliver them to flood-strickened areas that can only be reached using their 4x4s. Club Overland, along with some of its friends from an Angeles City based airsoft team, Semper Fidelis, has been Chase Crewing for the past three consecutive years now.
The real fun of being a chase crew starts when the balloon takes flight to nowhere. As the term implies, we chase. Relying on visual contact, wind behavior, and UHF radio, our main objective is to reach the landing zone (LZ) wherever the pilot decides to safely land the balloon. Our 4x4s will have to “negotiate” with whatever trails or the lack thereof in order to get to the LZ. We have to do the extraction at the fastest time we can to secure our pilot from heat exhaustion and save the expensive balloon from goats and carabaos (water buffalos) that want to munch on it.
For four consecutive days, the town of Lubao and its nearby towns were treated to the most beautiful aerial parade of 37 hot-air balloons of all shapes, sizes, and colors. There were balloons shaped as a frog, a lion head, a choo-choo train, an ice cream on a cone, an Angry Bird character, bumble bee and a giant super bike among others. It was a well-attended international aviation event with participants coming from different parts of Europe, USA, Canada, and Southeast Asia. Same as the previous years, the festival was widely covered by various local media outfits and had steadily gained its reputation over the years as the biggest hot-air balloon festival here in Southeast Asia.