A Weekend For All The Kids Within Us…

Flying that flag, at the 18th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta

It is, perhaps, every young boy’s dream to fly. Of all of man’s inventions, few have captured the imagination of young, curious minds better than the airplane, especially the fast and agile ones. Fighter jets and dog fights and dreams of becoming an ace pilot are as much a part of growing up as learning how to pee while standing.

I myself am one of those who grew up with those fantasies, and was one of the multitude of kids in my generation who dreamed of growing up to become “Maverick”, the protagonist in the movie “Top Gun” – one of the most “over-rewinded” movies in Betamax. I was about 7 years old then, when Maverick buzzed the tower in that famous – or infamous – opening scene, when the shock of twin afterburning engines spilled hot coffee on his commander (and spilled him in hot water).

Fantasy and reality does drift apart as we age, but the are some of us who never lose a piece of the children that we were. And that’s why 25 years later, even though the Betamax is long gone (young adults nowadays probably don’t even know what that is) the image the of F-14’s silhouette on the carrier deck lives on as one of the most memorable movie scenes, and the movie’s opening soundtrack is still remembered as one of the memorable pieces of music ever played.

While few of us will ever get the chance to have the privilege of getting buzzed by a real fighter jet, many will still walk miles, quite literally, to get a chance to get close to just about anything that flies. And that is what the annual Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta is all about – the only “airshow” regularly held in Philippine airspace. Though it is said to be “A weekend of everything that flies”, it was never really a showcase of the best in aviation. Apart from the balloon fliers that come from across the globe, the rest of the event – at least for the previous 17 iterations of it – is a motley show of whatever the Philippine general and military aviation could let fly, which isn’t really much. But still people came – Ang Laagan included in two previous occassions – and the show, regularly held at the grounds of the Clark freeport zone near Angeles, Pampanga, continued to grow each year.

Early morning at the Omni Aviation grounds at Clark, Pampanga - the venue of the 18th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.

Early morning at the Omni Aviation grounds at Clark, Pampanga – the venue of the 18th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.

Like in the previous years (and as the show’s name implies), the highlight of the event is the balloon flight which takes place in four consecutive mornings in February. You see people marching through the grounds at Clark in the dark, as they try to get to the venue even before the sun rises. Some even pitch their tents on the grounds and sleep through the early hours of dawn just to guarantee a “prime seat” once the action starts.

As the balloons start to inflate as soon as the morning sun paints that sky with light, people start flocking to the flight line, eagerly jockeying for a spot where they can see all the action on the ground, and get that elusive photo of balloons rising with the morning sun.

You may wonder why people cut sleep and put themselves through all the trouble to watch overgrown, lumbering contraptions that fly with barely any control…but such is the magic of anything that flies. And for 18 years, the big, lumbering balloons have never failed to gather a crowd, and that crowd is getting thicker by the year.

As the daybreak begins to illuminate the skies, the crowd thickens and starts to gather close to the flight line.

As the daybreak begins to illuminate the skies, the crowd thickens and starts to gather close to the flight line.

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Just like in the past years, the rest of the show is spent on practically anything the can fly, or glide. You see an assortment of helicopters, skydivers, paragliders, ultralights, aerobatic aircraft, radio control aircraft, and kites…yes kites, flown by the spectators. What it lacks in the quantity and quality of aircraft shown, it makes up for with the festive atmosphere.

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This year’s event though – it’s 18th iteration – sprang a surprise. The Patrouille Breitling, also known as the Breitling Jet Team, came into town and gave the country something it hasn’t seen in a long time – a team precision demonstration. With the Philippine Airforce’s Blue Diamonds demonstration team having gone into hiatus a long time ago, due to lack of flyable aircraft, the Philippines has not seen precision flying for over a decade if I’m not mistaken, until the Patrouille Breitling took to the skies over the Pampanga, and boy was it a spectacle. There were jets, yes…real military-grade jets, flying over our heads in close formation.

For the crowd that gathered for the 18th balloon fiesta, the Patrouille Brietling was a “once in a generation” event. People stood in awe as the team’s L-39 jets thundered through the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport’s runway, and you could hear the crowd going “wow!” as the formation took shape in the sky. You could even hear the ladies shriek as the team performed opposing passes, making it look like they were about to collide with each other. The audience was captivated, and you could never have found a crowd that was concentrating more than the one at Clark, while the Patrouille was weaving and twisting through the air. The demonstration lasted less than 20 minutes, but for those of us who once held “dreams of flight” as children, it was a 20 minutes like no other.

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* Photos were taken at the 18th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta last 24 Feb, 2013, held at the Omni Aviation grounds in Clark, Pampanga. The Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta is held every February.

* All photos taken with Olympus E420 and Zuiko 40-150mm f4.0-5.6.

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