Scenes from the 16th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta

Darth Vader, an animal-filled barn, and an upside-down balloon appear at this year’s fiesta.

By Abet Lagula
February 21, 2011

Abet Lagula chronicles one of the biggest events in Clark, Pampanga--the annual Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.

Thousands of people gathered at the grounds of Clark Airfield in Pampanga to witness one of February's most awaited events: the 16th Philippine International Hot-Air Balloon Fiesta. More commonly known to spectators as the HABFest, the fiesta features the flight of hot air balloons from all over the world. First organized in 1994 to the stimulate the local economy in Central Luzon, to encourage hot air ballooning as a local activity, and to promote the Philippines as a premier sport and tourist destination in Asia, the HABFest is now at par with other international air shows.

This year, the organizers celebrated the "Centennial Year of Airplanes in Philippine Skies," a tribute to the first airplane flight in the country, when the Red Devil and the Shriver Skylark were first flown during the 1911 Manila Carnival. As a HABFest regular, I was looking forward to the promise of a bigger and more colorful event-and thankfully, my experience of the fiesta lived up to my grand expectations.


I left Manila for Clark at around 3AM on Thursday, the first day of the fair. I arrived at the venue around 4 AM, two hours before the scheduled balloon flights (most people arrive early to familiarize themselves with the area and to get first dibs on the best spots for taking photos). I chose to go on a weekday since I expected the crowds to swell over the weekend; coming on the fist day also allowed me to catch the opening ceremonies.

The first day was blessed with good weather (sometimes the wind can be too strong for the balloons to take off; other times the sky is cloudy and not as photogenic): after the formal ceremonies, the balloons took flight against a clear blue sky. Some of the balloons were regular participants--I saw my personal favorite, the multi-colored Ballonreisen--but there were new ones as well. Among the newcomers, the one that received the loudest cheers was the Darth Vader balloon. There were also a flying barn, a giant mushroom, a giant snowman, and an upside-down balloon flying in tandem with its twin.


By 8AM, all the balloons had flown out of sight, so the spectators turned their attention to the exhibits and on-ground activities prepared by the organizers. Aside from the daily morning hot air balloon flights, the fiesta also had other aeronautical events lined up: tandem sky diving, airplane and motor races, and helicopter shows. An educational ramp tour highlighted the people who made the Fiesta happen--organizers, pilots, air traffic controllers, jumpers, RC modelers, and kite fliers. Those interested in (and with enough cash for) flying the balloons signed up at the information booth for chance rides at $150 each. The other fair booths also offered all sorts of activities--wall climbing at the R.O.X. booth (where TravelBook set up its photo booth on Saturday), kite flying, fun with a Velcro wall, and lots of shopping.

On subsequent nights, I returned to watch the Night Glow display, which took place shortly after sunset. For the Night Glow, the hot air balloons were permanently stationed to the ground and inflated: the burners gave off a bright glow, with each burst lasting for a couple of seconds, in a coordinated display between the different balloons. Unfortunately, on the last day of the event, strong winds forced some of the balloons to tip over, forcing the display to end early. Despite this, the event ended on a high note, with a massive display of fireworks signaling the end of another successful Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.

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