Over 90 aircraft sorties, not counting hot air balloons. STOL airplanes, helicopters, microlights, paragliders, S-211 jets… .
Brass bands and silent drill teams. Rocketeers. Six volunteers winched from the audience into rescue helicopters. Three lost parents found and returned to their worried children.
Thirteen aerobatic flights. Plus two Air Force training jets doing chandelle rolls low over the show.
Zero accidents. Zero incidents. Four UPS cargo flights delayed.
Balloon-bursting — 11 airplanes vs. 111 party balloons: 34 balloons died, four flight crews earned ace status with at least 5 kills each.
And of course, the hot air balloons. Twenty this year, bigger than dinosaurs, from countries all over the world.
The 12th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.
As always, the hot air balloons exuded magic — children scampered around them, couples hugged, drivers stopped on the highway and got out of their cars to watch.
I’ve seen the hot air balloons many times, but they still lift the spirit and warm the heart.
Like the Grimm’s benevolent dragons, the balloons loomed three stories high, nodding gently against each other, breathing fire.
How could they not bring the child out in anyone?
Then, fat with lift, they tiptoed ponderously past each other into the sky.
Photo by Darrell
I’ve written before about the Fiesta’s events and aircraft in previous years, at PFSG’s Forum. This year I’ll focus on the people.
Many of us who work at the Fiesta reunite but once a year. We renew old friendships and form new ones. Bold new faces recharge jaded veterans.
Image submitted by Pinky
Airshows are supposed to be masterpieces of meticulous organization. Not this one.
Serendipity, plus self- initiative by unpaid volunteers, are what really keep this Fiesta on track. Every participant, from air traffic controller to aerobatic pilot, is a volunteer.
It’s a modest show, by global standards.
But it’s all-volunteer. We pay for our own avgas and lodging, buy each other meals, and donate talent and time to fill four Fiesta days.
Tens of thousands of tickets are sold, and scores of concessionaires sell goods at the Fiesta.
Photo by Jaime Unson
It all goes to a cause, somewhere, somehow.
Two Fiestas ago, as the Philippine Marines Drum and Bugle Corps performed for the crowd, Gen. Ed Calvo of the Air Force told me that “MARINE” stood for Muscles Are Required, Intelligence Not Essential (A US Marine with a PhD. told him that).
This year the Marines played Lupang Hinirang on Thursday morning.
They came out of nowhere, marched silently onto the field, and played the anthem just as an Army skydiver unfurled the flag 4,000 feet above their heads.
Then they serenaded us with pop hits and Filipino classics, before marching off again.
Who got them here? How did they know where to go, when to start? Initiative.
The Marines never came back, though. At dawn on Friday, we suddenly needed a recording of the anthem!
The Philippine Air Force had a CD at their base. A runner delivered it just as the skydiver exited over the drop zone. The anthem played as the flag came down. Perfect timing? Serendipity.
Photo by Dong Vytiaco
Next year, someone will remember to donate a backup CD. I guess. A checklist would be good. Or serendipity and initiative 🙂
Stressed Out Over Safety
At dawn on Saturday the wind howled at 16 knots, gusting to 26. The balloons struggled to inflate in the gale.
Hot air balloon pilots need winds to be 5 knots or less.
A hopeless cause. The wind sock mocked us, standing straight out horizontally. A storm in February??
Saturday had the biggest crowd, too. People packed the entire fiesta ramp, and the balloons could not fly.
The Gulf Air balloon of Don and Debbie Conner inflated briefly, later that day. Don, a balloon pilot for 34 years, has 3,700 flying hours (that’s a lot, ask any kind of pilot!).
But even he and his wife could not fight the strong winds on Saturday.
The crowd, which packed the Fiesta grounds that morning, was clearly disappointed. But we had to put safety foremost, and reluctantly but firmly cancelled balloon flights.
In the photo, you can see the tip of the windsock, stretched rigidly horizontal by high winds.
As the wind muscled against us, I held the flag jump airplane, an Army Cessna 172, on the ground, and didn’t dispatch it until 0615. Air traffic control then held them at altitude, at our request, until our skydiving safety officer cleared the jump.
Mort F., our skydiving safety officer, is a former USAF Combat Controller, one of those special forces units that even the special forces know little about.
He has been in desperate, vicious firefights that rarely get written about, where courage is genuinely above and beyond the call of duty.
Photo by Dong Vytiaco
Mort is retired, has made his home in the southern Philippines, and has volunteered himself to the Fiesta for two years now. The advantage of having Mort as our safety officer is that he has seen it all. “There’s no war here, Tonet. We don’t need to put anyone on the line. We’ll wait until the winds calm down.”
The wind dropped briefly to 12 knots at 0730, so Mort quickly cleared us for the flag jump, an hour behind our target time. The delay was the least of our worries.
We now had big holes in our schedule. The crowd had already missed seeing the balloons fly. We had to keep the airshow going!
Photo by Jaime Unson
The ultralights didn’t even try to brave the wind. The paragliders launched, then quickly headed for the ground. At one point I thought they were being blown backwards!
The flag jump went off well, though.
That flag has the same footprint as 4 cars parked side by side. It was quite a burden, but the Army skydiving team has had 3 years of experience with this. Sgt. “Sprite E., our flag jumper, did well. You can see the brute force of the wind, on that flag.
Photo by Jaime Unson
It got worse. We thought the winds would die as the sun rose.
Wrong. A cold front was pushing across Luzon, bringing tight pressure gradients, chilled air and sustained winds.
The paragliders came down, totally intimidated.
Our flag jumper reported worse winds aloft. After two more skydiving lifts, we grounded skydiving for the day.
Philippine National Police skydivers, right, repack parachutes on Saturday morning. They didn’t use them again that day.
Mort stands pensively on the left.
So there we were, an hour behind schedule. The balloon pilots had given up, the skydivers were grounded, the paragliders had departed in defeat, and the windsock threatened to rip itself off its pole and blow away altogether.
We had thousands of people in the crowd. School buses with kids lined the Manuel Roxas highway to the show grounds. Two tents blew down. Buddy Lopa, our untiring “Voice of the Fiesta” show announcer, was reduced to apologizing for the wind.
We were stressed! The airshow, perfect safety record and all, was dying.
That’s when our aerobatic pilots, Bill Wright and Meynard Halili, walked up to the operations tent, asking what time they could start engines.
Darrel, one of the best photographers I’ve ever met, has pure art at his site here.
Check out Dong’s site here for more excellent photos of the Fiesta!
Jaime, a professional photographer, has his masterpieces at his site here
A big thank you to you guys for the use of your photos.
More exciting images on the Fiesta in the next article.
Posted from Nashville, Feb 29, 2008.