February at the Clark Freeport Zone in Pampanga each year is never as vibrant as any other time of the year as the week of the annual Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Expect long queues of people eager to enter the premises, security personnel frenzied by the number of people they have to take care of, and hot air balloons preparing to paint the sky with different colors. Though the sky was overcast and frequent drizzles threatened the excitement of the people to see the balloons float in the sky, the show must still go on.
This year, the hot air balloon fiesta kicked off on February 9 at 5:30 a.m. About 25 hot air balloons representing various participating countries lifted off and overwhelmed the viewers with picturesque colors and astonishing shapes. The participants, coming from different countries such as Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, the United States, and the Philippines came in the form of different shapes and sizes: a giant panda bear, a sunflower, and another balloon bears the image of an iconic video game character, Sonic the Hedgehog. Now, the sight is one could literally call flying with colors. The hot air balloons were set to return at dusk.
The 17th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta gathered over a hundred thousand people this year. And just like past celebrations, the affair evoked the colorful and lively Filipino fiestas and lured a wide spectrum of people, starting from groups of friends taking a break from strenuous school or work activity or families just taking the time off to spend their weekends together. Besides being an affordable travel destination in the middle of February, the hot air balloon fiesta has became an instant hit due to its short distance travel from Metro Manila. It’s only an hour and a half to two hours of drive via North Luzon Expressway.
But before hot air balloons loomed over Clark Airfield, the plain crowded by spectators were once filled with planes and soldiers. In 1908 during the occupation of the American forces, Fort Stotsenburg was established in the wide fields of Pampanga as a grazing ground for the horses of the American cavalry. However in 1930’s, a portion of the military base was converted into an airfield to accommodate the bombers and fighters of the United States Air Force. During the Second World War, Japanese soldiers overran the Americans, but it was retaken in 1945 after three months of bloody warfare. Although sovereignty was given back after the war, the Americans still controlled some of the bases in the country, including Clark Air Base. It was only returned to the Philippines in 1991, following events such as Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption and the end of lease term of the base. Since then, it has been converted into a special economic zone. The Clark International Airport has been renamed as the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport.
Of paragliders and kite flyers
After the balloons drifted off the airspace of Clark, it marked the time for other events to start. Paragliders and ultralight aircraft glided through the wind with easiness while spectators below screamed with excitement as they witnessed barrel rolls and nosedives from aerobatic exhibitions. Meanwhile, members of the Philippine Air Force showed their readiness in performing rescue missions in a heart-stopping exhibition of their rescue capabilities.
While professional kite flyers wowed the crowd with their stunts, children, and children-at-heart alike enjoyed the nice breeze to fly their own kites. Tourists armed with their cameras had unlimited opportunities to wear down their shutters while prizefighter photographers tried to capture their money shot for a photo contest held in the vicinity. The Armed Forces of the Philippines laid out some of their equipment such as (unloaded) guns, communication equipment, and even their armored personnel carrier for the crowd to use them as props in their photo ops. Also, some of the Air Force’s aircrafts were parked inside hangars for people to have their photos taken with.
The Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, now on its 17th year, attracted about a hundred thousand-strong crowd besting last year’s record of some 85,000 goers. Organizers are now looking forward to a bigger crowd turnout next year.