Balloon Festivals Celebrate First Method of Human Flight

22 November, 2019

The path of human aviation is uneven and dangerous. But, from the ancient story of an English king killed in his attempt to fly with handmade wings to the launchings of rockets to the International Space Station, the desire for flight continues.

Some people think of the American brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright as the first pilots of the sky. In 1903, the two men made four brief flights in a powered plane in North Carolina.

But more than 100 years earlier, two Frenchmen were actually the first to float through the sky.

On November 21, 1783, Jean François Pilâtre de Rozier and Marquis d'Arlandes got into a small open airboat. Above their heads, long ropes attached the craft to a huge hot air balloon. The balloon rose slowly, carrying its pilots over a public park in Paris.

In 1785, two other pilots flew a similar airship across the English Channel.

Although it never became a main form of transportation, balloon flight has stuck.

Today, hot air balloon fans celebrate the aircraft in festivals around the world. Hundreds of thousands recently attended the largest such event, held in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The León International Balloon Festival just closed in Mexico. Similar celebrations take place in Canada, France and Japan, to name a few. Today, we explore a few of these events.

Hot-air balloons fly over the Palote dam during the
Hot-air balloons fly over the Palote dam during the "Hot Air Balloons Festival" in the city of Leon, in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico November 17, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Armas (MEXICO)

Saga International Balloon Festival

In Saga, Japan, more than 100 balloons from about 20 countries take part in a five-day competition and celebration. Competitors are tested on flight control and other skills.

Balloons rise into the air from along the Kase River each day. Others are launched elsewhere, and can be seen in the air over homes and other buildings.

However, one of the most beautiful sights at the Saga International Balloon Festival happens after dark, during La Montgolfier Nocturne. Known as the Night Mooring in English, the event involves balloons lining up on the riverside. The balloons all light up at once from the firing of their burners. The result is an extensive, extraordinary glow, which is reflected in the river.

The balloon fiesta in Saga takes place yearly in early November.

The León International Balloon Festival

Next we travel to the central Mexican city of León. The yearly balloon celebration there is known as FIG, for Festival Internacional del Globo. The 2019 event took place from November 15-18.

The FIG is the biggest balloon festival in Latin America. About 200 hot air balloons and pilots from 15 different countries are involved. Hundreds of thousands of visitors attend.

The first FIG took place in 2002 with just 25 balloons. Its website says that year, the event "began the magic and the first experience of seeing this dream fly by painting the sky of León..."

At the 2014 FIG, American aviator Jonathan Trappe made history and paid respects to the beloved American film Up. The pilot attached dozens of balloons to an airboat that looked much like the house in the 2009 film. Then, just like the character Carl in the movie, Trappe floated the house up into the air. He traveled over Mexico that way for several days.

Like at other festivals, the balloons come in different colors and shapes. Visitors might look up and see the Disney character Mickey Mouse. Or they might see a yellow smiley face, a giant heart, a space creature or a clown and zebra flying side by side.

Biggest in the World

The biggest hot air balloon festival in the world takes place in the American city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is called the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

Organizers of the event say more than 850,000 people attended the nine-day event this year. There were almost 600 balloons and 671 pilots from around the world.

The fiesta also appeals to photographers, both professional and amateur. It has long included a competition for best pictures of the celebration. That contest is named in honor of Cindy Petrehn, the official photographer of the Albuquerque festival until her death in 2013. Petrehn was also a balloon pilot herself. She captured images from and of hot air balloons all over the world.

In this year's photography contest, Jeff Wamer won first prize for a picture that gives a look up and across the balloon field. In the image, a balloon in the shape of artist Vincent Van Gogh is seen floating. Just beyond is a balloon of Darth Vader from Star Wars and a balloon in the shape of a cow. They are among the many more traditional balloons in the sea-blue sky over the extraordinary Rio Grande Valley.

Balloon pilot Gary Michalek has been flying hot air balloons for 32 years and has been coming to the festival in Albuquerque for 20 years.

"Flying above the surface of the earth, like really close to the ground or high up, I mean, it's unique. You have few types of aviation where you can just float above the ground...."

Fiesta operations director Sam Parks is proud of his work. "One of the things that I heard yesterday, which really touched my heart, was a young boy telling his mother, ‘This is the best day ever!'

That, he added, "makes you feel like you're doing a good thing."

I'm Ashley Thompson. And I'm Caty Weaver.

Caty Weaver wrote this report for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

aviation - n. the business or practice of flying airplanes, helicopters, etc.

festival - n. a special time or event when people gather to celebrate something

reflect - v. to show the image of (something) on a surface

dozen - n. a group of 12 people or things

amateur - n. a person who does something (such as a sport or hobby) for pleasure and not as a job

unique - adj. used to say that something or someone is unlike anything or anyone else

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