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Floating on the Angry Bird or Dinosaur: Pollachi’s TN International Balloon Festival

It would be an understatement to say that the peace of the simple folk of the laidback hamlet of Palanigoundenpudur, some 8kms from Pollachi, was challenged in the late evening on January 12.  They did not know what hit them when a huge hot air balloon carrying four people descended from the sky on a patch of field close to their houses. Nearly a hundred curious faces were keen to know where the two foreigners, and as many Indians, had landed from, as the four jumped out of the basket in which they were travelling. 

Once they knew the two Indian women could speak Tamil, the barrage of questions began, especially from school-going girls. “Where did the balloon come from? Why did it land on that field? What are they going to do?”

Well, these were the answers: The balloon had taken off from the Sakthi Mills Grounds in Pollachi about 40 minutes earlier and had been piloted over vast stretches of coconut plantations by the two foreigners, one from the US and other from the Netherlands, and were accompanied by the two woman passengers for fun. 

The spectacular landing, the Western clothes, the streaked hair, elevates the two women from Coimbatore and Pollachi to an instant celebrity status, and requests begin for clicking selfies. The number and variety of mobile phones that were pulled out to click pictures belied the laidback quality of the place.  

By now the balloon loses air and slides down. A truck carrying volunteers (who stay connected with the pilot) reach the venue and the process of folding the balloon and stuffing it into a huge holdall begins. When the villagers see the balloon being folded, which they too help in, they get more curious about the group’s return back to Pollachi. They are informed that the group will also travel back on the mini-truck in which the folded balloon and basket will be loaded.

People of Pollachi and nearby areas have been experiencing such events thanks to the Tamil Nadu International Balloon Festival (TNIBF) 2017 on from January 10 to January 15. Eight giant hot air balloons have been flying around and will continue to do so till Sunday, January 16. While six balloons are multicoloured ones, the two that draw attention the most are the Angry Bird and the baby dinosaur shaped one. 

The balloon is flown early in the morning and during sunset, when the heat and wind are yet to pick up. A typical day begins before 6am when the pilots start readying their balloons. Huge fans are used to fill normal air in the balloon that is spread out horizontally. Once the balloon is nearly filled, giant burners fuelled by gas cylinders heat up the air. As the air turns hot, the balloon slowly rises from the ground and this is when the pilot and the passengers climb into the basket appended to the balloon. Once it reaches the required heat and becomes vertical, the balloon starts rising into the air.

The pair of burners that is fixed on top of the passenger basket and below the balloon is made to blow fire at regular intervals into the balloon during the entire flight to keep it at an altitude desired by the pilot.  But the route is dictated by the direction of the wind and the pilot can do nothing about it. When it is time, he selects an empty patch, conveniently close to a road, and lands the balloon. Then it is folded and loaded into a truck to be taken back. 

According to the organisers, knowledge about this expensive sport is very sparse in India. Benedict Savio, Director of Global Media Box, says that there are only three pilots in India and hardly any balloons. Balloons are made in the US, UK, and Spain, and cost anywhere between Rs. 60 lakh and a crore each, and have a life of 600 to 800 flying hours.  A festival to be held in India would require balloons to be air-cargoed on rent at a cost of a few lakhs and. Hiring pilots from abroad will cost more. 

Forty-eight-year old Tryntsje Offringa, the only woman pilot at the fest, from The Netherlands, has been piloting for 20 years and hopes to continue for another 20. Having flown in 30 countries and a regular in India, she says that her country alone has 40 pilots. Acknowledging that hot air ballooning is not a common sport in India, she says that she can nevertheless see an increasing interest. 

Though it began three years ago, the Pollachi fest seems to have Government contribution of only Rs. 5 lakh of the total estimated cost of Rs. 50 lakh. Another organiser Babu Prasath, founder of and ‘The Slaves’ restaurant, says that they were not able to get even a single sponsor for the event. 

They decry the fact that the Taj Balloon Festival in Agra that began in 2015 was fully supported by the UP Government.  Yet, the duo wants to take forward the event to keep the passion alive.  A flight of roughly an hour costs close to Rs. 25,000 including cost of 65 litres of LPG and payment for the pilot.

According to Benedict, who owns the Angry Bird balloon, hot air ballooning should be promoted as a spectator sport where a few fly and many watch, as it is done in most countries.  He or his balloon has participated in several fests across 18 countries.  But in India it is seen as a flying sport where everyone wants to fly and with very few hired balloons many do not get a chance to do so.  Hence, it is not able to attract large numbers.   Support from Government or sponsors can help change this and make the sport popular. 

Nevertheless, they are happy with the response this year.  There have been several registrations from outside of Pollachi too.  For more entertainment, tethering and setting aglow balloons, and cultural programmes on Saturday and Sunday evenings, have also been factored in.

Source: The News Minute