An elevating experience

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Taking flight on a hot-air balloon

RIDING a hot-air balloon was on my bucket list. Needless to say, I was excited when the hour to gain my first-time experience closed in on me. The deadline to get to Putrajaya was 6.45am, so it meant a 5am wake-up call that was going to be worth it.

It has always seemed cool to me to be high up in the sky with no constraints, going where the wind takes you, but just then, a million thoughts ran through my head — Will I have a panic attack as the balloon rises? Will I be able to enjoy the ride if I am anxious? What if I have air sickness? Will I fall out of the basket?  

They seemed to disappear as I reached my destination and my excitement grew again upon seeing the pilot inflating the balloon for the ride.

I learnt that the balloon was named Kedah Darul Aman, after the birthplace of its owner and pilot, Capt Mohd Sobri Saad. A veteran in the ballooning industry after 20 years, he flies about 100 hours on average each year. By his own admission, he is a “Sunday pilot” in that he flies ballons as a hobby, and has flown in Vietnam and the Philippines.

Mohd Sobri has also travelled abroad and piloted balloon rides in Europe. In his opinion, while the landscapes differ and may even be better, he still prefers Malaysia because the wind isn’t as ferocious, thus allowing him more control of the balloon.

Before boarding, I was briefed on proper flying etiquette and how to prepare for landing. I climbed into the basket and before long I was inching away from the ground. Ten minutes into the ride, I could see Putrajaya from a bird’s-eye view.

The feeling was indescribable — to be high up in the sky feeling the morning breeze on my cheeks, flying above the Seri Saujana Bridge, the Putrajaya Lake, houses, people waving down below, government buildings and traffic, and watching the sunrise, of course. That moment will forever be etched in my memory.

We took off from Precinct 2 in Putrajaya and spent about an hour in air. After enjoying the scenery, our 90,000 cu ft ride landed in a clear plot of land near Cyber 8, Cyberjaya. The total distance we had travelled was about 4km at an average speed of two knots. We flew at the maximum height allowed by the Department of Civil Aviation.

Flying at that height with no restrictions apart from the four pillars of the basket was calming and serene as we took in the panaromic view.

It was in 2014 when AKA Balloons Sdn Bhd chief executive officer and director Izzati Khairudin had shared passionately about her love for hot-air balloons and how each ride evokes different emotions and/or triggers different memories. After this ride I do not have to imagine what she meant. I can now better understand better her aspirations to create a culture where hot-air ballooning is accepted as a norm in Malaysia.

That said, your own hot-air balloon experience awaits at the 7th Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta (PIHABF) in Precinct 2, Putrajaya, on from today until Sunday. Some 19 balloonists are expected at this year’s fiesta alongside upgraded attractions and activities.

Admission to PIHABF is free, with attractions like helicopter joyrides, MyBalloonClub, balloon and breakfast rides and passes to riding a ballon at night priced individually. Browse www.myballoonfiesta.com for information, check out a map of the grounds and book your tickets online.

About the balloon that came down in a cemetery during the Penang Hot Air Balloon Fiesta over the Chinese New Year holidays, AKA Balloons marketing and public relations director Atiqah Khairudin said it was nothing more than a normal landing.

She elaborated that the balloon did not crash and the pilot had identified the cemetery as a safe landing spot. There is no cause for worry about hot-air balloon rides, she said.

For viewings of the balloon flights as well as for first-come, first-served attractions, arrive by 7am, or by 6pm for evening events.

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on March 12, 2015.