On March 23, Hualien sent up its first hot air balloon as part of a test run for what the local government hopes will become a regular part of its tourism activities. This landmark event for the county comes close on the heels of a hot air balloon disaster in Egypt that killed 19 people, and the first ever participation of a hot air balloon from Taiwan in an international event, the flying of Taitung No. 1 (台東一號) at the Canberra Balloon Spectacular in Australia.
According to Su Yi-shun (蘇意舜), head of the Tourism and Public Affairs Department (觀光暨公共事務處), Hualien County, a number of trials with hot air balloons will be held over the next three months as a preparation for the inclusion of a hot air balloon event as part of wide-ranging activities planned for the summer vacation period.
Taiwan’s east coast region, especially the rift valley, with its wide expanses of unobstructed open space and spectacular scenery, is particularly suitable for aerial sports. Activities such as paragliding have already begun to take off, but the commercial potential of hot air balloons, with their ability to carry passengers, is considerably greater. Those who wish to glide through the sky on gossamer wings will be able to do so in comfort, without the necessity of either complex equipment or technical knowledge, as passengers on a hot air balloon.
The Hualien County Government has brought in Frank Wechter of Cameron Balloons of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was also involved with the Taitung County Government’s establishment of the Taiwan International Balloon Fiesta (臺灣國際熱氣球嘉年華) in 2001. Speaking at the launching ground at Hualien’s Danong Dafu Forest Park (大農大富平地森林園區) in Hualien’s Guangfu Township (光復鄉) on the opening day of the trials last week, Wechter said that early morning trials saw almost 100 VIPs taken up into the air, but at the official launch in the afternoon, the two balloons only made three ascents due to unstable air currents.
Wechter, who has 37 years experience with hot air balloons and has helped introduce the sport to many countries around the world, said that ensuring safety had been the first and foremost concern. Benedict Savio of Global Media Box, who provided the balloons, and was at the launch site with Wechter, said that all the equipment had been inspected by officials of Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration (民用航空局). The balloons themselves are hugely impressive, and according to Wechter, the ones used in Hualien, which hold three passengers and a pilot, stand as high as an eight-story building.
Wechter added that the key factor in the successful introduction of hot air ballooning to a new country was in training pilots and ground crews. This conviction was supported by Chen Shu-hui (陳淑慧), head of the Tourism Department (觀光旅遊處) of the Taitung County Government in a telephone interview with Taipei Times. She said that the county currently had five trained pilots, but only two with commercial (as opposed to recreational) level licenses, adding that the government is currently subsidizing students to travel overseas to obtain the necessary qualifications for piloting hot air balloons on a commercial basis.
Chen said that the Taitung County government is taking things slowly in regard to the commercialization of hot air ballooning, and has thus far restricted commercial use of the balloons to tethered ascents that are just a foretaste of the diversity of ballooning as an adventure sport.