Setting out the Angry Bird balloon and assisting with the launch was a large ground crew, local people for whom this was a valuable employment opportunity. Chen said that one ground crew member had already gone on to obtain a commercial pilot license and to become the region’s fourth balloon pilot.
Local pilots are of the greatest importance to Chen’s vision of establishing Taitung as a center for ballooning in Taiwan. These are the only people who under current regulations can legally pilot a balloon for a commercial service that carries paying passengers.
“We want to make something here that we can keep here,” Chen said of the fiesta. “For many festivals, local governments spend huge sums of money to bring in foreigners (as performers or technical specialists), but when the event is finished, they go away again and nothing is left behind. We want people to think of Taitung as the place to come for ballooning, to become part of our tourism infrastructure.”
As the Angry Bird balloon floated into the sky, Wechter rotated it, providing good photo opportunities for the many photographers stationed around the plateau. Speaking about the commercial potential of balloons, Global Media Box Marketing Manager Christopher Prashanth said that at a time when many companies were seeking new avenues to promote their brand and their company, balloons and ballooning festivals provided a perfect synergy. “Nobody stops to look at a billboard,” Preshanth said, “But not only do they stop for a balloon, they also take a picture, and maybe even post it on the Internet.”
What Preshanth said proved true. As the balloon drifted languidly over the rooftops and roads, locals below stopped and whipped out their cameras and cellphones. One woman clambered onto a roof to record the Angry Bird balloon, and kids on their way to school gazed in wide-eyed wonder as Wechter navigated the balloon’s basket between the tops of some betelnut trees.
Chen said the response from locals had been very positive. She said that some farmers had even discussed clearing fallow fields to provide more landing sites for the balloons, and Wechter described an incident the previous day in which an owner of a local guesthouse had recognized him when he had taken the ground crew for a soda after a flight and thanked him. “His guesthouse had four rooms, and all rooms were full, just because of the balloons,” Wechter said.
Riding in the balloon provided an aerial experience totally different from that of paragliding or a small airplane. There was a sense of ease, given that passengers can walk freely about the balloon’s basket, and apart from the occasional blast of the propane burners, the balloon drifts silently through the air. Aside from catching wind currents at different altitudes, the balloon has no independent method of steering, so heading for a specific landing spot can be difficult. “You don’t want to be in a hurry,” Wechter said, as he brought the balloon low over rice and pineapple fields in search of a place to land.
There was a moment of worry as the balloon descended over an orchard of kumquats, the winds making it difficult for the balloon to change course. A farmer watched first with delight, then with a look of horror as his precious trees seemed to be in danger.