England’s Virgin Airship and Ballooning Co., a group known for arranging spectacular balloon events, gave life to this dream in Malaysia. Pilots were invited from around the world to compete for the Kent Horizon Trophy as well as the largest prize money ever offered outside of the United States, $20,000.00. Twenty pilots representing twelve nations participated. To most the real prize was just being there.
Our invitation came late in the planning process, as I was chosen to fill a slot vacated by another pilot. With only three weeks notice to the event, my husband Ronny and I were glad that our passports were current and that timing of the event was perfect to fit our schedules. This was an opportunity we simply did not want to pass up. Knowing little about the country our first step was a trip to the bookstore. With travel guides in hand we began to learn what a wonderful adventure we were about to begin.
Malaysia, located slightly north of the equator in the South China Sea, is a nation set on a rapid economic growth path. From Texas it is literally half way around the world. Reading on we learned that the population is a mix of Native Malay, Chinese and Indian. Religion plays a major role in everyday life, with Islam serving as the faith for more than half of the people. While packing gear for a local rally is generally a quick painless process, planning to take your balloon overseas is an altogether different matter. Everything must be packed in the basket, including the fan. It is absolutely amazing how much ‘stuff’ is used in this sport and how much we think is needed when going to an unknown area with cities and rain forests. By the time the balloon was ready to go it weighed over 850 lbs and we were set for literally any situation. Excitement was the operative phrase.
Finally, on May 28th, with our daughters off to summer camp, we were on our way. Twenty-seven hours later we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, the Capital of Malaysia. . Mark Lockwood, of Virgin Airship, had stated prior to the event that we would all be "Superstars" in Malaysia. Stepping out into the airport we realized that he wasn’t kidding. Banners welcoming the Kent Horizon High Flyers were everywhere! It seemed as though the entire country knew we were coming and they were just as excited. Ballooning was making a grand and very welcome entry into this country.
Organizers had arranged the schedule so that a few days were available to adjust to time changes and to explore. Joining with other participants no time was wasted and we set out to discover Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur is an exciting city of modern skyscrapers, street vendors, beautiful parks, museums and great food. Kent Horizon High Flyers banners flew from almost every light pole. Billboards, newspapers, magazines and even television announced the event.
Pilots and crew from over a dozen countries proved a great draw for Wednesday’s Meet the Media party at the pool side. It was a great success with hours of interviews and introductions. The prediction of stardom indeed came true. Soon our faces and balloons were in every newspaper and magazine in English, Chinese, Malay and other languages.
Thursday morning offered a really special opportunity for Jetta Schantz and me. As the only women pilots participating we were offered the opportunity to christen the new Kent Horizon balloon at a special tether arranged for a local women’s television show, newspapers and other media. Set at the Carsoa Seri Negara Mansions, former home to the Governor of the Malay States, it couldn’t have been more elegant. As the balloon rose, passengers from the diplomatic corp and press were treated to a beautiful view of downtown Kuala Lumpur.
On Friday morning the actual competition was to begin. At 4:30 am we boarded coach busses for our trip to the Kelang Football Stadium which would serve as the launch field for all flying events. Trucks, balloons and drivers would meet us on site. Kent Horizon had provided each participant with embroidered shirts and hats. As a group we presented a very good image for ballooning.
Malaysia’s Minister of Tourism offered an official welcome and the competition was to begin.
Our first briefing was really interesting. At 5 am temperatures were already in the high 80’s, at 5:00 am and humidity was even higher. Wind directions offered beautiful view of suburbs, power lines and very very small landing spaces. Additionally, it was suggested that we not fly over the river unless we had several hours of extra fuel due to the density of the rain forests. With all of this in mind the first race was started, a Hare and Hound and it was spectacular! Chase crews were challenged by maps with no street names and drivers who couldn’t speak English. Yet, by working in tandem everyone was easily found. All balloons landed prior to the river and each crew gained an additional hundred plus persons to help pack. Upon our return to the stadium thousands of people had gathered to see the balloons. Tethers were set up until we ran out of fuel. It was exhausting but fantastic.
Above:Diane Karlsson directs her Malaysia crew during pickup.
Daratan Merdeka, Freedom Square, served as the site for a choreographed glow on Saturday night. The glow and musical concert had been planned in celebration of the King’s birthday and a crowd in the tens of thousands had gathered. Each burner blast was to be timed to music. Needless to say, as balloonists, we were a bit skeptical as to how this might work. Early rehearsals experienced language and other problems and we were all nervous. When show time arrived the crowd and balloonists experienced twenty-two minutes of flawless performance. Balloonmeister/conductor, Mark Lockwood had succeeded in conducting a symphony of balloons to beautiful music. It gave us all goose-bumps.
Sunday morning saw another great day of competition in a direction quite favorable for large landing sites. Flights over palm trees full of monkeys and coconuts were wonderful. Competition had been quite intense and no one really knew who would be taking the trophy and money home.
"Survivor’s Supper" was the official name given to the awards banquet. Set on a pier at the Bagan Seafood Restaurant it was quite a party. Food was so beautiful that we all took photos of it. Tiger beer flowed freely and goodwill was at an all time high. The Malaysian Culture Department provided entertainment with the official National Dance Company. It couldn’t have been nicer. And yes, the winners were announced. From first to fourth were: Peter Vizzard, Australia; Bill Bussey, USA; Terry Dillard, USA; and Nello Charbonnier, Italy.
Ballooning as a sport owes a big "Thank You!" to Kent Horizon, Grey Advertising and especially to Mike Kendrick, Mark Lockwood and James Ireland of Virgin Airships and the people of Malaysia. . As a sport we are now welcome and anxiously awaited in a new area of the world.