“It’s not a bird, it’s not a plane, it’s a hot-air balloon!” This is what you may hear people say when they look up at the sky in Gilboa’s Ma’ayan Harod National Park on August 17th and 18th, during the 12th annual international hot-air balloon festival.
Every year, about 15 hot-air balloon pilots come to Israel from all around the world to fly their hot-air balloons together.
“The Gilboa region is the natural home for challenging activities, and it’s no coincidence that the hot-air balloon phenomenon has blossomed here, where we unite the natural conditions with the development of sports and tourism tracks,” said Oved Nor, the head of the Gilboa Regional Council. “The festival is a unique family experience, and I invite the public to come and enjoy one of the most colorful events in the country.”
One of the pilots who will be at the Gilboa festival this year is Vincent Dupuis, a French pilot who has been exposed to hot-air balloons his whole life and has been flying them for over 40 years. Israel is the 63rd country that he has flown over.
“I’ve flown over every continent except for Antarctica, including 27 countries in Africa alone,” Dupuis said.
This year, Dupuis will fly Oscar at the festival – an extremely large balloon which is 35 meters in height and has a volume of 11,000 square meters. It has a carrying capacity of 18 people, according to Hani Levy, a spokesperson for the festival.
Dupuis, who contacted the Sky Trek hot-air balloon company after seeing an ad published on social media, now lives on Kibbutz Beit HaShita in Gilboa on a work visa, Levy said.
Maayan Shtetengas, an Israeli from the Afula area, had the chance to fly in a hot-air balloon with Dupuis on July 26.
“Vincent was very fun and energetic,” Shtetengas said. “He kept us entertained, and you could tell that he has years of experience because he was so comfortable flying us.”
Even though Dupuis has so much experience, he said he still feels like a kid at heart each time that he pilots a hot-air balloon. “I’m still a kid in my mind,” he said.
Typically, a hot-air balloon flight takes place just after sunrise. “We like calm winds; that’s why we always fly in the morning,” Dupuis said.
Anis Pzenica, 19, was also a passenger on the ride with Dupuis on July 26, which lasted for around an hour: “The beauty of an Israeli sunrise over the hill cannot be explained in words.”
People of all ages should come to Israel to see it for themselves, Pzenica said.
Hot-air balloons give a great view of Israel's beautiful landscape
DANIEL WADE, a hot-air balloon pilot from the UK, loves the views here so much that he has already been to Israel three times to see them. “Israel’s got some really exciting natural landscapes,” he said. “The country itself is beautiful.”
Wade is returning to Israel again in August for the Gilboa festival. “Israel was my first event quite far from home,” he explained. “The balloon went on an airplane to get from the UK to Israel, and it was amazing to find out that it was possible because I had never done it before.”
Wade, 24, is the youngest pilot coming to the festival this year. “Because I’ve been to Israel a few times before, I don’t feel like a novice pilot there,” he said. “I like being one of the youngest pilots because there is always something to learn.”
Coming together with other pilots at the festival in Israel is a good learning opportunity, according to Wade. He enjoys analyzing the variety of different balloons and the kits that others bring.
“Also, on every balloon flight, I tend to watch all the balloons around me to see where they’re flying and then decide where I want to go,” he said.
When Wade comes to Israel this year, he will be bringing a hopper balloon. This is a one-person balloon that has no basket but instead carries a passenger whose legs dangle out: “The hopper is an experience because it requires so little heat input from the burner. When you burn a little bit, you shoot up very fast, so you have to be really gentle and really careful.”
His patience has grown with time and experience, he said.
Like Dupuis, Wade has been exposed to hot-air balloons his whole life, in large part because of his dad.
BOTH DUPUIS and Wade spoke highly of their connection to their fathers and said how much their parents have shaped them into the hot-air balloon pilots they are today.
“My dad was a pioneer,” Dupuis said. “It’s in my blood.”
Wade credited his father as being a big part of the reason he is so passionate about hot-air balloons. “My dad is the most generous person I know in terms of letting other people fly and training other people,” he enthused.
Wade trained with his father and was able to obtain his license to fly on his 17th birthday. “I could fly a balloon before I could drive,” he joked.
For the past three years, Wade has been in the process of making his first balloon, in the shape of a baby dragon. “It was events like the ones in Israel that inspired me to build my own balloon,” he explained.
The actual building process is very intensive and time-consuming; a commitment of twelve hours a day for fifteen weeks is necessary, he said.
For Wade, it was worth it. Spending time making his own balloon to ensure that he can continue to follow his passion of piloting hot-air balloons, and seeing the world from above, is his favorite thing.
“My favorite festival has got to be the one in Israel,” he remarked, excitedly. “That’s why I’ve been back so many times. I always get such a good reception there. Whenever I land, there are always local people on the ground who are happy to see me and welcome me.” ■