Balloon Spectacular Q&A: John Wallington
Most Canberrans have fond memories of waking up sleepy-eyed to hot air balloons drifting past their windows in the mornings, or watching them floating in the distance while driving to work. The Canberra Balloon Spectacular has become a significant feature of the national capital’s skies and a symbol of Canberra’s culture.
I spoke to John Wallington (Balloon Aloft), the flight director of the Balloon Spectacular, about this year’s event and his involvement.
Q: How long has the balloon spectacular been running?
A: The first ever balloon event in Canberra in the same format as the Balloon Spectacular was back in 1985, so this is actually the 32nd year, but 1986 was the first reasonably substantial event, so about 31 years. It’s a long-standing continuous event. Lots of events come and go, but to have the consistency right through is quite rare.
Q: What is your involvement with the event?
A: My current position is the flight director, but I’ve been involved since 1985 in different ways. The event is run by the ACT government, which is fantastic because governments don’t often run events like this, it’s unusual. I think the ACT government understands that this is an important event. 1. For tourism, as a real feature of Canberra, its good advertisement around the world for Canberra. And 2. It’s a great event for the locals and we get up to ten to fifteen thousand people coming to watch the balloons launch. So the ACT government runs it and I help them out by directing the balloons and using ballooning knowledge to make the daily decisions about whether we fly or not.
Q: What are your greatest memories and achievements in your hot air ballooning career?
A: I’ve had quite a lot of memorable flights, I’ve won the Australian Ballooning Championships a couple of times, I’ve also represented Australia. The most exciting flights I’ve had probably were when I did the first ever non-stop flight across Australia and also the flight from New Zealand to Australia with Dick Smith, so they were both quite notable and exciting flights, both taking a couple of days and a couple of nights. Then a few years ago I set the Australian altitude record, so I’ve been lucky to have flown further, farther and higher than anybody else in Australia.
Q: In our contemporary world where hot air balloons are perhaps not the most practical form of transport, why do you think they have become so popular in Canberra and the world?
A: Perhaps it’s the fact that hot air balloons really don’t have any practical use that’s made them so popular. The only practical use they have is that they provide great entertainment to people and they are beautiful things. But when you think about it there’s no practical purpose for going skiing either, but millions of people do it because they have a great time doing it. Hot air ballooning is a unique way to see the landscape and it’s a unique way to fly.
Q: Why do you think hot air balloons and the Balloon Spectacular event have become such a big part of Canberra’s culture?
A: Our event is unique as it’s one of the very few events that is over a city and Canberra looks great from the sky. It’s one of the very few events in the world where the public can walk right in and around the balloons so it’s a real public engagement.
A: The last couple of years we seem to have seen a little bit of a resurgence of the event. It’s never been quiet, and its always made an impact on Canberra but I think we’ve had a 50% increase in crowds over the last two years. And this year we had the number of balloons grow by about 40%, so now we can’t really accommodate any more balloons. We had 42 balloons in total this year including commercial balloons, and that’s a really nice number and makes for a really good spectacle.
Q: Can you answer the question that seemed to be on everyone’s lips at this year’s event? Where is the Sky Whale?
A: The Sky Whale is in South America at the moment and if it stays there that’s a really great thing *laughs*. The further away from Canberra the better in my opinion, it is such a singularly ugly contraption even at the best of times.
Photo credit: Sarah Kleven.