Putrajaya’s hot air balloon fest

By REVATHI MURUGAPPAN
star2@thestar.com.my

Ready to roll: Event director Izzati Khairudin doing her rounds at the fiesta grounds.

The Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta 2013, returns to its Millennium Monument grounds for the fifth consecutive year.

A SEA of colourful, multi-shaped hot air balloons has been dotting the Putrajaya skies recently. The balloons, contoured to the shape of a SIM card, Smurf cartoon character, monkey and elephant, have been “floating” around at the 5th Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta 2013, which is currently taking place at the Millennium Monument (Monumen Alaf Baru) in Precinct 2, Putrajaya.

Organised by AKA Balloon Sdn Bhd, Putrajaya Corporation (PPj) and the Malaysian Sports Aviation Federation (MSAF), the annual four-day event attracts more than 300,000 visitors. Coordinating and arranging every aspect of the mammoth event is no simple task but it’s something the Khairudin family has been doing since the inception of the fiesta in 2009.

Izzati and Atiqah Khairudin – also known as the “balloon sisters”, were barely out of school when their dad roped them in to help with the event.

“We didn’t have a choice!” they say, laughing. “We had been exposed to balloon rides since we were kids so our father put us to work. We call it forced labour!”

The late fiesta chairman and co-founder Khairudin Abd Rani was an avid hot air balloon enthusiast who got interested in the sport when he was studying in the United Kingdom. A civil engineer, he opted for early retirement and started AKA Balloon Sdn Bhd in 1995 to pursue his passion. He brought in instructors from the UK, licensed five local pilots and offered hot air balloon rides to the public.

Eventually, he decided to organise a hot air balloon meet in Malaysia because there was none at that time. The purpose was to show the different hot air balloons, and to put Malaysia on the ballooning map.

Around 20 balloonists, mostly contacts and friends, were invited to participate and they come from all over the world.

Izzati (left) and Atiqah Khairudin, the hot air balloon sisters.

“Dad chose Putrajaya as the location because there was plenty of empty space to land (the balloons). He would oversee the flying section while I was tasked to look after the events side,” says event director and eldest sibling Izzati, 26. “I was thrown in the deep end and didn’t know what to expect in the first year.”

The ground events include tethered hot air balloon rides, helicopter rides, remote control balloon demonstrations, zorbing, car simulators, hamster roll games, archery, wall climbing, paintball and a host of other activities.

When it rains or is too windy, the balloons do not fly for safety reasons. The sisters then have to put up with thousands of irate visitors, some of whom have travelled from different states just to see the balloons.

Assistant event director Atiqah, recalls, “One time, I just stood and cried because I couldn’t take the pressure from the crowd! They kept scolding me and I didn’t know what to do. It’s a challenge to deal with the crowd’s tantrums.”

The tethered hot air balloon rides are also cancelled if the weather is bad. Only 300 tickets are available for sale an hour before the five to seven-minute ride. For RM20 per person, the balloon will be hoisted 50-70 feet off the ground.

“Since we don’t pre-sell the tickets, people start queuing up from as early as 4am. It’s crazy!” says Atiqah, 24.

“In case the weather prohibits the balloons from flying, visitors can ask for a refund as tickets sold cannot be carried forward.”

Sadly, Khairudin passed away unexpectedly after a heart attack last December. The family was shocked as he had just returned from playing a game of tennis. They rallied together to continue where he had left off.

“It’s been hard without dad. He handled all the logistics and we handled all the ground affairs. Thankfully, we have the experience from the past fiestas. My mom has taken over my dad’s role, with the help of dad’s friend Mohammad Sobri Saad, who is the fiesta chairman,” relates Izzati.

Another younger sister Hafizah also helps out with the merchandising while the youngest brother has just gotten involved.

Since mom was a former banker, she doubles up as the financial controller of the fiesta. There is a main team of seven youngsters in the office while during the fiesta, more than 50 helpers are on duty.

A unique hot air balloon called Three Wise Monkeys.

“My little sister is very garang and we can see that she is very capable and manages things well. Don’t mess with her,” chuckles Atiqah.

“We’re also lucky because our team is young, with the average age of 23, and willing to learn.”

The first two years was literally a one-man show for Izzati, an accountancy graduate, as her sisters only came onboard in the third year.

“My dad never really gave advice on how to do something. He expected us to learn by example. We miss his lively presence. He had mentioned a few times that ‘After this, I can rest and you can take over’ but we never thought his demise would be so sudden,” recalls Izzati.

As a tribute to him, the fiesta kicked off with a memorial flight on Thursday. Khairudin would be proud of how he has raised his children. Not only are they pleasant and responsible adults, the sisters are also an enterprising lot. Every Ramadhan, they bake cookies for sale.

Izzati says, “My parents make sure everything we do is well earned. There are no easy paths or short-cuts. We’re very loud and bossy and I’m like the quality controller. If something doesn’t meet my expectation, I’m not happy.”

Atiqah rolls her eyes. “Whether at home or in the office, all we do night and day is talk about ballooning! Dad’s passion has become our passion as well.”

While Izzati confesses to being anal about everything, Atiqah says she’s quite the opposite.

Powering up: Getting ready for lift-off.

“In school, my parents would either be called in because Izzati was receiving some award or I was being disciplined. I’ve gotten better now,” smiles Atiqah.

Izzati just got married last year and now, her hubby is also involved, running the coffee stalls at the fiesta.

The first two days of the fiesta have seen the sisters running around madly at the grounds, armed with constantly ringing smart phones.

Stocks had to be replenished, crowds had to be controlled, unauthorised vendors were crashing the events and the media wanted to speak to them …it’s been sheer madness but the girls have taken it in their stride.

“Four days is more than enough. We cannot do more than that. It’s too much,” says Izzati, letting out a sigh.

The fiesta offers lots of exciting activities that will keep the young ones occupied – from colouring competitions and stage performances by cartoon characters to carnival games and rides.

Since it’s now the school holidays, it’s the perfect time to bring children here.

One of the highlights of the fiesta is the night glow event. The balloons are lined up in the launch field, and are lit up according to music. There’s also a “conductor” to ensure the balloons, music and fire are synchronised. The night culminates in a fireworks display.

By Sunday, the fiesta will be over and after a short respite, the Khairudin sisters will start planning again for the next fiesta, which keeps getting bigger. It’s been months of hard work and sleepless nights.

“Right after this, I’m going for a massage,” declares Atiqah, slumping back into a chair.

“Then, we want to get our balloon pilot’s licence. We’d also like to take the fiesta to other states eventually.”

Izzati adds, “We try to improve every year. We’re toying with the idea of organising a balloon music fest like in the west.”

The 5th Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta 2013 takes place till March 31. Admission to the fiesta is free but visitors are encouraged to use the KLIA Transit to Putrajaya as KLIA Transit will be offering a 30% discount on ticket rates during the fiesta. From the Putrajaya station, the public can take the Nadi Putra buses which will ferry them directly to the venue. For more information, log on to myballoonfiesta.com.