JEDDAH: Colorful hot air balloons decorated the daytime skies of AlUla, sailing over its archaeological sites as the country’s first hot air balloon pilots also took flight.
The hot air balloon show is part of the AlUla Skies Festival, which is being organized by Saudia Airlines and runs from Feb. 27 to March 12.
The 150 balloons will give visitors a rich and adventurous travel experience by flying them over AlUla to enjoy views of the stunning desert terrain, where they can see ancient archaeological sites and volcanic plains.
Two of the balloons are captained by trained pilots from the Saudi Arabian Hot Air Ballooning Federation.
Hussain Makkawi and Afrah Al-Harbi are the first licensed Saudi hot air balloon pilots in the country. They are also the first graduates from the SAHAB training program.
Makkawi, 32, works at the General Authority of Civil Aviation and said he had been supported by SAHAB to acquire his hot air balloon pilot license.
“I sought to fly but, even more importantly, it was an incredible opportunity for me to be one of the first Saudi hot air balloon pilots. It was, as they say, a no-brainer,” he told Arab News.
Up above in the sky, he is unafraid of heights. “I’m generally a person who enjoys peace and quietness, and that’s what got me attached to the air balloon. The smooth flying experience and the sense of peacefulness in the air balloon are priceless.
“Flying in a hot air balloon, as anyone who’s tried it, is a quite mesmerizing experience.”
The SAHAB program is the first in the Middle East to train hot air balloon pilots. It enables trainees to obtain a certified license from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency.
It also enables them to participate in international events, as well as obtain memberships to take part in hot air balloon sporting activities.
Makkawi said the program had helped him to explore many topics like “meteorology, human performance, how the human body is affected by flying, navigation, details about the operation, materials, maintenance, and emergency procedures for the balloon.”
The program also has a practical part that includes pre-flight preparations and weather condition briefings, flight planning, balloon assembly and inflation, taking off, in-route flying altitudes, landing, and packing the balloon.
“My first time riding the air balloon was during my training period in the Netherlands. It was in June 2020 and I was hooked from the moment we took off,” Makkawi said.
He is aiming to obtain a commercial license so he can operate larger balloons.
“The initial license allows me to fly smaller category balloons, but, after accumulating a certain number of flying hours, I can start to operate larger balloons and that’s the goal.”
Flying in different places around the world is one of Makkawi’s dreams.
“I love to travel and explore,” he said.
Visitors to AlUla can choose from a tethered balloon, an untethered one, or they can come in the evening to witness the “Glow Show,” which entered the Guinness World Record for the longest line of illuminated balloons “dancing” to music.
Al-Harbi, 21, is the first Saudi woman licensed to pilot a hot air balloon.
“My first time riding an air balloon was in the Netherlands during the training, and I was literally touching the sky,” she told Arab News.
“The idea came to my mind when I first saw hot air balloons in AlUla two years ago.”
She is currently working as a training officer with SAHAB, and said she tried to be unique and liked to explore interesting experiences.
“We are pleased to invite all those interested in flying to register in the next phase of the program. It is a very distinguished program that supports the citizens of this country to experience unique jobs.”
The AlUla festival is the start of her journey, and she said she was looking forward to being a professional hot air balloon trainer.
The first hot air balloon experience was brought to Saudi Arabia in AlUla in 2019, one of many events to be held in the area.
These events have created a major step in the promotion of AlUla, in northwestern Saudi Arabia, which is widely recognized as one of the country’s most beautiful tourism destinations.
AlUla also has Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Archaeological Site, Hegra, from the Nabataean civilization.