Feb 18, 2023

Balloons Over Marawi and Mayon

By Saul Hofileña Jr.
February 18, 2023

IN 1783, the brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier wowed the crowd gathered at Annonay, France with their invention. A year before, they had discovered that when heated air is collected inside a fabric bag, it causes the bag to rise: They invented the hot air balloon.

The brothers began to experiment with balloon flights. In one of their experiments, they put a rooster, a duck and a sheep in a basket suspended beneath the balloon. The amazing flight was witnessed by King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and by a crowd of not less than 100,000 people.

By 1794, France began to use balloons for military reconnaissance with the creation of the Corps d' Aerostiers (Company of Aeronauts), whose mission was to use balloons during the French Revolutionary Wars. During the American Civil War, balloons were used by both Union and Confederate sides to obtain intelligence on the enemy's ground position, troop deployment and strength. They were also used for directing artillery fire. Since the balloons reached 1,000 feet and were tethered (held to the ground), those who made use of them obtained great advantage.

Today, it is alleged that China is using that ancient balloon technology for military reconnaissance and to gather intelligence. On Feb. 4, 2023, the Americans shot down a balloon over their territorial waters along South Carolina. According to reports, it was roughly the size of three buses and was carrying sophisticated equipment to gather intelligence about the United States, either through aerial photographic imaging or infrared imaging or other means.

It was reported that during the presidency of Donald Trump, three surveillance balloons had flown over the continental United States. A similar balloon has been spotted in South America. Known as the Globo Chino, the balloon was seen in Costa Rica, Venezuela and Colombia, where it floated unmolested. Those Spanish-speaking countries, whose airspace the Chinese balloons have transgressed, prefer to keep silent over this new episode involving superpowers. For them, the passing of the balloon was just another hot air show.

Last February 11, an unidentified cylindrical shape "object," which was like a blimp or dirigible, was shot down over Canada's Yukon territory. On February 12, another "object" was shot down by the USA over Lake Huron.

Intentions notwithstanding, the shoot-downs of the Chinese balloons, blimps or flying objects are warranted under international law since they are not only hazardous to aircraft but are also threats to national security. The Americans say that the surveillance balloons are part of an intelligence gathering program of China which covers five continents. It has been reported that the balloons are being operated from Hainan.

In the Philippines, a law against espionage was passed before the Second World War, it is still good law since laws are not repealed by their disuse. Section 1 of Commonwealth Act 616 indicates that its violation may be committed by "going upon, entering, flying over or otherwise by obtaining information concerning any vessel, aircraft, work of defense or other place connected with the national defense... for the purpose of obtaining information respecting national defense, with intent to use it to the injury of the Philippines or to the advantage of any foreign nation."

The Philippines is no stranger to flying objects. In fact, the dirigible is enshrined in our Revised Penal Code which took effect on Jan. 1, 1932, and allows the application of extraterritorial jurisdiction if the crime is committed on board a Philippine ship or "airship." The word "airship" once referred to a dirigible or blimp like the German airship "Hindenburg," which met a tragic end in New Jersey in 1937.

And what of those balloons in Marawi and Mayon? Spanish historian Carlos Madrid informed me that around 1895-1896, a balloon was used by Spanish troops while constructing the bridge spanning the Agus River between Iligan and Marawi. The balloon was used to reconnoiter the river for the purpose of choosing the best location for a bridge. Carlos said that the bridge that was constructed was still in use as late as the 1970s, and that the ruins or traces of it are still there.

What about that balloon which hovered over Mayon Volcano? I will relate to you exactly what Bicol historian Danilo Gerona revealed in his book about the town of Bacacay. According to Bicol folk tradition, says Gerona, an image of the Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados (Our Lady of the Abandoned) was found by a Negrito chieftain in the stump of a big tree. A chapel was later built on the place where the stump once stood, after which Our Lady of the Abandoned was declared Bacacay's secondary patron. During a town fiesta, a balloon was let loose and rose in the air. It hovered around Tabaco town and circled the Mayon Volcano. Upon reaching the place where the image of Our Lady was housed, the balloon descended toward the church door and burst into flames. To the townspeople, it was a miracle. The incident proves that miracles do happen — even for balloons.

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