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14 FEBRUARY, 2024

Capt. Joy Roa: Master of the Skies

He’s flown around the world twice on a small airplane, almost got stuck on a deserted island, flown hot air balloons and got an entire country enthusiastic about it, landed helicopters and planes on the most beautiful island resorts around the world, and bought and sold private jets.

Meet Capt. Jose Mari “Joy” Roa, the ultimate aviator whose love affair with flying has spread to countless people, whether it’s by witnessing colorful hot air balloons lift to the skies for the past 23 years, or buying private jets and helicopters on their behalf.

For Joy Roa, even the sky’s not the limit. His spirit for adventure has driven him to new and greater heights—quite literally—for almost five decades since he got his pilot’s license in 1978. But before he flew the skies, he was flying on the ground.

The son of a doctor and a teacher, Roa grew up riding horses and motorcycles. But his spirit for adventure was soon looking for other things. “It was starting to get boring after a while, and I decided I wanted to do something different and I thought flying, being off the ground, was different.”

Captain Joy Roa in a Gulfstream G-550 cockpit.

One day while he was riding with his friends, he saw a sign that read, “Learn how to fly.” And just like that, he did. He was 20 years old when he started flying school at Manila’s United Air and then in Southern California.

“From that point on, I took to the sky like a fledgling raring to flex its wings,” he writes in his autobiography The Joy of Flying.

At the time, the rental for a Cesna 150 was P120 per hour. “Not exactly cheap for a guy without a job. But this gave me the motivation to learn the ropes as quickly as possible.”

He did his solo flight at Canlubang Airfield and took his written test with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for his private pilot’s license. “It was the first time in my whole life that I had to study seriously,” he says.

His first passenger was Bettina “Ting,” Luciano, whom he describes as the only person he could “fool” to escape and take a flight with this newly minted pilot. “I would manage to fool her again to be my wife a few years later after her return from her studies in the States,” he says.

For his first charter flight, he flew two sacks of cash to Tapian in Marinduque—the payroll for a mining company (there were no ATMs in the Philippines just yet). There was a bank employee with him on that flight and when they got to Marinduque he requested that Roa fly back to Manila a nun from the convent there.

“Of course I agreed—and thank God I did!” The weather was horrible and he had to fly under heavy rain between mountains. By then the young pilot had 90 hours of flying under his belt.

Even in those early days, Roa loved the aviation community. He would later make friends with his instructors, fellow pilots and everyone involved in the industry. “Instinctively, I made an effort to explore every place I landed in and to make friends with airport caretakers and local personnel.”

Capt. Joy flying in formation with Royal Thai Air Force PC9s and F16

Four years after he got his license, Capt. Roa started a small company called Air Ads in 1982 (its logo had three clouds, one on top of the other). The business was born from what he saw in California where he was training—a small plane towing a banner. “I said, I’m going to do that in the Philippines.”

From that initial company of towing ads and signs, it progressed to airplane trade, restoration, parts supply, charter and a small commuter service in the ‘90s called Island Hopper. The airline flew from Manila to Busuanga, Boracay, Amanpulo, Baler and Lubang.

Now called Asian Safari Inc., his company runs one of the most trusted aircraft management and FBO (Fixed Base Operations) in the country. It’s also the name of his documentary series on flying and travel where he takes his audiences from the pyramids of Egypt to the royal estates of France, the hangars of commercial airlines, air shows, and plane manufacturers. Originally aired on ABS-CBN’s ANC channel five times a week, the episodes can also be viewed on its own channel on YouTube.

Bactrian camel in Mongolia

Bringing people back to Clark

When Mt. Pinatubo erupted on June 12, 1991, it sent ash clouds 19 kilometers into the atmosphere. It’s a basic law of gravity that what goes up must come down—and what came down devastated Pampanga, destroying crops, entire towns, and carpeting the province and also Zambales in lahar.

One of the most affected areas in Pampanga was the US military facility Clark Air Base, which covered 37 square kilometers and an additional military reservation of 600 square kilometers. By 1990 it had a population of 15,000 and one of the largest American military bases outside the US. (Clark had been under the US military since 1903, serving as a strategic base in both World War II and Vietnam War.)

In September 1991, the Philippine Senate rejected the renewal of the military bases agreement on a historic 12-11 vote, and Clark and Subic were formally turned over to the Philippine government two months later.

The former bases came under the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA), the agency that leads the transformation of former military bases and properties into centers of economic growth with the private sector. The air base became Clark Special Economic Zone (now Clark Freeport).

Around that time, Capt. Joy Roa was introduced to the International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. He had witnessed how the event drew pilots, balloon enthusiasts and tourists together. “I was in California and a friend said he knew someone who could teach me to fly hot air balloons. I met him and we started flying in Southern California. I did my checkride (practical test for pilots) in Albuquerque, where you can have 500 balloons flying at any one time.”

Capt. Joy is always happy sharing aviation experience with everyone thru the balloon fiesta and Asian Air Safari

Held every October, Albuquerque’s predictable wind patterns make it an ideal spot for ballooning. The balloons are launched in a 78-acre field or the equivalent of 54 football fields. The international event is held around the world at different times of the year: Quebec, Canada in August; Bristol, England, also in August, is Europe’s largest annual balloon festival; Igualada, Spain in July; Chateau-d’Oex in Switzerland in late January; and Saga, Japan in early November.

“The Saga International Balloon Fiesta inspired me on so many levels, and I came back home seriously contemplating how I could replicate the experience in the Philippines,” Roa says.

He flew the Philippines’ first registered balloon in Canlubang—a “low and fast” inaugural flight—and tried flying at least every weekend after that. In 1992, he put together a team to participate in Saga.

Two years later, in 1994, Capt. Roa helped then Tourism Secretary Mina Gabor to launch the 1st Philippine Balloon Fiesta on January 27 to February 1 in Clark. “Her objective was to give life to Clark after Pinatubo. I was very busy with other things, but she told me, ‘Please do it for your country.’ We called Gen. Romy David, who was then the president of Clark Development Corp. (CDC). They gave me money for the event and I gave them back the change because I was so kuripot. I think we had only a P2 million budget.”

At the first fiesta, Roa and his friends in aviation managed to launch about 12 balloons. A good number that they’ve been hitting for the past years is 20 balloons, which he says is the ideal number for the community to really get to know each other.

For the past 23 years, the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta has gained a huge following among local and international pilots and enthusiasts. More importantly, it has brought tourism back to the province. “When you go to Clark, you think of a hot air balloon. We bring in 110,000 people over three event days. Let’s say each person spends about P1,500 for the ticket, food, fuel, etc. That’s P165 million that we bring into the community. That alone tells you how high the interest is.”

The 24th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta

This year, the 24th edition of the annual event is going to be held at New Clark City (NCC), the new development spearheaded by BCDA. NCC is approximately 9,450 hectares in size and located in the towns of Bamban and Capas in Tarlac province.

Hann Philippines is investing P9 billion in NCC. Hann Reserve will have the luxury Banyan Tree mountain resort; the mountain golf course by Nicklaus Design targeted to be completed in 2026; the valley course by South Korean pro golfer KJ Choi in 2027; and the river course by Nick Faldo in 2028.

“Clark is very lucky it has investors like Hann Resorts putting huge amounts of money here—investors that are building instead of waiting to see what the government will do.”

Roa is excited about the new launch pad for the balloons and introducing it to more people. As a balloon pilot, he says, “the thrill is seeing people’s faces because you fly very low. I like seeing them smiling and making them happy.”

He describes the community of balloon pilots as “all very nice and down to earth because when they visit a place they want to know about the culture and the people.” He adds with a laugh, “They’re a little bit warmer than the snooty jet owners.”

Capt. Joy Roa’s world may be high up in the sky, but he prefers people who are down to earth—and the kind of flying that spreads joy back down to the ground.

 

The courage to step out of your comfort zone

When you ask Capt. Roa about the bold decisions he’s made in his life, he rejects the implied risk-taking in the meaning but rather focuses on the courageous part of the word.

“When you’re a pilot, you have to plan everything, you don’t take too many risks. You have to have alternatives and clear-cut options instead of just being brave,” he says.

“Courage can be as simple as stepping out of your comfort zone. I have very rich friends who never travel because they’re saving their money for their children; they can’t even enjoy life because they have so many fears. Everybody has their own fears, but I think you live a very happy, exciting and adventurous life when you step out of your comfort zone.”

You can say that flying a small jet around the world—twice!—is a bold move, but for him it was really more about the planning. The first time Capt. Roa flew around the world was via the Atlantic Ocean in 2005 and the second time by crossing the Pacific Ocean in 2008.

“Crossing the Pacific, you’re westbound, and the jet-stream is headwind. You have limited fuel so the range of a small jet is not huge. We had to stop between Alaska and Russia on a small island that was still part of the US. I had no choice, that was the only place we could land,” he says.

There was no proper runway but there was a dirt strip. When he and his co-pilot landed, they saw a very rusty fuel dispenser but nobody was around. “Oh my God, we’re going to be stuck here for the rest of our lives! We were in the middle of nowhere, I was starting to get worried. Then somebody came along bringing a bowser and he said, ‘Do you need fuel?’ Of course we needed fuel!”

They were running late to land in Russia and he had to make a call to let the tower know. “When you’re a small airplane, you have to notify everybody. A few hours later, we landed in Petropavlovsk. From Russia we flew to Japan. That was probably the longest we flew, 18 hours in one day.”

It’s almost 50 years since he first flew, and his business of buying and selling planes has seen so much success, but the thrill of flying remains: a helicopter because he can land anywhere (especially thrilling when it’s on a yacht); a balloon because he can see, unlike in any other aircraft, how people on the ground smile at the sight of it; and a plane because he can see the world below transforming.

“You see the topography changing and political divisions are being drawn as you fly above. And then to be able to land this instrument when there’s snow, fog, rain and wind.”

For Capt. Roa, there’s no greater joy than sharing his passion for flying with others, and to inspire the next generation of aviators to reach for the skies and follow their dreams, wherever they may lead.