Launch of Canada’s new spirit of collaboration and renewal of competitive ballooning

Article by Jonathan Perron-Clow, CIA PMR member – Canada

COVID-19 pushes us towards a new collaboration

As we all sat at home in the spring of 2020 with our favorite hot air balloon events canceled left and right, a few of us discussed the dream of bringing competitive hot air ballooning back to eastern Canada.

The day after the cancellation of the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu International Balloon Festival in Quebec City, we concocted our plan. It would be an informal, low-tech activity without advertising, and we would make it as COVID-resistant as possible.

It was just one of many opportunities that Canadian aeronauts took advantage of during a difficult year for families, businesses and events at home and around the world. This led to a change of venue for the Canadian Hot Air Balloon Championships (HAB) and better relations with aeronauts across the country.

There had been no competitions in Eastern Canada for almost 20 years. This meant that any pilot in the regions of the country with the most balloon pilots had to cover more than 3,000 km to attend the semi-annual championship. And have any hope of representing Canada at a world championship.

2020 Canadian National Balloon Championships

For 2020, Canada’s HAB National Championship was scheduled to take place in August in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, USA, over 20 hours away for any Canadian balloonist. It was to be merged with the US National HAB Championship. With the border closed due to CV-19, the event seemed less likely over the months. Ultimately, both championships were canceled.

Instead, the Friendly 2020 (French for friendly) took shape in the Canadian aerostation capital: Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, just south of Montreal, Quebec. Almost a third of all Canadian hot air balloon pilots in the country live in or near Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, the city that successfully hosted the FAI World Balloon Championship in 1991.

Competitor Jacob Benjamin throws a marker during the Amicale 2020.
The success of the event led Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu to host the Canadian championship this year. Photo credit: Bertrand Tougas

The Friendly had great success with eight competitors completing ten tasks on four flights in early September 2020. Defending Canadian champion Jason Adams took the crown out of the seven rookies.

Canadian pilots rediscover events “at home”

A few weeks later, several young pilots from the East hit the road to discover the “distant” province of Alberta. Since they couldn’t attend their usual world events, the pilots found they had time to discover those in their own distant backyard.

Hot air balloon Canada
The valley of the Red Deer River that created space for Drumheller, Alberta, gives
awesome views which are, of course, best seen from a hot air balloon. Smoke from
the big forest fires in 2020 made the region look strange. Photo credit: PA Marcoux

Twice a year, the town of Drumheller Valley hosts the local Calgary Balloon Club for a fun flying weekend. Drumheller is located northeast of Calgary, Alberta. There is no competition, no X, no 3D spots, but the decor is totally unique.

Hot air balloon in Canada

The Drumheller Happening brings together aeronauts from across Alberta. In 2020,
Quebec pilots traveled 3,000 km to enjoy these views. This fall, it will host
the celebration of the 45th anniversary of the Calgary Balloon Club. Photo credit: Sébastien Poupart.

The following weekend, the Heritage Inn International Balloon Festival was held in High River, Alberta. It was a great opportunity for the pilots who shared Facebook friendships to meet for the first time and build relationships, compare gear, share stories and most of all share the sky. This time there were two flights with the Hare & Hounds competition to keep the pilots sharp.

High River has become the new model of “how to develop hot air ballooning in Canada”. When the event began in 2013, City Councilor and Event President Jamie Kinghorn was the only pilot in town. As the event has grown (and has hosted the Canadian Championship four times), people come from further afield to fly and enjoy the incredible local hospitality. Pilots from UK, Belgium, Japan and USA enjoyed the event.

As of this writing, there are now six pilots at High River, and it is home to Canada’s first balloon port, a dedicated balloon launching space. We are used to seeing curious spectators expressing their interest in the hot air balloon. High River has done a great job giving these people the opportunity to become pilots and almost half of new pilots are women!

Heritage Inn International Balloon Festival

The launch field narrows as the first pilots take flight to the
Heritage Inn International Balloon Festival. High River is at the start
of the vast Canadian prairies and beside the foothills of the
Rocky Mountains, visible far back on the left. Photo credit: PA Marcoux

New pilot growth in 2020

As reported by another PMR committee member, Kim Magee’s Balloon Training Academy (US), 2020 has also been an exceptional year for training new pilots in Canada. At present, there are over 20 students or brand new pilots in the country. It may not seem like much, but if they all get their license it will mean an increase of almost 15% in the number of pilots in the country. And more are starting all the time.

Many of these new pilots consider fiesta style events, as well as competition events, to be great places to fly as a community. Following the success of last fall Friendly, the organizing team of the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu International Hot Air Balloon Festival was very enthusiastic about hosting competitions. They will host the 2021 HAB Canadian Championships from August 19 to 22. At the time of writing, there are 22 registered competitors. The majority have never competed and will learn as they go. Good luck to everyone.

While 2020 has been extremely difficult and tragic in many ways, Canadian aeronauts have made the most of it by connecting and reconnecting, supporting the next generation and getting excited about competing. More soon!

Heritage Inn Alberta International Balloon Festival

Balloons take off from the Heritage Inn International Balloon Festival
in sunny High River, Alberta. It was the only official balloon event
in Canada in 2020 and there were a lot of smiles under the masks of the participants.
Photo credit: Emma Lockyer

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