Article by Jonathan Perron-Clow, CIA PMR member – Canada
COVID-19 pushes us to New Collaboration
As we all sat at home during the spring of 2020, our favorite balloon events getting cancelled left and right, a few of us got chatting about the dream of bringing competitive ballooning back to Eastern Canada.
The day after the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu International Balloon Festival in Quebec was cancelled, we hatched our plan. It would be a low-tech, informal activity with no publicity, and we’d make it as COVID-proof as possible.
It was but one of a number of opportunities Canadian balloonists took advantage of in what was a difficult year on families, businesses and events at home and around the world. It led to a change in venue for the Canadian Hot Air Balloon (HAB) Championship and to better connections with balloonists across the country.
There hadn’t been any competitions in Eastern Canada in nearly 20 years. This meant that any pilot from the parts of the country with the most balloon pilots needed to drive over 3,000 km to attend the bi-annual championship. And to have any hope of representing Canada at a World Championship.
2020 Canadian National Hot Air Balloon Championship
For 2020, Canada’s National HAB Championship was set up to be held in August in Scottsbluff, Nebraska USA, a 20+ hour drive 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 as each month passed. Eventually, both Championships were cancelled.
Instead, the Amicale 2020 (French for Friendly) took shape in Canada’s capital of ballooning: Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, just south of Montreal, Quebec. Nearly one-third of all Canadian Balloon pilots in the country live in or near Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, the city that hosted the successful 1991 FAI World Hot Air Balloon Championship.
Competitor Jacob Benjamin throws a marker during the Amicale 2020.
The event’s success led to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu hosting this year’s Canadian championship. Photo credit: Bertrand Tougas
The Amicale was very successful with eight competitors flying ten tasks over four flights in early September 2020. Reigning Canadian Champion, Jason Adams, took the crown over the seven rookies.
Canadian Pilots Re-Discover ‘Home’ Events
Weeks later, a number of young Eastern pilots took to the road to discover the ‘far off’ province of Alberta. Since they couldn’t attend their usual events around the world, the pilots found they had time to discover those in their own distant backyard.
The Red Deer River Valley that has carved out a space for Drumheller, Alberta gives
awesome views that are, of course, best seen from a hot air balloon. Smoke from
major forest fires in 2020 gave an eerie look to the region. Photo credit: P-A Marcoux
Twice a year, the valley town of Drumheller hosts the local Calgary Balloon Club for a weekend of fun flying. Drumheller is located northeast of Calgary, Alberta. There’s no competition, no X, no 3D tasks, but the scenery is totally unique.
The Drumheller Happening brings together balloonists from across Alberta. In 2020,
pilots from Quebec drove 3,000 km to enjoy these views. This fall, it will host
the Calgary Balloon Club’s 45th anniversary celebration. Photo credit: Sébastien Poupart.
The next weekend, the Heritage Inn International Balloon Festival took place in High River, Alberta. It was a great opportunity for pilots who’ve shared Facebook friendships to meet for the first time and build relationships, compare equipment, share stories and especially share the skies. This time there were two flights with Hare & Hounds competition to keep pilots sharp.
High River has become the new model of ‘how to develop ballooning in Canada’. When the event started in 2013, Town Councillor and Event Chairman Jamie Kinghorn was the only pilot in town. As the event has grown (and hosted the Canadian championship four times), people come from further away to fly and enjoy the amazing local hospitality. Pilots from the UK, Belgium, Japan and the US have enjoyed the event.
At the time of writing, there are now six pilots in High River, and it hosts Canada’s first balloon port, a dedicated space for launching balloons. We’re used to seeing curious onlookers express interest in ballooning. High River has been doing a great job of giving a pathway to those people to become pilots and nearly half of the new pilots are women!
The launch field shrinks as the first pilots off float away at the
Heritage Inn International Balloon Festival. High River lies at the start
of the vast Canadian prairies and next to the Foothills of the
Rocky Mountains, visible far back on the left. Photo credit: P-A Marcoux
New Pilot Growth in 2020
As fellow PMR committee member Kim Magee (USA)’s Balloon Training Academy has reported, 2020 was also an exceptional year for training of new pilots in Canada. At present, there are over 20 students or very new pilots in the country. That may not sound like many, but if they all get their license, it will mean a nearly 15% increase in pilots in the country. And more are starting all the time.
A lot of these new pilots look at fiesta style events, and also competition events, as great places to fly as a community. Following the success of last fall’s Amicale, the organizing team at the International Balloon Festival of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu got really excited about hosting competitions. They will host the 2021 Canadian HAB Championship from August 19-22. As of writing, there are 22 competitors registered. The majority have never competed and will be learning as they go. Best of luck to all of them.
While 2020 was extremely difficult and tragic in so many ways, Canadian balloonists made the most of it by connecting and reconnecting, supporting the next generation and getting excited about competition. More to come!
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 many smiles underneath participants’ masks.
Photo credit: Emma Lockyer