International Balloon Festival of Saint Jean sur Richelieu

I have flirted with the idea of going up in a balloon for several years. I vowed that I would never jump out of a plane or bungee jump, but something about being lifted gently into the sky really appealed to me.

When I was finally confirmed to go for my first balloon ride, my instinct for self preservation kicked in and I started to get very nervous. My first ride was supposed to be a Zebra head shaped balloon, but we were warned that the Z-Bra is a "special shape" and if there is any concern about the wind, the special shaped balloons get cancelled first. Dare I admit I was hoping the balloon ride would get cancelled?

All the pilots gathered in the middle of the field taking stats on wind velocity. We stood nearby trying to decipher the wind analysis, but it was all gibberish to my ears. After the pilots' meeting I asked one of the Z-Bra's land crew members and she confirmed that indeed the Z-Bra would not launch on this night. I felt like I had a new lease on life.

I saw fire being directed into "regular shaped" giant balloons and small groups of people being were launched into the sky with the help of a six person land crew/chase crew. O.k., that's how they go up, but what happens up there and how do they land?? What happens if they bump into each other in the sky? Phew!! I wouldn't have to think about that! Or would I?

I followed my photographer back to the Balloon Desk and less than a minute later he was pulling me to another balloon in the middle of the air field that was about to launch. My heart was pounding and my stomach was tense. To calm my nerves, I was telling myself that my photographer's 76- year-old mom loved the experience of going up in a balloon last summer. We arrived at the balloon just in time but we were told by the land crew that they will only take one person up. Phew, perfect, I'm off the hook.

Well, apparently not. Pilot, Frank Wechter came up to me and confirmed that both of us could go up in his balloon. In the same breath, he tells us it's the first time he's flying this balloon. Isn't that special! My heart rate increases. Frank gets busy training the land crew. Training! Yes, this is all new to the land crew too. All the while I am simultaneously thinking how I can get out of this and how can I calm down to have faith and let myself enjoy this. I wanted to pull the pilot aside and ask him about my neurosis.

Next thing I heard was "Ok, Donna step in". It got very serious as Frank was directing the crew and I was holding on for dear life (which wasn't really necessary). Frank gives us a little briefing about what to hold on to and to keep the knees supple for the landing. We lifted off like featherweights with a magical view of the Montgolfier's airfield below. Talk about being blown away!

Frank announced that this particular ride marked his 5000th hour piloting a hot air balloon. Frank has traveled across the world as a test pilot and has taken people on this magical experience umpteen times. Almost instantly, I was at ease and awestruck by the beauty of hovering over the beautiful Lac St Jean region as we flew peacefully in the sky.

Our conversation gets interrupted by intermittent shots of fire to heat up the balloon. We were in a balloon called "Jim" which partners with a balloon called "Betty", both were inspired by Japanese cartoon characters Kotenco and Matenco. Both balloons flew together as their respective pilots communicated with each other and the chase crew followed down below. They were discussing the landing already?? How time flies up in the sky!

Frank announced that we would be landing in an upcoming field and to hold on. We hovered just over the wheat fields as they slowed us down until we got to a freshly cropped field where we eventually stopped. It was so freshly cropped that the tractor driver was still close by. We crawled out of the basket and within minutes we were greeted by a neighboring family, the farmer, and the chase crew.

Everyone pitched in to fold up the balloon for transport back to our starting point. To end a lovely experience Frank offered a bottle of bubbly to the farmer, and we gathered around as he recited a little blessing to thank the crew, the wind, and the gods for this magical experience.

Frank Wechter lives in the U.S. balloon capital – Albuquerque New Mexico. He provides private balloon flights, and you can find him at www.PrivateBalloonFlights.com. He also represents CAMERON BALLOONS. Whether for recreational fun, competition, advertising, passenger ride operations, or special-shape balloons, he knows how to use balloons for sport, marketing, advertising, and commercial purposes. His work takes him all over the world and you can tell he loves what he does. I was lucky to have my first great balloon ride with Frank.

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