Montgolfieres @ St.Jean-sur-Richelieu

Despite the tragic loss of a balloon pilot earlier this week in a freak accident, the Festival has continued with attendance high and people enjoying all the Festival has to offer, including many shows with entertainers such as Roger Hodgson from Supertramp and the  legendary Charles Aznavour.

What an amazing opportunity for the whole family. There are plenty of activities for children of all ages – concerts, food courts and an amusement park featuring rides, all at very reasonable prices.

The highlight, though, is to watch the balloons as they soar majestically into the great blue sky. The lucky ones, of course, are those that get an opportunity to fly in these incredible aircraft.

And after years of dreaming of flying with the clouds, my wish finally came true! The Balloon Master verified the wind speeds (max 8 knots) and temperature, and determined that we were good to go!

Our group was led to the airfield where we meet our pilot, Martin Grégoire, and the chase crew. I am happy to hear that Martin has over 25 years of ballooning experience.

The “Montgolfier” balloons, (relying solely on the buoyancy of hot air), at the Festival range in size from 2 to 12 persons, and the one we will be on is one of the largest in Canada, with a 12 person capacity.

We enter the basket, Martin fires the burner, heating the air in the envelope creating lift, and we`re off! We rise majestically through the air, looking down at the vast festival grounds.

It is a little disconcerting at first, to be standing thousands of feet above the ground, but once I reassured myself the envelope (balloon) was securely fastened to the basket, and that the floor of the basket wasn’t going to drop out from under me, I was able to relax and really enjoy.

No words can do justice to the experience because nothing in our experience comes close to the feeling of floating through the air.  It feels quite literally like you’re floating in the air. Unlike flying in a conventional airplane where you are moving and have the sense of motion, under the balloon there is no sense of moving.  It is peaceful and serene, with amazing and unlimited views.

Within minutes we had risen to 6000 feet, higher than many of the other balloons. The views are 360 degree, over miles and miles. You can even see the curve of the horizon.

All in all our trip lasted 45 minutes although it really felt like only ten. Travelling at a top speed of 20 knots (40 km/hr) we covered approximately 15 kilometers, as the crow (or balloon in this case) flies.

I was extremely impressed by the navigational and piloting skills of our pilot Martin. He knew beforehand exactly where he wanted to land, and we landed exactly where he wanted. Simply by using the various wind speeds and directions of the winds at various altitudes, he was able to navigate the balloon to a precise location suitable for landing.

Festival organizers try to maintain a special relationship with farmers, the majority of whom graciously allow the balloons to land on their fields.  There are a couple, though, perhaps having had bad experiences in the past with damaged crops, prefer us not to land on their property, and these fields are highlighted on the pilot’s maps as to respect their wishes.

Upon landing, as is custom, we brought a bottle of champagne to the farmer’s home and we all enjoyed a celebratory drink basking in the memory of a beautiful flight.

While some people may find the price of a hot air balloon ride (starting at $ 170.00 per person at this festival), a little steep, it is unfortunate as it is an experience that no one would likely ever forget. Definitely worth the money.

I was extremely impressed with the overall organization of the festival, and believe the hundreds of volunteers were in large part responsible for this. Everyone we met was helpful and friendly and seemed really happy to be there. You get a sense that this is something that people enjoy doing, not a job or obligation, and the energy on site reflects that.

Thanks again to our pilot Martin Grégoire and his chase team. If you`d like to contact Martin you can find him at Montgolfiere Aventure (montgolfiereaventure.com, (514) 944-5553) where they have eight balloons in operation from May to October.

Retiring from his “real” job this week, I have a feeling Martin will be spending much more time at the Club.

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