Riding a hot air
balloon over Ottawa

August 31, 2008

Jas and I drove to watch the Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival last year. We intended to ride the balloons but didn’t make a reservation. The rides were so popular that we didn’t get a chance to get on one.

This year, we made a reservation three months in advance. Only the weather could stop us now.

It didn't stop us this time.

We were greeted by a staff at the gate who handed us a form to fill. After signing our lives away, we entered the registration booth.

They kept our confirmation letter and found a balloon for us. Almost all the balloons were filled. They assigned us an unnamed vessel towards the bottom of the list.

Arriving much later than the rest of the passengers, all seats in the waiting area were taken. We sat on the ground next to a fence.

We had to keep a ticket that we handed back to the pilot after the flight.

The large Parc de la Baie was divided into seven zones – A to G. Pilots from each zone found their passengers and led them to their balloons. Our pilot was Joe.

As Joe led us to his balloon, we kept guessing which balloon would be flying us. We walked a long way, finally arriving at the launch site.

Preparations began right away. First, they took away the cover protecting the basket…

Then they got the basket off the van onto the ground.

The burner assembly went on next.

Moments later, we were told to move to another launch site as the area we were on wasn’t safe. We hopped onto Joe’s van and moved. Good thing we did – the original launch site was below a hill, which blocked our view of the rest of the festival. We moved back up on the hill, allowing us to see everything.

The scheduled launch time was 5:30pm, but winds weren’t calm enough. We waited until close to 7pm. Elsewhere, the balloons were all ready for action.

So was our insurance…

At 6:50pm, it all began.

Joe’s son, Joey, tried to figure out where we might land with stronger than usual winds. Flying too fast and too long could take us outside the map, making it difficult for the chase vehicle to locate us.

The first balloons rose into the air.

Meanwhile, our balloon was still flat. Two powerful fans lined up at its mouth, prepared to fill it to volume.

As our area cleared up, it was time to fly. And time for the balloon to fill up.

With sufficient air in the balloon, Joe fired up the burner to heat the air inside.

More heat went in.

The balloon started to rise…

The next few minutes were so quick I couldn’t take any pictures. As more hot air filled our balloon, we had to hold it down by putting our weight onto the basket. Once it got sufficient lift, two other passengers climbed in. Jas went in next, and I went in last.

Soon, we had a lift off! Joey’s balloon, Joe’s second, was still flat on the ground.

Everything became smaller… 

We crossed Ottawa River.

The last few balloons went up. Notice that Joey’s balloon was still on the ground.

The Parliament buildings weren’t far away.

Downtown Ottawa.

We flew over a nice neighbourhood.

There were at least 40 balloons ahead of us. Since we were one of the last to go up, we had to chase the pack. It’s better to land somewhere close to other balloons so that the chase vehicles could find us more easily than trying to hunt down a sporadic balloon.

Joe heated the balloon some more to get higher into the air, allowing the balloon to catch on stronger air currents up high for a speedier flight.

Things began to look very much like SimCity

Some balloons flew so low every dog in the neighbourhood barked like crazy.

It was close to sunset. We were not supposed to fly after sunset (7:43pm on that day). Some balloons had already landed.

Some balloons kept going…

It felt as if a short while had just passed, but we had already flown for thirty minutes. Joe started the descent.

Things got closer…

And closer...

Very much closer…

And then so closed we brushed a tree top.

“Remember what I told you about the landing?” Joe reminded us. We bent our knees (instead of keeping them straight) to absorb the shock from the basket hitting the ground.

Joe controlled the descent so well we couldn’t tell if we landed. Tall grasses in the landing site helped cushion the basket, too.

Joe kept the balloon up to help the chase crew locate us. After a few minutes of waiting, it was becoming clear that they couldn’t find us.

A few local people helped us by dragging our basket towards the road. Joe eventually brought down the balloon.

Minutes passed. Then an hour went by. The chasing team had completely lost us but after a few calls through a cell phone, they found us.

It turned out that Joe’s second balloon couldn’t fly up before the cut off time. Their crew had to scramble to pack up the unflown balloon before being able to start the chase. The walkie-talkie’s battery died along the way, too.

They drove us back to the launch site. By then it was 9:40pm – fireworks would’ve already ended. Just as we parked, fireworks began. We toasted with some sparkling wine.

It was quite an unforgettable night.

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