07 Feb 2022

2021 Canadian Hot Air Balloon Championship Reaches New Heights

By Jonathan Perron-Clow, FAI PMR subcommittee member and 2021 Canadian Hot Air Balloon Championship Committee Member and Deputy Director

What’s old was new again as the most recent Canadian Hot Air Balloon (HAB) Championship was held in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, for the first time in 20 years. It was part of a renewal of the rich competition balloon history in the city that has long hosted national and international HAB championships. The city was the site for the 1988 FAI North American HAB Championship as well as the country’s only World HAB Championship in 1991.

“We’re recognized as the national ballooning capital, so it’s natural for Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu to host the championship,” remarked Éric Boivin, CEO of the International de montgolfières de Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. “We’re putting the International organizational capacity to the service of great Canadian balloonists to recognize their skills. We were really aiming to showcase flying expertise and give more visibility to the pilots through innovative tools.”

For Event Director Garry Lockyer, it was a bit of a homecoming, 30 years after he directed those 1991 Worlds. His favourite French fry stand was gone, and the accommodations have improved. But otherwise, not much has changed in the country’s balloon capital that is home to nearly a third of all balloon pilots in Canada. It was great to bring the championship back as it welcomed the largest field of competitors in decades at nineteen - with eighteen of them being rookies.

“I was terrified - me and 18 rookies,” said the one competition veteran and defending Canadian champion, Jason Adams. “Knowing I was in the hometown of half the competitors, several that I had competed against the year before in the Amicale 2020* competition and one whose father was three-time Canadian champion (Martin Unsworth and his father Dennis), I knew this would not be a cake walk; it would be anyone’s game.”

Pilots and officials pose for a picture following the Opening Ceremonies. Credit: Jacinthe Trudeau/International de montgolfières

To compete, Adams needed to return from his professional piloting career in Africa, fight through complex travel restrictions, quarantine for two weeks and assemble his team from across Canada. He already had his spot secured for the 2022 World HAB Championship in Slovenia but didn’t want to relinquish the Trumpeter Swan trophy given out to the Canadian champ!

Over four sweltering days, competitors logged four flights and a total of nine tasks to show their capacity to plan and execute the flights. For many, it was a family affair. Not only was ED Garry proud to see his son Shane make his successful competition debut, but many other pairs of family members did the same. Importantly, the event also saw more Junior and Women competitors who are now eligible to represent Canada at upcoming events around the world.

Montérégie provides a stunning backdrop for flying which makes it Canada’s ballooning capital and home to the country’s largest balloon event, l’International de montgolfières. Credit: Maryse Phaneuf/International de montgolfières

The airport is a familiar sight and site for visiting balloonists. The region is mainly flat and lies roughly halfway between Montreal and the American border at roughly 35 minutes each way. Staying away from busy airspace to the Northwest, pilots usually ride the westerlies across the Richelieu River to the farmland across the way. A relic of French colonial times, fields are organized in the seigneurie style where everyone had access to water and thus fields are long and skinny. While most are planted with corn and other crops in August, the sheer number of fields mean you’ll hit an empty one fairly often. There are also the very odd Monteregian Hills which stick out from the otherwise flat area (nearby Mont-Saint-Gregoire is 824 feet tall). Great efforts in landowner relations by local pilots mean generally cheerful landowners very familiar with receiving balloons.

As they gathered at registration, pilots were offered training on the FAI logger. While it is on its way out as the method of capturing competition data, it was still new to all but one of the competitors. Despite the steep learning curve - pilots occasionally need to input target coordinates and launch virtual markers in flight - everyone was eager to learn despite a bit of feeling overwhelmed.
The first flight was cancelled due to weather. But everyone was chipper the next morning when the task sheet called for a Hesitation Waltz (HWZ) and Pilot Declared Goal (PDG). Flying from the airport, pilots had to navigate their way to one of two targets and throw a marker at the one they get closest to. Most pilots scored quite well, selecting the southwestern target. Pilot JP Lemaire of Nova Scotia scored best at 1.54 m with his 11-year-old son throwing the marker during what will probably go down as the best father-son weekend ever. The second task proved more challenging as many incorrectly entered their chosen coordinates into the FAI logger.

Rookie Eric Fortin’s teammate throws the marker towards the target. For a rookie, there’s nothing better than throwing a marker on the target you’ve worked so hard to find. Credit: Maryse Phaneuf/International de montgolfières

The flight did provide a great opportunity to test out a new, locally developed technology that allowed for tracking of the competitors by viewers online. Each pilot carried a radio-linked tracker that isn’t dissimilar from the Windsond technology now in widespread use in competition ballooning. At briefing time, the Facebook page would go live. While this year it didn’t have any sound, viewers could follow what was happening before watching the launch and then alternating between video and tracking of the pilots on the map. The proof of concept was very successful, and an expanded version is planned for next year. Starting at roughly 15:30 in the video, you can see the inflation, launch and then throwing of markers (there is no audio).

While awaiting a weather decision for the next flight, the attention turned to learning from a discarded task sheet. Garry explained what buttons to push, when and why. Experienced logger user Jason Adams told the others to avoid the little mistakes because those can make you lose valuable ground.

The sky was stable despite the intense heat and pilots flew a Hare and Hounds (HNH) that brought competitors clear across the city. For the HNH, pilots chase a balloon flying with the target onboard. Once the hare has landed and set out its target, pilots throw their markers, closest is best. Johann-François Frève and Jason Adams tied at 1000 points on task three as they scored impressively with .20 and .22 m, respectively. The video looked like this (start at 29:00).

A balloon in the International’s colours comes over the target laid out by the hare. Credit: Bertrand Tougas/International de montgolfières

The next morning, a triple was called to test the pilots anew. Two PDGs and an Elbow (ELB) gave pilots another chance to showcase their skills with the logger and the results were much better than the previous time with pilots successfully figuring out the logger inputs. Jacob Vaillancourt won task four with 28 meters and Jason Adams had 20 meters on the fifth. The youngest competitor in the field, Philippe Watters, scored an angle of 142.85 degrees in his racer balloon, specially designed to climb and descend rapidly, useful in finding the right winds in competition. To catch some footage, see this starting at 59:00.

A misty morning was in store for pilots who had three tasks to figure out. They did very well with tight scores on all three virtual tasks. Credit: Jacinthe Trudeau/International de montgolfières

With three flights in the books and two flight opportunities left, there wasn’t much separating most of the top competitors. Veteran and defending champion Jason Adams had the lead - many expected that going into the event - but others were close behind. Too close for his liking. When a thunderstorm did not dissipate on the Saturday evening, it meant only one flight window left and good weather in the forecast.

At the final briefing, pilots read their task sheet to find three pieces of info. This was no crowning but a full-on competition flight to determine who would be the Canadian champion. Heading out to a common launch site, they would need to establish a PDG before flying to an intersection for a JDG and then off to another spot of their choosing for another JDG. That meant three tasks requiring logger inputs. Had the pilots learned from a few flights previous? It remained to be seen as they took off on a perfect summer morn. The final flight included live footage from the target sites starts at 1:11:00.

Pilots rush to launch into a spectacular sky on the final flight of the 2021 Canadian Championship. Credit: Bertrand Tougas/International de montgolfières

When the results were posted, Jason Adams had indeed defended his title. “The last flight, I had my game face on for sure! Several competitors were right on my tail and had leapt along the learning curve. I knew the team and I had to be at our best.” He managed to stave off the competition and capture another crown. “My Team and I were absolutely ecstatic to win. Thank you so much to my dream team and everyone involved in organizing the competition including Garry and the Saint-Jean team. It truly was a dream come true!”

Indeed, for organizers including me, it was wonderful to see what had been a longtime dream take flight. Canada now has qualified competitors for upcoming Women’s and Juniors championships. A majority of competitors intend to return to Saint-Jean in 2022 with others who missed out jealously reaching out with a desire to pre-register. The plan to host the Canadians for three years in a row has been solidified and there might be more up our sleeves as well. Stay tuned!

Jason Adams lifts the championship plaque to the delight of the crowd. Second place finisher Martin Unsworth and third place Jacob Vaillancourt applaud.

Cover photo: Pilot Jacob Vaillancourt flies his balloon Baz into the target on the first task of the 2021 Canadian Hot Air Balloon Championship with a number of competitors following close behind. Credit: Maryse Phaneuf/International de montgolfières