The Canadian Hot Air Balloon Championship 2021 in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu

Text and photography by Claude La Frenière
After an absence of more than twenty years, The International Balloon Festival of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu brought back the Canadian Hot Air Balloon Championship to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Québec. The competition, under the sanction of the Canadian Balloon Association (CBA), was held from August 19 to 22, 2021 and gathered 20 experienced pilots from across Canada.
A little history

The International Balloon Festival of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, located 40 km from Montreal, is the largest hot air balloon festival held in Canada. This event normally welcomes 400 000 visitors, with participants from dozens of countries, and has been held every year for the past 37 years, except for 2020, when it was cancelled due to health restrictions imposed by the global pandemic.

In 1984, the event was created due to the exceptional conditions offered by the region for balloon flights. The first edition in 1984 lasted four days. It featured 20 hot air balloons and attracted 60 000 visitors. Following the tremendous success of the event in 1987, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu was called the “Canadian Hot Air Balloon Capital”.
The event attracts up to nearly 200 hot air balloons of all colours, shapes and sizes from the Americas and Europe and has earned quite a reputation around the world. It has hosted numerous North American and Canadian championships, as well as the 10th World Hot Air Balloon Championship in 1991, which attracted the world's top 100 balloonists from 30 countries.

Jonathan Perron-Clow, member of Canadian Balloon Association, told us that in 2020, following the cancellation, a plan was developed to hold an informal, low-tech, event that would be as resistant to COVID as possible.

This year, event organizers adopted a formula adapted to the conditions imposed by Public Health with a limited number of visitors. Normally held over a period of eight consecutive days, the event was presented over four weekends in August, with a schedule of mostly free activities and that included the presentation of the Canadian Championship.
What is the Canadian Hot Air Balloon Championship 2021?

The Canadian Hot Air Balloon Championship is an event where Canadian pilots test their skills to win the ‘Trumpeter Swan’ trophy and the title of Canadian Hot Air Balloon Champion. The top two finishers at the 2021 Canadian Championships will represent the country at the next World Championships, to be held in Murska Sobota, Slovenia in September 2022.

Canadians have represented the country with pride since the very first world championship, and have won North American and Pacific championships and continue to represent the country well.

Funnily enough, in 2020, the Canadian National Hot Air Balloon Championship was to be held in Scottsbluff, Nebraska in the USA, over 20 hours away from any Canadian balloonist. It was supposed to be merged with the US National HAB Championship, but in the end, both championships were cancelled.

Who can participate and what types of balloons are allowed at the Championship?
All Canadian balloonists holding a pilot’s license recognized by the CBA (Canadian Balloon Association) with conventional hot air balloons of a maximum of 105,000 cubic feet and flight crews of up to three people. Special shaped balloons are not permitted.
The technical prowess and knowledge required to operate a balloon

The question that often comes up is, “Can you steer the balloon?” Yes and no. There is no direct mechanical way to control the lateral movement of a hot air balloon, but a change in direction can be achieved by using the wind currents at hand. Sometimes, at different altitudes, the wind varies in its general direction.

By ascending or descending in these air layers, the pilot is able to maneuver the hot air balloon on a line of travel of his choice by accurately judging the speed, direction and strength of the winds, and being able to predict expected changes.

Crews must be able to read a map and have a good understanding of the competition area based on the competition rules, and be able to measure the effect of air currents resulting from topological conditions and other factors.
The strength of the team

Hot air balloons are flown by one person, but teamwork is an essential part of the competition. As the race unfolds, accurate information from the ground crew is very important to the pilot. The only ways to control a balloon is to operate the burner and vent, and pilots must control their emotions at all times.

The basic navigation instrumentation of a hot air balloon

There are three navigation instruments that are essential in the hot air balloon instrument panel: an altimeter, which measures altitude, a pyrometer which measures the heat at the top of the envelope, and a variometer which measures the rate of ascent and descent. Nowadays, crews use an independent device called ‘FlyTec’, which combines these three instruments with wireless transmitters with a unique code to avoid interference between balloons with similar systems.

What navigational aids are allowed for pilots?

All technical means to help their navigation, such as GPS, laptop with weather radar and 2D and 3D maps, are allowed and those who deprive themselves of using them are at a disadvantage. Some balloonists even have people on the ground to observe the evolution of the wind direction and in some cases can use probe balloons with telemetry received directly by the pilot.
From left Sylvain Tremblay the flight director, Jonathan Perron-Claw of the Canadian Balloon Association and Gary Lockyer the competition director also of the Canadian Balloon Association.
How do pilots use weather information?

Weather training for pilots to obtain their license is the same as for airplane pilots and they are able to use the weather to plan their flights and direct their balloons as precisely as possible. Weather information that is made available to them has an influence on the way they will steer and depending on the information they receive, they will go up or down to catch the winds to better position their balloons for the task at hand.

What is the competition flight?

Competition ballooning is not a speed race, but rather a competition involving precision tests. The winner is the one who best exercises his or her balloon handling skills according to defined tests that include objectives, targets, scoring zones, time and distance limits. Unlike conventional aircraft, hot air balloons do not steer. Pilots must accurately judge wind direction and velocity, which generally vary with altitude and time, in order to maneuver the balloon into the desired direction.

Events in a balloon competition are called tasks and several objectives may be included for each flight. The tasks for a particular flight are determined after evaluating the weather and other factors. Most tasks require pilots to use good emotional management and skill in maneuvering their balloons around a defined course with objectives, targets, scoring areas, time limits and distance.

Competition tasks are successfully completed by using a combination of winds at different altitudes to fly in the direction of an objective and accurately approach the target in the designated competition area. Crew members aboard the balloons drop markers onto the target or as close as they can fly. The markers are small 70-gram bags of rice with streamers attached. Some balloons pass just above the ground, while others can be several hundred feet in the sky when they release their marker.
The balloonist whose marker lands the shortest distance from the target wins the most points. Other tasks include flying the minimum or maximum distance in a given time, making the greatest change of direction and other demonstrations of flying skill.
Pilots are briefed before each flight. Director of the competition Gary Lockyer is standing in front, giving his instructions.
Important logistics behind hosting a Canadian Championship (Weather and Judging)

We met with Sylvain Tremblay who has been ‘Balloon Meister’ (flight director) for the past eight years at the International Balloon Festival of St-Jean sur Richelieu and who was also responsible for monitoring the weather for the championship. Tremblay is a highly experienced balloonist with 2,000 hours of captive flight for advertising work, for example, and about 500 hours of regular flight on hot air balloons.

Tremblay holds a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) issued by Transport Canada. He described his role as flight director as that of a chief pilot. He was the person who decided if flights would take place and assumed the role of overseeing all technical aspects of flights. Thus, during the championship, as well as during the annual festival, all balloons and pilots who flew did so under his responsibility as director of flight. He had to ensure that the weather was adequate, that the winds were in the right direction and that all balloonists respected all rules. This position involved considerable pressure and responsibility that he had to manage to ensure the safety of all participants.

As the person in charge of the weather during the Championship, Tremblay supervised a team of four people on site as early as 2:00 a.m. to verify and compile all the weather parameters and launch a telemetric probe balloon that will confirm the wind direction up to 5000 feet.

He is the one who must decide if the flight will take place and will transmit all the information gathered to the Competition Director Mr. Gary Lockyer a veteran hot air balloon pilot delegated by the Canadian Balloon Association "CBA" so that he can determine the competition parameters of the next flight and the tasks to be accomplished by the pilots.

Even if the decision to fly is made it can be changed right up to the last minute, as for example on the second night of the championship when all the balloonists were ready to take off from the chosen site, but a worrying storm cell changed direction. There was no question of taking any risk and the black flag was raised. Hot air balloon pilots have a motto, “It is better to be on the ground and regret not being in the air, than to be in the air and regret not being on the ground”.

At all times during flights, until the last balloon landed, Tremblay was constantly watching the weather radar in real time in case of unexpected changes in weather conditions. All balloonists had radios in their baskets, tuned to the championship frequency to receive relevant information, including the order to land safely as soon as possible if necessary.

Tremblay’s team had to prepare weather information that they would transmit to the pilots during briefings. This information included a forecast map (weather map), a chart of current and future winds at 3000 and 6000 feet (TAS) issued by Transport Canada, as well as maps of high- and low-pressure areas.
A typical competition day: Judging of the competition and roles of the officials

André Lapointe is the director of officials for the Canadian Championship. He supervises a team of fifteen officials. Lapointe has gained extensive expertise as a balloon competition official in Canada since 1986, and has officiated at the international level in Europe, Japan and the USA. He has over 100 balloon flights to his credit.

His role has started well before the competition. He has given a few hours of training to all the officials, many of whom already have good knowledge of the competition, to review the rules, see the different types of infractions and know what they need to observe to be able to take good notes and make accurate measurements.

Each competition day starts at 4:00 am. As soon as Competition Director Gary Lockyer has determined the competition parameters for the next flight and the tasks to be performed by the pilots, Lapointe analyzes this information with Lockyer and makes sure he understands what the pilots are required to do.

He then briefs his teams of officials and makes sure that the tasks are understood before setting up and positioning targets in the locations determined by the competition director. It is not uncommon to have four or five targets to deploy for a single flight.

As soon as the pilot briefing begins, teams of officials are already on their way to the field to set up the targets and remain there until after the last balloon has passed. Their role is crucial: they will measure the performance of the teams by their observations.

They must note several pieces of information, such as the distance of the markers thrown by the teams during their passages in relation to the center of the target, as well as infractions that are committed.

Common infractions observed are, for example, having contact with the ground or with trees to slow down or change direction before or after the target, or how competitors throw their marker. In some tasks they must drop their marker vertically (gravity drop); they are not allowed to throw it to place it closer to the target.
Other infractions are revealed by analysis of data from electronic chatterbox (loggers) on board each balloon which records all information of the flight (altitude, speed and position) in real time. For example, on a certain portion of the route they must have a minimum altitude and in certain tasks they must pass through a virtual 3D target. Thus, their position and altitude captured by the logger will determine if they succeeded or failed the task.

All the information collected by the teams on the field will be given to another team of officials called scorers. This team compiles the scores recorded by the teams on each target and this information is integrated with the telemetry data captured by the electronic chatterbox (loggers).

Between the two daily flights, a preliminary result of the scores is available in a few hours and the time to settle all disputes and to go through the information to compile a final result, with the daily ranking of the pilots, is posted the next morning.
Teams can use computers with detailed maps as a navigation aid.
List of events (tasks) of the 2021 Canadian Championship

Competition Director Gary Lockyer was on site more than a week before the competition to tour the region and determine on a map all the starting sites and all the places of positioning of the targets according to all the possible wind directions.
He was the one who determined the competition parameters of each flight and the tasks to be accomplished by the pilots according to the information he received from the flight director.

From the fifteen tasks approved by the Balloon Commission of the International Aeronautical Federation (FAI) and the Ballooning International Championships, Lockyer selected the following five tasks for this year's competition.


Pilots declare individual objectives, usually road intersections, before takeoff. This task tests the pilot's ability to predict wind speed and direction, and to fly to a location of choice.


The competition director declares a goal, usually a road intersection or other point identifiable as a ground target. The balloons launch from a common launch site and attempt to drop a marker as close as possible to a target near the declared goal. In one event, participants had to pass over a virtual target located on a map at a specified altitude as if they were passing through an imaginary circle in the sky.


The purpose of the hesitation waltz is for the pilot to choose, in flight, and attempt to fly toward one of several goals previously declared by the competition director. The pilot's decision as to which target to select will be based on the available wind speed and direction.


The hare balloon, designated by the director, takes off several minutes before the competitors, the hounds. The purpose of the hare balloon is to engage the hounds in a merry chase for a specified period. The landing site of the hare becomes the goal of the dogs. Any change in the hare's flight time is not grounds for complaint. The hare balloon will be deflated at the landing site and may be removed from the field.

ELBOW (ELB) - Rule 15.11

After taking off and flying for a specific time or distance, pilots release their first markers. The pilots then attempt to fly a course that deviates the most from the direction by making the greatest alteration of course possible during the flight and the change in direction is measured on the angle determined by three points. The greatest change in direction wins the task.
1st place: Jason Adams of Kirkfield, Ontario,2nd place: Martin Unsworth of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, 3rd place: Jacob Vaillancourt of Trois-Rivières
How many minimum flights are required and how many tasks must be completed?

In order for each pilot's results to be certified according to the Canadian Balloon Association’s standards, they had to perform and pass three tasks in two flights, but since the weather allowed six flights, they were able to perform nine tasks which made the competition more intense.

Competitors who were unlucky in the first few flights and may have failed a task, were able to pick themselves up and go out and put pressure on the leaders. The more flights and tasks completed, the more points they accumulated. Two pilots in the middle and bottom of the pack at the beginning of the competition finished third and fourth out of twenty respectively.


At the end of four days of competition, all participants and officials we met were happy with the progress of this year’s Canadian Championship, and at the closing ceremony of the championship six prizes were awarded.

1st place: Jason Adams of Kirkfield, Ontario, a pilot for 28 years.

2nd place: Martin Unsworth of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, pilot for 16 years

3rd place: Jacob Vaillancourt of Trois-Rivières, pilot for 12 years

Rookie of the year (1st participation in the championship): Martin Unsworth of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, pilot for 16 years

Female driver of the year: Guyanne Gervais, St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, pilot for 18 years
Junior driver of the year: Philipe Watters from Kitchener, Ontario has been pilot for 3 years.

It had been several years since there were 20 participants in the Canadian Championship and some crews were bigenerational with father and son and daughter teams. This is encouraging for the future.

Echoes are very good in the Canadian balloonists’ world and if the talks to hold the event again in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu in 2022 are conclusive, many new balloonists from all provinces have expressed their intention to participate next year.