International Balloon Festival 2022

Text and photography by Claude La Frenière
At last, the International Balloon Festival of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu has returned to the delight of festivalgoers.
The festival, known to be the largest of its kind in Canada, was held in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, 40 km southeast of Montreal, from August 12 to 20. The event was able to regain some of the ground lost during the pandemic with a return after a two-year absence for its 39th edition, with nine days of activities, musical shows and outdoor fun.

Visitors shared magical moments thanks to massive hot air balloon flights and a wide range of musical, humorous, and culinary programmes. The festivities were also marked by exceptional weather conditions that allowed the majority of the planned morning and evening flights to take place.

With an impressive number of entries on the site (the official attendance for this year is not known, but it can easily be estimated at more than 100,000 visitors), the public was back in force after two years of absence. This festival was born in 1984 in the city that has been designated the “Canadian Balloon Capital” since 1987.
Before the pandemic, the festival attracted up to 175 hot air balloons from all over the world. This year, the festival welcomed a little more than 80 hot air balloons, mostly from Canada, due to the cross-border Covid restrictions still in effect between Canada and the United States.

The organizers are aiming for a return to the pre-pandemic number of participants for its 40th edition next year, with the possibility of holding the “North American Hot Air Balloon Championship” with Canadian, American and Latin American teams.

Mass flights

One of the strong points of this festival is without a doubt its massive take-offs, with more than eighty hot air balloons that coloured the sky during the numerous morning and end of day take-offs. Each flight created a unique and different landscape; an image that marked the imagination of each person who observed it and remained amazed by this fabulous show, without forgetting the unique opportunity to make exceptional photos.
Magical nights

This year, spectators could observe an event that must be seen at least once in a lifetime: the magical, beautiful festival nights. They allowed one see the hot air balloons in a whole new way, with the illumination of these giant balloons with special shapes and fairy colors, like huge lanterns. It was quite a spectacle to see.
Yoga Flights

The festival offered a very special activity featuring hot air balloons called “Yoga Flights”, a unique opportunity for yoga enthusiasts to enjoy a moment of meditation and calm as early as 6:15 at sunrise, in symbiosis with the magic of the hot air balloons rising all around them.
Hot air balloons with special shapes

As always, a big attraction of a hot air balloon festival are the special shaped balloons. Among the multitude of balloons that flew in the sky during the festival, spectators had the chance to observe twelve balloons of special shapes: Alien Rocket, Aphasia the Alien, Speedy Snail, D-Bat, Tite-Fill, Ti-Gars, Miss Birdy the elephant, Piko, Mr. Fish, Ted & Lindy, Tiki Tropical Fish, among others. The impressive volume of these giants can sometimes reach up to 250,000 cubic feet.
Flying in a hot air balloon - the experience of a lifetime

Flying in a hot air balloon is a soothing experience with the extraordinary sensation of floating in the air. You will enjoy the lightness of the ascent, the softness and the calmness that will surround you during the trip in which you find yourself in communion with the sky. It is a moment to capture moments of pure happiness in photos or videos.

You have to forget your previous flight experiences or your worries because no flight is like a hot air balloon flight; you don't feel the wind and you don't have vertigo. Apart from the noise of the burners, nothing disturbs you, there is only the landscape that passes under you.

The pilot will be able to share his passion with you and explain the technical side of the flight. The trajectory of the balloon will be almost dictated by the winds and thanks to his know-how, the pilot will play with the altitude and with his reading of the terrain to allow the balloon to land safely.
What is a hot air balloon?

A hot air balloon is a flying device that rises thanks to Archimedes' principle. To make it simple, the balloon flies thanks to the hot air inside the balloon. The balloon consists of three parts which are the nacelle (basket), the burner and the envelope.
The nacelle is a generally rectangular-shaped interior designed to accommodate the passengers and the pilot, the gas cylinders and the instruments. In the past it was only made by hand from rush and wicker. Nowadays, it is designed with lighter and stronger materials that allow it to be folded more easily. It ensures the safety of the passengers and absorbs shock when landing. There are several shapes and capacities ranging from one seat to others with space for up to thirty people.

In the nacelle, apart from the altimeter which indicates the altitude of the balloon, we can find a variometer which indicates the rate of ascent or descent, a temperature probe for the temperature of the air in the envelope, a transponder, and a radio, which is used for communication between the pilot, the control and his pursuit recovery vehicle.

The burner is the engine - it makes the balloon go up. It produces a flame that burns from 600°C to 1,100°C with a length of 3 to 6 meters. Today's burners have at least two completely independent supply circuits, thus guaranteeing greater safety. In addition to these circuits, there is often a silent burner designed for the overflight of livestock, called a cow burner. The number of burners varies from one to four, depending on the size of the envelope, and their strength varies from 12 million to 18 million BTU per burner.

The envelope is the main part of the balloon; it is the part of the balloon that is filled with air. Its role is to trap the hot air produced by the burner. It is made of several pieces of thin and light fabric (nylon) which guarantees an exceptional resistance and durability. These fabrics are temperature resistant because they are lacquered or coated with polyurethane. This coating makes it waterproof and provides great resistance to heat.

Its volume can vary from 75,000 cubic feet to 300,000 cubic feet, while the size of a conventional balloon is between 75,000 and 105,000 cubic feet. The larger the volume of the envelope of a hot air balloon, the more weight and passengers it can lift.
How does a hot air balloon fly?

Before the flight, the pilot and his team proceed to assemble the different elements of the balloon. The gondola is laid on the ground and the envelope (balloon) is attached to its frame. Crew members unroll the envelope (balloon) on the ground and then start blowing cold air into it with the help of powerful fans.

Once the envelope has reached a certain volume, the pilot begins to heat the air inside the envelope with successive blasts from propane burners. It is then that the hot air fills the envelope and straightens it as well as the nacelle. After a last check the pilot has the passengers go onboard and he continues to heat the interior of the envelope until the temperature balances the weight of the whole craft.

To leave the ground, the pilot will raise the temperature inside the envelope to maintain a constant rate of ascent, and he will then stabilize the balloon with successive burns. He is the one who, at any moment, by deciding to heat or not to heat, can change the altitude and modify the trajectory of the balloon by finding different air currents. By decreasing the heating time, the pilot decreases the aerostatic lift of the balloon and controls its descent.

After having chosen a landing area that meets requirements in terms of its surface and ease of access for his pursuit team, he proceeds to land the hot air balloon. Once on the ground, he turns off his burners and opens the valve at the top of the envelope to release the hot air.

Once completely deflated, the team will fold the envelope and disassemble the different elements of the basket and place everything in the pursuit vehicle. To thank the farmers, the tradition is that the balloonists give a bottle of champagne to the owner of the land where the balloon lands.
Partnership with farmers

Organizing flights of the magnitude of those presented by the International Balloon Festival has its share of challenges, among which are the landings. The organization of the festival maintains harmonious relations with the farmers who for more than 30 years, generally allow the pilots to land on their land.

In order to avoid any problems, the pilots have access to an electronic map which indicate the lands to be avoided, and the organization is very strict towards the pilots and the chasing teams who do not respect the landing instructions.
In conclusion

This edition was a great success after its two years of absence and marks an important step towards the return to the greatness of the festival as it was before 2020. The hosting of an event of this magnitude implies significant logistical planning, and this year it was 400 employees and 1,200 volunteers who made the event possible, not counting the participation of many external collaborators, sponsors and especially all the teams of balloonists.