Flights return to the Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival

After a year-long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a fleet of colorful balloons are back for the event’s 34th annual edition.

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A capricious gust of wind can send a hot air balloon almost anywhere, as we have seen in the three-decade history of the Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival.

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Newspaper coverage over the years has documented balloons being forced to land on residential streets, retail parking lots, city parks, cemeteries, the Mer Bleue bog and, in one memorable year, the OC Transpo Transitway, which was the landing point for a giant beagle-shaped balloon that halted traffic in 2007.

After a sabbatical year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a fleet of colorful hot air balloons are back at the 34th annual Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival. Fortunately, the conditions were ideal for the first flights on Friday morning.

On a fairly clear day with a gentle breeze, three balloons took off at dawn, rising from the festival site in La Baie Park on the banks of the Gatineau River and hovering up to 2,000 feet above the city. , drifting southeast. This journalist was one of four passengers and two crew members of a machine piloted by Martin Isabelle, 43 years old. Our balloon was as orange as an NDP campaign sign.

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Unlike the first flight I took over 20 years ago, which slashed through treetops on the descent and crashed hard into a graveyard, Friday’s hour-long ride was wonderful: we saw the sun rise over the ottawa river, identified landmarks like Rideau hall and the old Ottawa city hall, saw the cars joining the morning rush hour and i saw a few planes take off below us at Macdonald–Cartier International Airport. (Festival staff are in close contact with airport authorities.)

Martin Isabelle has been flying hot air balloons for over a decade.  He is one of the pilots for this year's edition of the Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival, which continues until Monday.
Martin Isabelle has been flying hot air balloons for over a decade. He is one of the pilots for this year’s edition of the Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival, which continues until Monday. Photo by Lynn Saxberg /Postmedia

Even the landing was smooth. We descended into a dew-covered field off Earl Armstrong Road in the rural south of the city, and the pilot was able to ‘get’ the balloon closer to the road with small bursts of gas while we were still in the basket, sparing our shoes from being soaked.

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Isabelle, who is from the hot air balloon hotspot of Saint Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, told us he has been flying hot air balloons for 11 years. The former demolition derby pilot got into the sport through his parents, longtime volunteers of Ciel en Fête, an international hot air balloon festival in Saint Jean-sur-Richelieu that takes place in August.

Isabelle’s parents, Florent and Simone, are also volunteering in Gatineau this weekend. They were part of the chase team that tracked their son’s ball on Friday. They helped pack it into a trailer, then joined the crew and passengers for transport to the festival site, where we all raised a glass of bubbly (non-alcoholic apple cider) while Isabelle offered a prayer of thanks for the “gentleness” of the wind.

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In previous years, the festival has welcomed dozens of hot air balloons from all over the world. Due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, there are only 13 hot air balloons this year, provided by Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu operator, The Magic of the Air, and the number of rides available is limit. The cost is $325 plus tax per person.

If you miss out or the weather doesn’t cooperate, there are plenty of other things to do at the festival, including concerts, family activities, an amusement park, and nightly fireworks. COVID-19 measures include a site capacity limit, disinfection stations, masks and vaccine passport control at the gate.

For more details, including information on how to book a ride, visit fmg2021.com.

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Hot air balloons fly over Gatineau on Friday morning.
Hot air balloons fly over Gatineau on Friday morning. Photo by Jean Levac /Postmedia

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