FIRST FLIGHTBy © Conrad Duroseau / Zuma Press

After four days of rain and thunderstorms, the sun was timidly peeking through the thick cloud cover, with the faint promise of a beautiful flight at the International Hot Air Balloon Festival in St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu. The forecast was still uncertain, but I decided to chance it and make the 35km drive from Montreal to what is, arguably, Canada’s most important balloon festival. The Festival, in its 25th year of operation, had grown from a small venue to an international gathering of more than one hundred balloons.

The voice came,unexpected, “Hi, how’re you doing?” It was a friendly voice, warmed by the musicality of an accent from the southern United States. “ My name is Mark Gillim, I’m the crew chief for a team based in Kentucky.” I introduced myself and explained that I was a photojournalist, although I guessed the cameras had given that away.

An affable man,Mark had come to the Festival’s Press room looking for a photographer. I had arrived earlier that afternoon to see whether I could make arrangements for a balloon flight in order to get some aerial shots. After a number of queries,festival organisers had finally scheduled me on the last flight of the last day of the 9-day event. That had not been very reassuring. “Well, we don’t have any passengers for this evening,would you like to fly with us? Our balloon is the Persuader. …This is our first time at (The International Hot Air Balloon Festival in) St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, and everyone has been so friendly. We definitely want to come back again.” Without hesitating I accepted the offer. Although I had spent untold hours on commercial airplane flights, I had never been up in a hot air balloon before. This was also my first Balloon Festival. “Our pilot, Doug, will contact you before the flight.”

“…People will know me as The Flying Mexican…”

I could not believe my good fortune, remembering the old adage of photojournalists of lore “f/8 and be there…” when Doug Robertson, the pilot, found me walking by the airfield 15 minutes later. “We want to invite a family of three to come on the flight with us. It has to be three people because the basket only has room for four passengers.”

This was the first time Chloe Dufresne, a 28 year old accounting secretary with a small firm in Montreal, had come to a balloon fest. Her 8 year old daughter Emilia, and Luis Bonilla, 28, Chloe’s spouse and a self-proclaimed struggling artist, were also enjoying their family outing. “How would you folks like to get a balloon ride?” Doug asked the surprised adults. “How much is it?” was the timid response from Chloe. “Normally it’s about CDN$200 but this one is free.” “So what’s the catch?” a good humoured Luis retorted. “We want to give this opportunity to people who could not otherwise afford a balloon ride and there is no catch. It’s completely free.”

With a look of disbelief, Chloe and Luis agreed and told Emilia. The little girl started to dance and play with her mother. “There are still good surprises in this world.”Chloe mused.

The flight took off in the early evening sun, massaged by a gentle breeze. The conditions seemed ideal even to the uninitiated. Our flight path took us East, over the town of St-Jean itself and across the Richelieu River, over many field and country roads. It was sobering to realise that, unlike airplanes, balloon flight is more organic and definitely more social. Nestled in the basket, nothing separates you from the ambient air. The golden setting sun gave the sights a magical quality. The ease of the journey, and the spectacular views from above, brought smiles to Chloe, Luis and Emilia. “This is better than going to Disneyland!” exclaimed Luis. An hour later, easily avoiding high voltage transmission lines, our balloon landed safely and gently in a farmer’s field. The chase team came along to retrieve the balloon, its pilot and the passengers. “Now people will know me as The Flying Mexican!” repeated Luis, originally from Guatemala “The Flying Mexican,man…”

“…How many people look at a balloon and get a frown on their face…”

Back near the press room when asked why they decided to invite a family for a free ride, Mark summed it up, “Ballooning is a family sport, and to introduce a family to ballooning,(or) an individual to ballooning, expands the ballooning community.”

For his part,Doug then offered “We’re given the opportunity to fly all the time because people who can afford ballooning have the dream of flight and they dig in their pockets and pay for the ride. There are a lot of folks that come out and look at the balloons from the ground and they share the same dream, they want to do what we do every day. I think we take it for granted sometimes that we can do these things. So why not give someone else that opportunity? Why not go on the ground and pick out someone who shares that same dream? We did that tonight and got a nice family of three and I want to say it changed their lives, I don’t know… maybe three weeks from now maybe a month from now they’ll look back and say someone did something nice for me. Someone gave us a bird’s eye view of the world and maybe we’ll never have that opportunity again; and that’s what ballooning is all about. It’s about giving people opportunities and I just want to share that with people.
…It’s a real social event, and it’s just a lot of fun! I mean how many people look at a balloon and get a frown on their face? Never! I mean how can you not laugh and smile and have a great time? And that’s what ballooning is all about.”