Continental Drift #3

Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Québec, Canada
August 16, 2008

"Je vole avec des ballons remplis d'hélium au Canada"


Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu is located along the Richelieu River in Québec, Canada. The area is rich with the history of the British, French and Indians making their way up and down the valley from Lake Champlain, killing and taking one another captive for control of the lucrative beaver trade.


Deborah Slahta


Today Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu has a population of about 80,000. It is still surrounded in all directions by farmland, although the Montreal suburbs now reach to within a few miles to the Northwest. The inhabitants speak French, although you can usually find someone around with enough English to sell you things, and many are quite fluent. There is an older part of town with many tiny dépanneurs (convenience stores) and small, ramshackle apartment buildings; and there is a newer part of town, with the Poulet Frit Kentucky, Sears and the new Home Depot.


Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu is home to the Internationale de Montgolefieres de Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, one of the largest balloon festivals in Canada. In 2007, I received an e-mail from Marie-Claude Gagné, the balloon coordinatrice for the Festival, inviting me to do a cluster balloon flight at their 2008 festival, when they would be celebrating their 25th year.


I happily accepted the invitation, after which Marie-Claude began the long process of getting Transport Canada (Canada's equivalent to the FAA) to agree to the idea. This turned out to be very difficult. The U.S. aviation regulations recognize a kind of catch-all category of non-certificated single-person "ultralight vehicles" which includes the cluster balloon, so there's at least some category of aircraft I can claim to belong to. In Canada, the notion of a man flying with a bouquet of helium balloons was totally outside of their regulatory frame of reference. Much paperwork was filed, and Transport Canada headquarters in Ottawa was consulted. Finally, just two months before the festival, TC finally agreed to grant me an exemption to allow me to fly. So my crew chief Ernie and my girlfriend Marj and I were off to Québec.


The nine-day festival takes place at the municipal airport in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. On our arrival, we found things to be damp -- there had been rain, and more was forecast. However, we prepared the sandbags and checked on the helium tanks provided by the festival, and hoped for the best.


The festival assigned us a crew volunteer to help us for the week, a man named Jacques. Jacques had been a truck driver earlier in life, traveling in other parts of Canada and the U.S., so his English was colorfully French-sounding but quite fluent. Occasionally he'd deliver himself of exclamations such as "Holy s*** that f***ing thing!", which may be the downside of learning English from truck drivers. Jacques and his wife Nicole lived a few hours away and were camping out for the festival in their VR (véhicule récréatif).


My arrangement with the festival was that the helium cluster balloon flight was to take place on the first suitable afternoon after the first Saturday's opening day. Although there were morning flights for the festival, the spectators only came for the afternoon, making that the preferred time. I'd heard that the afternoons tended to be windy here, but I assumed that with a nine-day festival, I'd have no problem getting the cluster flight done.

However, that assumed that the afternoons would be flyable at all. When we arrived in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, the forecast called for rain for almost the entire week. In practice, things were not entirely that bad. Most of the mornings were flyable, so Ernie or I flew one of my hot-air balloons, assisted by Jacques and my girlfriend Marj. In the afternoons, the clouds piled up impressively, and sometimes there were sudden thunderstorms. The hot-air balloons, requiring only fifteen minutes or so to set up, could wait until almost flight time to decide whether to fly; with the cluster balloon, I needed more like two hours to inflate, plus time to get the crew together, so I was very dependent on the forecast.
Early each afternoon, I consulted with André, the festival meteorologist, and went over the various contradictory weather forecasts. We had to be somewhat cautious, because if I started my inflation and the weather turned bad, there was no putting the expensive helium gas back in the tanks, and there was only enough helium for one inflation. A couple of the days were obviously rainy and no good. Other days, André and I decided I shouldn't fly based on the forecasts. One such day turned out to be beautiful at flight time; another day, all the hot-air balloons launched, but rain, lightning and strong wind appeared out of nowhere, drenching anyone who stayed up the full hour. André was philosophical, and filled his special weather briefings for me with rhetorical questions, his Gallic laugh, and his not-so-flattering take on the skills and work ethic of the weather forecasters in Montreal.


The week passed. At a normal weekend event, I would have two shots at flying the cluster balloon, and it would either happen, or it wouldn't. Here things kind of seemed to go on... and on. I was too distracted to enjoy the morning hot-air balloon flights much, and the repeated drill of checking in with André and then not-flying, for one reason or another, made me feel like Bill Murray in the movie "Groundhog Day", endlessly reliving the same 24 hours. My girlfriend Marj gave me to understand that I was not too pleasant to be with, which was probably true.

Saturday afternoon, the eighth day of the festival, was predicted to very windy, according to the Montreal airport terminal forecast. By that morning, I had already mentally written off the day, turning to Sunday as my last hope for flying the cluster balloon. However, as I checked weather thorugh the day, the forecast winds in Montreal were modified downward slightly, and other forecasts showed no particular windiness. When I went out to the airport in the early afternoon, André said he thought conditions would be good by our 7 PM launch time. I passed word to the festival staff who were organizing some of our inflation crew, and to Jacques, who had recruited some of his neighbors over at the VR park to help out. We got things ready, and after securing the final blessings of various officials of the balloon festival, we began the inflation at 5:30 PM.


We had been given the use of the hospitality tent where meals were being served to the pilots and crew, no doubt enderaing us to everyone who was trying to eat, but providing us with protection from the wind, which was still gusting at the time we started inflating balloons. In addition to some young men from the festival staff and Jacques' VR buddies, we had help from a number of crew from the Farmer Pig speical shape balloon, as well as other balloonists and crew. It was a very tight fit inside the tent, but things went remarkably smoothly.


Marjorie Walters


Marjorie Walters


Marjorie Walters


Deborah Slahta


We were calmed by the cool confidence of Ernie, or "l'homme d'Ern" (the Ern-man) as Marj and I had started calling him, our senses of humor having degenerated substantially over the course of the week.