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Another pibal — a small, helium-filled balloon — rises into the sky and angles off to the southwest. Thirty balloon pilots from across Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. crane their necks and shade their eyes, hoping the little test balloon will finally give them the green light to launch. They really want to give a show to the thousands gathered here at Princess Louise Park in Sussex, N.B. for the Atlantic Balloon Fiesta. The sun is already low in the early September sky, and if a pibal doesn’t soon help them hatch a launch plan, they’ll scrap the day’s flights. Well before the little balloon drifts out of sight, everyone knows the verdict.

“This wind right here: way too fast to launch,” says Katherine Bailey, crew chief for her husband Seth, the pilot for East Coast Ballooning Adventures. If the balloons do take off, we’ll follow them to their landing site. She adds that wind speed isn’t the only issue. “If we’re flying in this direction, it’s not great. We have a lot of trees, not a lot of great landing options.” 

Hurry up and wait

As she and others muse about a plan B, a loudspeaker blares the names of paying passengers who now have permission to enter the field where the flight crews and balloons await. I meet the Baileys’ passengers, Marcel and Lisette Gauthier, who have travelled from Cobalt, Ont., to check off a bucket list item. Everyone is ready for takeoff.

Plan B, it turns out, is to launch far upwind and fly back to town. “They’ll discuss that in the pilot briefing,” says Bailey. “If the balloon master doesn’t like that plan, he might scrap the launch altogether. We’ll just have to wait and see.” There’s a lot of this hurry up and wait, she says. “We call it gusting out. Those gusts will get further and further apart. Then we’ll be good to go.”

They float one pibal after another. I spot a group of pilots gathering for their latest briefing. By the time I reach them, they’ve decided to go with plan B. They’re scattering in every direction, climbing into trucks and vans, towing trailers that carry their stowed balloons. Bailey calls me to her truck and we’re off. Beyond the field, we fall into a long line of vehicles headed northeast — upwind from Sussex — on a narrow country road to a pasture in the distance. A sign on the back of the trailer ahead of us reads, “Frequent stops and indecision.”

Even before we reach the pasture, vibrantly coloured balloons splash over the hayfield stubble like 2-D versions of themselves. Big propane burners are already firing hot air into their bellies. They billow into shape, at last standing on their wicker basket feet. By the time Seth Bailey is rattling off safety instructions to passengers, the first balloon drifts silently into a sky of deepening blue, its yellow globe gleaming like a light bulb from the fire within and the sunset beyond.

Bitten by balloon bug

Seth Bailey caught the ballooning bug early in life. The 45-year-old was just seven when his hometown launched its first balloon festival in 1985. As I wait on a side road in the truck with the chase crew, watching the balloons drift — one is shaped like an elephant, another like a tropical fish wearing a bowtie — Katherine Bailey paints a darling picture of a young Seth, fired up with his new passion for ballooning, now a lifelong calling.

“He grew up seeing the balloons everywhere,” she says. “He can remember as a boy, going to school with his pants wet up to his knees because they’re chasing the balloons through wet fields.” Seth went on to earn his pilot’s licence in Ontario, and later his balloon pilot instructor licence. Now, he and Katherine operate East Coast Ballooning Adventures in Wolfville, N.S.

The fiesta began when town leaders noted that a few balloonists, some who even built their own craft, were attracted to this part of New Brunswick. They wondered if they couldn’t spin that interest into an event that would extend the tourist season. The precursor to the fiesta, the Hot Air Balloon Festival, was born.

“Pilots really like flying here,” says Bailey. “On a topographical map, radiating out from Sussex, you have little finger valleys. You can do some really cool flying into those valleys, and hop over a ridge into another valley.”

Sussex even lays claim to a significant ballooning record. David Kim Hempleman-Adams, a British adventurer, took off from Sussex on September 26, 2003 and reached England 83 hours later, setting a record for the first open wicker basket balloon flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Hempleman-Adams set many ballooning records, plus records for walking to both the North and South poles and for climbing the highest peak on all seven continents.

This sense of adventure is in the glimmer of every Sussex balloonist’s eye, especially Seth Bailey’s. “I love it more because I see Seth living his passion,” says Katherine, adding that when media cover the festival, people direct them to Seth. “He’s such a great ambassador for the sport.”

When asked what attracts her to ballooning, she says, “It’s so peaceful and calm. You’re removed from the world. It’s not like you’re in a plane. There’s no sound, no wind on your face because you’re drifting with it. You’re just taking it all in.”

 

Joining God in laughter

Seth radios in that we should chase his balloon to the grass landing strip beside the highway. One by one, balloons softly touch down. A long line of cars are pulled over as people watch. In the dying light, flames from the burners illuminate the balloons, foreshadowing tonight’s great “Night Glow” back at Princess Louise Park. A dozen or so pilots will tether and inflate their balloons, then shoot flames into them to light them against the darkness.

As Seth and crew deflate their balloon, the Gauthiers from Ontario and other passengers talk excitedly about the experience of watching the balloons floating around them, of
the silence and surprising lack of wind as they drift together with the breeze, of forests and fields slowly passing
beneath them.

“I’m looking at the other hot air balloons,” says Marcel Gauthier, breathlessly. “We saw 30 deer. I’m still....” He can’t finish the sentence, he’s so pumped from the experience.

Seth produces several bottles of wine, then begins his final address to the assembled passengers and crew. “The sport of hot air ballooning was invented by the French in 1783. The French are also known for their sparkling wines. This wine is for landowners as a thank you for landing on their property. This champagne is for our post-flight toast.”

He tells the story of the Mongolfier brothers and their papier mâché balloon, and of deRozier and l’Ardant’s first untethered flight. “Farmers had never seen anything come out of the sky before,” he continues, pouring glasses of sparkling wine as he spins the tale.

A few months before those first manned flights, Jacques Charles flew the world’s first hydrogen balloon on August 27,
1783 from the site where the Eiffel Tower now stands.
The balloon floated for 45 minutes with chasers on horseback in hot pursuit. When it landed in the village of Gonesse, farmers took it for a writhing demon reeking of the fires of hell and stabbed it with pitchforks. To prove the balloon was a scientific invention and not a flying fiend, Charles invited the villagers to share in the celebratory champagne they’d packed. Ballooning has been known as the champagne sport ever since.

“Around the world today after every flight, we do a special toast to celebrate the experience and the invention of this sport.” He finishes by raising his glass, thanking the landowners and reciting the Balloonist’s Prayer:

 

May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that God joins you in laughter
And sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.   


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