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Hot air ballooning has been around for 230 years, and its popularity is growing

It lasted all of 20 minutes, but from the moment the first hot air balloon ascended to the sky over France in 1783, humans have been fascinated with this earliest form of flight. 

Back then, a demonstration flight for the court of King Louis XVI at Versailles so impressed the Regent that he instantly adopted the cockerel, sheep and duck aboard the balloon to his royal menagerie and gave the new science his blessing. (Even so, when hot air balloons belching smoke and flames began landing in the fields of terrified provincial farmers, the pilots had to make peace offerings of champagne with the His Majesty’s seal to appease landowners.) 

More than 240 years later, hot air ballooning has inspired movies (The Wizard of Oz, Up, Enduring Love to name a few), books and reality TV (Around the World in 80 Days), album cover art (most recently by US rock band Modest Mouse), pop tunes, epic moments in novels (any appearance of aeronaut Lee Scoresby in His Dark Materials) and, for the past 20 years, entire festivals and adventure companies. 

From Turkey to Quebec and Arizona to Australia, hot air ballooning is big business when it comes to destination festivals, some of which see up to 500 balloons simultaneously aloft in a dazzling display of colour in flight. 

And once you’ve been to one festival, it’s hard to keep your feet on the ground, says Jack Wismer, a balloon pilot or aeronaut with Sundance Balloons, which operates in Ottawa, Calgary, Grande Prairie, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Kitchener-Waterloo and London. 

“A balloon pilot I knew invited me to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico. From that moment, I was hooked,” he recalls.  

“I told my boss, I’m taking three weeks off and if there’s a job when I come back, great, but I’m not missing this opportunity. When I was there, I realized how much bigger it was than just in Canada. I thought, hey, I could make this a career.” 

Since then, he’s flown with hundreds of customers keen to try ballooning – everyone from a retired military pilot and couples celebrating 50thwedding anniversaries to young couples and best friends creating memories. The most common question he gets is about safety, making it the first thing he addresses even before the balloon is filled with hot air from propane-fueled fans.  

Flights are typically scheduled for before dawn to take advantage of cooler air and more stable upper-level wind. While on the ground, the Transport Canada-certified pilot explains how hot air balloons work and why they start looking at weather patterns, air temperature and clouds the night before a flight. By using radar and weather tracking, hot air balloon pilots can determine how long a flight might last, which direction it will go and, most importantly, whether or not it could be at risk.  

According to Wismer, hot air ballooning is very safe but not necessarily an activity for the impatient. Because it’s so weather-dependent, planned flights can be delayed by days or even weeks during very hot or wet seasons, which run from spring to late fall.  Although Ottawa has its share of perfect flight days, other more arid desert locations, such as New Mexico and Cappadocia in Turkey, are blessed with consistently ideal conditions.  

But if viewing the rising sun from 300m above the earth in a wicker-and-wood basket isn’t on your bucket list, you could also witness the beauty of hot air balloons on terra firma.  

Here are a few festivals to check out

Landscape of fabulous Kapadokya. Colorful flying air balloons in sky at sunrise in Anatolia. Vacations in beautiful destination in Goreme, Turkey

Cappadocia Balloon Festival, Turkey 

The 160 balloons at the festival are great, but the backdrop of the region’s iconic cone-shaped formations made it viral. The festival occurs in mid-August.  

International Balloon Festival of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada 

Home to Canada’s largest balloon festival, which features decadent food, children’s entertainment and an agricultural component.  

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, U.S. 

Held annually in October, this is a nine-day ballooning extravaganza.  

Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, U.K.  

Established in 1979, this festival attracts 500,000 visitors every August.  

Canberra Balloon Spectacular, Australia 

Every March, Australia’s national capital hosts 50 balloons as part of Enlighten, a larger outdoor and arts festival.  

Saga International Balloon Fiesta, Japan  

Attracting 800,000 visitors to view more than balloons, the Saga is held every November in Saga Prefecture.  

Gatineau Balloon Festival, Canada 

The National Capital Region hosts its balloon festival (Aug. 29-Sept. 2, 2024), which features an RV park, a fleet of balloons and a live music festival. 

How safe is it?

Happy tourists in a hot air balloon basket high over the Masaai Mara Reserve on an aerial safari
Melissa Kopka | iStock

Hot air balloon pilotscalled aeronautsundergo years of training and instructor-guided flights before they can be certified and licensed by Transport Canada. What’s more, flights only take place in optimal conditions. Unlike planes and helicopters, balloons only go up when conditions are perfect, at sunrise or sunset when the wind is unlikely to send a flight off course. In fact, long before you get in the basket, your pilot and crew investigate air temperature at various elevations, weather patterns and wind direction to determine if a flight can go ahead. If a flight is cancelled, it means your safety is being taken seriously.  

If you go

Follow the pilot’s instructions. Safety means abiding by best practices and Transport Canada’s rules. Skylarking, dropping things from the basket, jumping around and even arriving late for the flight are no-nos.  

Wear comfy clothes. Taking off and landing in farmer’s fields can be muddy.  

Leave your personal belongings in the chaser vehicle. When landing, passengers must grab hold of the basket and spoon together to cushion any impact, making backpacks and purses a dangerous impediment. Plus, baskets are surprisingly compact, leaving little room to manoeuvre.  

Lend a hand. Although not required, some balloon companies, like Sundance, invite passengers to help pack up the balloon as part of the experience. Alternatively, you can relax and wait for the traditional post-flight champagne to pop.  

There’s insurance for that. Whether you’re in a hot air balloon, a hang glider or a helicopter, CAA offers coverage for your adventurous spirit. Call 1-800-267-8713 to ask about an Adventurous Air Activities Rider from CAA Travel Insurance, or read about it here. 

Where to book. Sundance Balloons, which has operated for 35 years, flies in Ottawa, Calgary, Grande Prairie, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Kitchener-Waterloo and London. Learn more at

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