For the third year in a row, balloonists gathered in High River, AB the week before Fiesta in order to compete and enjoy being on a physical version of Alberta’s flag (look it up, it’s basically a map of the Foothills). This time, pilots were divided into both the Canadian Nationals field and a Fiesta group to fly hare and hounds behind local pilot and event organizer Jamie Kinghorn. The Nationals field was down to 9 competitors as two couldn’t arrive at the last moment and added one in the person of Meg Skelton who wanted to see how Event Director Garry Lockyer called tasks before seeing him again at the Women’s Worlds next summer.After a beautiful start to the week where competitors arriving early got to see the terrain, the Wednesday evening’s non-competitive media flight was cancelled on the field as the winds were just too strong.
The next morning, the competition began in earnest. The first pibal at 5:30 am was light on the surface, climbing to the left before straightening out towards the ENE over 1000’. At that height, there was over 20 knots which is not an uncommon speed to fly in at height if you expect to get in the air in Alberta. Two hesitation waltzes were set and a PDG followed. The next pibal revealed that the winds were softer and the right which had existed had disappeared.
As the balloons launched from CLP1, they needed to move quickly as the tasks were timed. The winds were slowing down and so only the first two balloons made it to the first HWZ on time. None of the balloons ended up dropping at either HWZ as they were either late or they weren’t able to get the right, which had disappeared, to make it close enough to the targets. They continued on to their PDGs.Because it’s the only competitive event of the year in Canada, pilots need to remember how to use the FAI loggers and be confident in flight. This hurt some pilots on flight number one as they made mistakes with pushing buttons or making declarations. Coming back to refuel, each would express their confidence or lack thereof on a specific task. The scores reflected that as the best positioned pilots had either made no technical mistakes or had won a specific task and minimized their mistakes. As with the 2013 championship, Cliff Skocdopole took an early lead.
The afternoon’s flight was winded out with the bar full within minutes of the briefing as friends got together and the new pilots were greeted with some Western hospitality and beer. Friday morning experienced strong winds as well and everyone was able to sleep it off. And to think that the forecast for the weekend had basically been perfect on Wednesday morning.The wind was still around on Friday afternoon as the pibals started to be thrown but it was starting to drop. Based on the forecast, the question was when not if it would. This was the big night of the weekend for the town, as the glow was called on and about half of the town of 12 000 people was expected to attend as in the previous two years.
As part of the plans, competition balloons were to launch from the field then the fiesta pilots would set in for the glow. Competitors laid out their balloons expecting a windy launch but an eventual one. With winds still gusty as the sun headed over the mountains, it looked like the window would close. Lockyer consulted with former competitor Del Michaud who was to be the hare for that night and kept looking at the wind. In the end, they didn’t fly but the glow was wonderful.The next morning, the wind was low and two PDGs were called with the surface winds heading towards the mountains, and fairly rare occurrence. After arriving at the launch site, the pilots were told to hold after laying out. It turned out there was rain coming in from the west and the pilots might fly into it. After trying to wait it out and seeing if the rain might take a turn, which avid readers of these three years of reports would know is a possibility, it didn’t.
Some pilots, seeing that there were only two flight windows left and seeing that they were behind in the standings, were disappointed that either or both of the two flights didn’t go. That afternoon, the circle of pilots interested in the pibal readings grew and they were all pleased to see that surface winds were low and there was no rain in the area after the morning left puddles in the parking lot (also the name of my next album). What only a few people caught on to, especially with the second pibal, was a shear just below 1000’. There was right near the surface, then left before the hard right of the shear which pushed the wind from five knots to 15 in a pretty quick turn.Pilots launched from north of town and had a HWZ with three targets before two PDGs. At the launch site, the wind was blowing strongly. Fiesta balloons started launching from CLP1 and a few minutes later, Eduardo Martinez was the first off the ground. Oddly, only five fiesta balloons launched, a sign of things to come. The other competitors, save Richard Clark, eventually popped over the fields a few miles away towards the target areas.
Two of the three HWZ targets were a fence-line apart and Martinez had a straight line on the one most to the north. Coming in at under 1000’, he was preparing his drop. Then, the balloon he borrowed from Debbie Young started losing its shape and coming down and going backwards. He put a significant amount of heat into it and it started rising again and he passed through the shear again before rising a few thousand feet, missing the MMA by a few meters. Each pilot had a different version of the same situation being tossed around as they came into the target area with Meg Skelton wisely staying above the fray (and using the shear to her advantage on her drop as it came back into the target area). Again, Cliff Skocdopole won the task putting him out further ahead. However, technical mistakes and better performances by others on the two PDGs put him back. The competition remained tight and Dale Ritchie ended up ahead despite not having won any of the six tasks over the first two flights.After landing, every pilot had a story to tell about going through the shear (which ended up disappearing a few minutes after the HWZ as the sun set). The adrenaline was pumping and no one seemed to mind what they had been through, more concerned about their scores.
The next morning, there was nothing exciting about the pibals in terms of strong winds at any height. Finally, all pilots would be able to enjoy a nice morning of flying. With a HNH flown by Michaud and a FON, pilots would have two opportunities to pick up points before the noon awards ceremony.As Michaud took off, he headed towards the East and went further South as he rose. It wasn’t long before the other pilots were off the ground. As he came in for a landing in a large field that had huge hummers about 150 m away, he took a left turn.
The first three competitors to come near him, Martinez, Cooper and Skelton, kept as much right as they could to catch the left and follow him into the target set out. When they got down, they found that the left had disappeared and they were following the hummers in parallel. Dale Lang came in after after having stayed left for longer and flew over the target, winning the task.The two previous Canadian champions and the leader of the event (Gleed, Adams and Ritchie) then came in having planned for the left to be there and realizing it no longer was. They all missed the MMA. Clark had stayed to the north for longer scored. Skocdopole threw his marker too late and ended up outside of the MMA despite having an excellent line.
Ritchie’s score was middle of the pack, but he won the FON cementing his 5th national title and a ticket to Saga for next year’s worlds. Gleed, who holds the other spot, was non-committal about going to Japan which would put Adams, who finished second and won the 2011title as the next in line. He’s ready to go if called upon and Ritchie has indicated he would like to go as well.As with the two previous years, the weather was tricky with high and unpredictable winds and rain that came in unannounced from over the mountains. Despite that, the competitors were happy by the end of the event, judging that the eight tasks gave them each a chance to prove their worth. “If only I hadn’t made ____ mistake” was a commonly heard refrain as pilots looked at the Official Notice Board late Sunday morning. Hal Cooper won the Rookie of the Year Award as it was his first national championship participation despite having competed at the Worlds in Austria. Stan Wereschuk won the Heritage Inn International Balloon Festival championship as fiesta champion.
The Heritage Inn, the gracious hosts for the event, seemed ready to commit to another and despite some disappointment with the weather from event organizers, the momentum is certainly growing within both the community and balloonists with 26 registered having grown from 15 two years ago.See you next year!
Check the event's Facebook page for photos, videos of the marker drops on task 7 will be up soon.