THE AIR BALLOON FAMILY
In the Ouvrard Family, there's Jean-Daniel, the father, Rémi, the son, the wife, two other brothers and a dozen hot air balloons folded in the garage. We've met the air balloon family in the city of Châtellerault in the center of France.
Rémi, do you read me?”. No answer. Second attempt: “Rémi, do you read me?”. “Yes, yes gotcha, loud and clear.” The talkie-walkie speaker is buzzing a man’s voice. Two giant hot air balloons are peacefully drifting at six hundred meters above ground. A red one for Jean-Daniel Ouvrard, who’s been at it for more than 25 years. And a blue one for his son, Rémi, whom started the practice 6 years ago .
To them, air ballooning is a family thing. Looking back, their history wasn’t written. “I was a wine and spirits salesman in a grocery store. On the side, I was fond of photography” says Jean-Daniel. Following his hobby, he signed up for an arts school. After graduating, he’s sent as a photographer for an air balloon show. That’s when it clicked. “Day and night, I was aboard with the pilots. They convinced me to do a first training session, and then, become a pilot on my own. And then, you know, you buy one balloon, a second one, a third one…”
Counting north of 3,400 hours of flight and holding the record of altitude reached in an air ballon (4,359 meters) he has now become one of the most experienced air ballon pilots in France.
Before every flight, there’s a well established ritual. Jean-Daniel and Rémi meet in the family house for a weather forecast brief. “With a balloon, you know where you take off. But you never know where you’ll land. You’re totally dependent upon the wind.”
It’s in this tiny office filled with trophies, family pictures and balloon posters that they’re picking the spot where they should take off. Tonight, it’ll be at 8pm, a few kilometers from here: in a field sheltered from the wind. The family’s all set and ready to go.
Outside the house, the family’s waiting. “An Ouvrard, whether he’s a pilot or not is always close to an air balloon” says Rémi. Among his siblings, Aurélien, the elder, and Paul, the youngest, are pilots too. They’ve grown up alongside their father’s air balloons. “All my kids started to fly when they were 2 years old”, says Jean-Daniel. Even his wife, Sandrine, is part of the crew . She’s in charge of the “retrouving”. A falsely anglicized referring to the moment when the air balloon touches down.
Rémi and Jean-Daniel will be the only two pilots for the night. But it doesn’t really matter, the whole family is on duty. They’re loading and unloading the folded air balloons in trailers and vans. Jean-Daniel is leading the motorcade on the way to the field.
On the way, Rémi shares with us that the call for piloting air balloons has always been there to him. “I’ve started to work with my father as soon as I was tall enough to reach for the burner”, says Rémi. “At the outset, it was the weekends. But when I was going back to class on Mondays, I was sitting on my chair and looking through the windows, I used to see him flying. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do.”
Jean-Daniels makes a sharp turn on a road in the woods and all the cars go along. They progress through high grass and stop when they’ve reached the center: they’re fairly far from the trees around. From there, a ballet-like choreography starts taking place.
Ballons are put on the ground. Pods too. They’re roped to the cars. A fan is placed behind the burners. The pilots step in and activate the burners to inflate the balloons. That’s all it takes.
In less than 30 minutes, the two balloons are fully inflated. Ready to go.
onight, Rémi will be the first to fly. As the burner exhales a large flame, the pod is taking off. In a matter of seconds, the pod flies away, dwarfing the highest trees circling the field. “To go up, you gotta pull the burner. It sends hot air in the balloon. It’s the temperature difference between hot air inside and cold air outside that makes the balloon rise”, says Rémi.
Drifting above cities, the two balloons remain pretty close, they’re drawn to the east by the winds. As we rise, the horizon expands. Looking down at the ground, cars and houses progressively shrink and some sounds remain. Conversations in backyards, dogs barking…
“When you’re piloting, you lose any sense of time. You don’t know if it’s been 10 minutes, 1 hour or 2 hours. It’s exactly like the sea divers that get rapture of the deep. As air balloon pilots, we get rapture of the height”, says Jean-Daniel.
“Flying an air balloon is like a show. There’s no barrier between us and the people on the ground. We can talk and they wave to us”, says Rémi.
Sometimes, the welcome is slightly less warm. “Once, my father was flying above a forest and heard cracks coming from below the pod. As he leant over the sides, he saw a group of hunters shooting at him from below. They probably thought it was fun. My father less so. He just cleared off as quickly as he could.”
The balloons have been in the skies for more than an hour. The night drawing close calls for an end of the ride. For the two pilots, now comes the moment to find a safe landing spot before it gets too dark and tricky. Jean-Daniel grabs the radio and reaches out to the “retrouving” team that has been tracing them by car the whole time. “Do you guys think I can land there on the side?” asks Jean-Daniel as he points to the spot. Permission granted.
The pilot is now pulling a rope. It opens flaps at the top of the balloon and the hot air flows out. The altimeter is beeping as we go down. It beeps too much and the branches of the trees get close. Slightly too close. The pod shakes a bit as we hit them on our way down. “No big deal” says Jean-Daniel.
A hundred meters further, the balloon finally touches down smoothly in an empty field. Few minutes later, Rémi is landing next to a water pond. Now, the night is falling. Before heading back, they have to fold the 80-meters long balloon tissue. “We’re better up there. There’s just no stress, you’re almost on your own. When you get back down, there, all the problems come back at you”, concludes Jean-Daniel.