2009 Articles

AUG 02 2009
Lorraine Mondial Air Balloons 2009

With limited flying, particularly for those of us based in Wales, we decided to take a flying holiday in Europe. This is always a risk as the weather has to be just right and it's a long way to travel to find out you won't be flying. Nevertheless we took the decision to go to France and attend 'Lorraine Mondial Air Balloons' 2009 at Chambley near Metz; a biannual event which is the largest in Europe and was celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Unlike most meets which take place over a weekend, LMAB took place over ten days from July 24 to August 2. Chambley is an old USAF base with a single 1200m runway and a parallel taxiway; an ideal site for mass balloon launches. The region of Lorraine has now taken over the airfield, with plans to develop it for light aviation. The Skylander light cargo aircraft which was launched at the Paris Air Show will be constructed at Chambley if plans go ahead as scheduled.

We arrived a day early to recover from the 18 hour drive and also to register our details in good time. We had heard that the queues for pilot registration were quite something; especially as there are over 1000 pilots from 47 countries preregistered to attend. We presented ourselves at the registration desk only to find out that none of the IT equipment had arrived, so it was only possible to half register.

The following morning we returned to the desk only to be told the same thing and asked to come back in the afternoon. To cut a long story short we did finally manage to register a day later and only had a short queue of two hours - some pilots had to queue for nearly four. Luckily the wind on the Friday was too strong so no flying time was lost and Saturday morning was also lost to the wind.

The pilots' briefing at 1830 took place with the wind still blowing in a quite lively fashion. The Met Man said that the wind would calm down, so the Flight Director said that we should all get our balloons ready and when the wind did drop out he would give the okay to fly. Around seventy balloons laid out on the airfield waiting on the wind to drop and the signal to fly.

Just after 2000 the green flag was shown and the sound of inflation fans filled the air as balloons began to cold inflate. This was going to be quite a short flight as sunset was at 2115, so as soon as we could we got the burners on and had the balloon ready to lift. We were one of the first balloons to take off and drifted at a decent pace to the east of the airfield, admiring the very large and freshly harvested flat fields that would make ideal landing spots in the future. Looking back into the sunset we could see a steady stream of balloons taking to the air to join us.

Making its debut free-flight that evening was the Disney Pixar Up balloon which made a short hop. With the sun now getting low in the sky we started to look for a place to land but our track was taking us away from all the harvested fields. With both time and our landing options running out and a forest ahead of us we decided to land on the edge of an approaching road.

A small crowd had already gathered on seeing the balloons and much to their amusement we slowly descended down on to the roadside. With their help the traffic was stopped, we landed safely and deflated the balloon envelope into the bordering field. Our first flight safely over, it was time to pack everything up with the aid of our retrieve crew and then get back to Chambley to refuel with gas in preparation for the morning's flight and record breaking challenge.

Sunday 26th July 2009 and we have arrived at Chambley for the pilots briefing at 0600. It's a beautiful morning, very light winds and not a cloud in the sky; a perfect day to fly a balloon. Inside the hangar there are over three hundred balloon crews awaiting the briefing. The Flight Director tells us that this is the day to break a world record with Le Grand Line. He tells us that we need to line up every available balloon, fully inflated, along the entire length of the runway and taxiway, and then, once everyone is ready they will fly around the airfield in a helicopter to count the balloons, before giving the signal to take off. Balloons will be launched from west to east, one after the other, to give everyone space and to make the mass ascent as safe as possible.

With the briefing over the crews make their way out on to the airfield to their allocated areas to prepare for inflation. The spaces soon fill up as the balloons are laid out. The signal is given to inflate and one by one the envelopes start to fill, and as the burners are used the balloons start to stand on their feet. In our line we are eleven balloons from the eastern end so will be one of the last to fly. Looking down the runway there are balloons as far as the eye can see - looking across to the taxiway and it's like a wall of balloons.

Our friends are flying a one-man hopper balloon and have laid out next to us, but once we and the balloon the other side are inflated there is no room for the hopper to inflate. Let's hope we don't miss the target by one! I'm not flying so am busy running around taking pictures. It's impossible to describe the sight of all these balloons fully inflated and waiting to fly. Standing between the two lines, even with my widest angle lens (10mm) I'm unable to fit a single line in side on and it's quite a struggle to get both lines in from the ends of them.

Some balloons stand out more than others. A special shaped Space Shuttle balloon begins to tower above the rest of its line. The colourful and multi-ballooned Disney Up balloon is clear to see too. The helicopter is flying around so launch won't be far away and then, one by one, balloons at the opposite end of the runway to us start to lift. Five, ten, twenty, fifty balloons start filling the sky and then there are hundreds, slowly floating away from the airfield. It's time to launch and our balloon joins the mass exodus from the airfield. Everywhere you look downwind balloons fill the sky.

With the bulk of the balloons now in the air, the Space Shuttle balloon completes a short hop from one side of the airfield to the other - not the easiest special shape to fly especially when surrounded by so many other balloons. The Disney balloon also completes a short hop to our flightline where it receives its inflatable house that covers the basket to complete the movie effect. It then takes off with its escort balloon to join the others in the air.

I jump into our retrieve vehicle to set off in search of our balloon. Outside the airfield the roads are jammed with spectators watching the launch. I join a long convoy of teams all in search of their own balloons. I get a location report over the radio and soon catch up with our balloon and find a spot to keep an eye on its progress and watch all the other balloons. Our balloon touches down in a freshly ploughed field and we soon have it packed away and on the trailer.

Back to Chambley to refuel and we find out that 329 balloons were counted fully inflated to set a new world record - the previous best was 261. There were a number of balloons that were not able to inflate so we could have done even better!

We returned to the airfield for the evening briefing where everyone was in very good spirits following the morning launch. The met was again perfect so another mass launch was planned. We all assembled out on the airfield for a normal mass launch and there did seem to be a little bit more room than when we were all in a line. The signal is given and the launch process begins all over again. It's my time to fly so I'm busy concentrating on the inflation and put out of my mind the fact that there are over two hundred balloons around us!

The balloon is now nice and hot, so it's time to pay attention to the balloons around us. The worst thing that can happen on a mass launch is for your envelope to come in to contact with another basket. It's very easy for a basket to rip or even pull out the parachute at the top of the envelope. The parachute holds all the hot air in the envelope so it's crucial for all pilots to pay attention to those around them.

A check around that nobody is going to fly over us and it's on with the burners to get the balloon buoyant. Another check around, a thumbs-up from the crew and we release ourselves from the ground line and we rise gently in to the air. I'm constantly checking our position relative to other balloons, especially as we are in a climb. I don't want to fly up in to anyone and I have to make sure there is clearance below for anyone we fly over. It's my responsibility to give those balloons below us enough space. I can see down from the basket clearly but when I look up all I can see is envelope so for anyone above it's their responsibility to look after me.

We settle in to a nice level flight leaving the airfield. Looking down there are cars and people everywhere. Word has got around about the morning's mass launch and it looks like the whole of France has turned up to watch us this evening - the roads are blocked and the fields are full of parked cars. We drop down lower to skim over some fields in company with a large group of balloons - it really makes quite a sight seeing so many balloons low down and in formation.

We get word that all the retrieve crews are stuck inside the airfield; the public have blocked the balloonists' entrance/exit route to the airfield and it may take some time to get out. With that in mind we decide to fly on as far as we can go but even when we land over an hour later we find that the crew are still stuck inside. We watch the other balloons landing in the same field as us and those that fly on over before packing up the balloon and waiting for the retrieve crew, who finally turn up. We make our way back to Chambley to refuel again.

The weather for Monday 27th was not suitable for ballooning so we took the day off to explore the local region, returning to Chambley on Tuesday 28th for morning and evening mass launches. The number of balloons was certainly down from the weekend but still approaching two hundred for each launch.

Wednesday 29th saw us fly in the morning but the evening launch was black flagged due to a marginal wind and a weather front approaching. We took Thursday 30th as a day off - there are only so many twenty hour days that you can do! But we returned to fly on Friday 31st and Saturday 1st of August, flying in all four slots with mass launches every time. The forecast for Sunday 2nd August was more typical of the UK so we decided to hit the road for the long drive back home to Wales.

Some facts and figures from the 10 days of Lorraine Mondial Air Balloons 2009:

Over 400,000 visitors attended

Of the 19 available slots, 12 were flown

47 countries were represented by 1034 pilots

863 balloons took part, with 142 staying for the whole duration and consuming 170 tons of gas.

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