2010 Articles

SEP 28 2010
The 54th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race

The Gordon Bennett is the oldest and most prestigious aeronautical race in the world and this was the first time that Great Britain had been the launch country since the race began in 1906. Great Britain gained the starting honour when the GB team of well known explorer David Hempleman-Adams and co-pilot Jon Mason won the 2008 event which was held in America.

In the days leading up to the start of the race all eyes were on the weather forecast, a situation that was improving day by day. The wind direction would require a lot of coordination with ATC units around the UK and Europe for 20 balloons to float through controlled airspace. An example of this was that approval had been given, should it be needed, for the balloons to even fly through the London Heathrow overhead.

Saturday was a beautiful day at the launch site but the wind was not being helpful. The original plan was for the first balloons to start their hydrogen fill at 14.00 for a start window at 19.00. But the wind was just too high for a safe fill start.

Hydrogen is highly flammable so every precaution has to be taken to ensure the safety of the balloons and the people around them. As Clive Bailey put it "you're basically flying with a bomb above your head". As the wind started to drop the first balloons were able to start the long filling process.

At the time of the pilots' briefing at 18.00 only three balloons had been fully filled. This put the original timetable well behind. With another 17 balloons to fill this was going to be a long night! The pilots briefing confirmed that the balloons would be travelling south from Bristol and skirting the west coast of France before picking up a westerly wind to take them further in to Europe.

All the teams were in good spirits and the process of final checks was beginning. As the sun set one by one the remaining balloons were filled with hydrogen, all taking on the jelly fish shape as they rose up, before filling out as the hydrogen fill completed. The netted balloons, which literally have a net that goes over the envelope, take longer to fill and have their basket attached once they are completely filled. The sight of an inflated envelope under a big net and held down by sand bags does look rather strange.

At 23.00 the filling process was complete and all the teams had their tracking devices fitted. After final checks the balloons were ready and a few sand bags were removed from each to make them buoyant in preparation for the start of the race.

The starting order had been decided by a draw that took place the day before, and Russia had the honour of being first away. The Russian balloon was manhandled to the launch podium where a set of pre launch procedures which all the balloons would go through were carried out.

With a cry of "hands off" everyone released the basket and its buoyancy was assessed to gauge if a safe take off was possible. A cry of "hands on" and the basket was back on the podium and a sand bag removed. Another hands off test and this time the balloon was clear for launch. With goodbyes, kisses and embraces completed, a wish of bon voyage and a shout of "hands off", the first balloon took to the sky. With cheers and applause from all those around and the Russian national anthem sounding out, the balloon disappeared in to the midnight sky with just its navigation lights visible.

One by one the balloons were brought to the podium, the British ladies in giant "romper suits" to keep warm and the patriotic French man wearing a beret! With every French launch their crews burst into a rendition of the national anthem as the balloons rose in to the sky. When clear of the podium the Germans showered everyone with leaflets and anything else they had spare in the basket. One of the French balloons threw out sweets!

Last to go were GBR3 David Hempleman-Adams and Simon Carey. David was interviewed by the BBC as his balloon was brought to the podium, just to add to the pressure, although he did say he was aiming for a restaurant in the south of France! Both were in very good spirits having received best wishes from family, friends and crew.

A big hug from team coordinator Clive Bailey and they were away, David throwing confetti overboard as they went. They climbed away from the podium only to start descending in to the next field! Not the best of starts and a quick adjustment of ballast soon saw them following the pack across Bristol. David later blamed the load calculation error on too many pork roast rolls whilst waiting for the delayed take off.

As the morning wore on the balloons passed over the Channel Islands at around 06.00 and then onwards down the Western coast of France and over the Bay of Biscay, the Japanese balloon had taken a keen lead and was streaking ahead. The wind picked up a slight westerly flow and the lead balloons started to move inland.

The Japanese team didn't fancy the idea of flying over the Pyrenees during the night and having used too much sand since take off decided to land south of Bordeaux at 17.15GMT having travelled 838km. The remaining balloons continued into the night.

Landing in the early hours of Monday morning were Switzerland 1 landing in SE France having covered 1010km, Finland 1in SW France covering "only" 813km and Finland 2 in S France covering 957km. Landing at 07.15GMT were Belgium 1 on the SE coast of France after a flight of 1057km and shortly after were France 1 who had made it to NE Spain travelling 1122km.

A little later we lost Great Britain 1 and 2 from the race. Both landed safely although GB1 did have a hard landing. Distances covered were 916km and 1037km respectively.

Whilst the race was losing teams the battle for the lead at 0830GMT was hotting up. Swiss 2 was in the lead nearing Corsica at 1415km and France 2 over the Mediterrean heading towards Sardinia at 1411km.

The potential problem for our two leaders was the Italian airspace restrictions. They had to be clear of Italian land by 5NM 30 minutes after sunset and couldn't enter the 5NM exclusion zone until 30 minutes before sunrise.

For the Swiss team this looked to be achievable: they had good speed and looked to be on course to fly right across Italy. For the French it would be more difficult because their more southerly track had less speed and would see them over Sardinia at sunset....

Our next retirements were USA 1 who landed near Girona in NW Spain, completing 1169km and Austria 1 who landed near Toulouse in France after 38 hours in the air and 998km.

As the clock approached 1300GMT it was clear that the two leaders had made up their minds to keep pressing ahead with Swiss 2 already mid way across the Italian mainland.

The remainder of the teams were still over France and knowing that they would run in to the Italian no fly zone they had no choice but to seek calmer winds to delay their progress. We soon lost USA 3 1013km and Germany 3 1074km both landing in SE France followed by the first to fly, the Russian team, landing in SE France after 40 hours and 1041km.

With the Swiss team now clear of Italy all the attention fell on the French who were over Sardinia. At 1613GMT they were over half way across Sardinia. They had to be 5NM out to sea by 1739GMT, and as they crossed the eastern coast they knew they had to descend to slow down to avoid getting too close to the Italian mainland.

The highly experienced 2009 winning team knew they had a chance. As the clock ticked down the speed did too but the lower wind started to take them back towards Sardinia! Some skillful flying and a good dose of luck meant that with minutes to spare the balloon cleared the 5NM rule by 0.2NM and the team were safe. Or were they? Having cleared the land they now had to avoid going too fast and reaching the Italian mainland before dawn. With the "brakes" applied they were now looking at a night of trying to fly as slowly as possible before re-entering the airspace to continue across Italy.

The remaining four balloons in the pack, Germany 1 and 2, Great Britain 3 and USA 2 were all playing a waiting game trying to get their speed just right to make the Italian airspace at dawn. At 2030GMT the Swiss were way out in front over Montenegro having covered nearly 1900km with the "holding" French team at 1630km.

Tuesday morning saw the Swiss team still way out in front, heading in the direction of the Black Sea. On this course they were running out of land and countries that had agreed to the balloons using their airspace.

The French team after all their holding over the sea timed their entry in to Italy perfectly but all of their hard work had taken its toll on the amount of ballast that remained. With just a few bags of sand left they landed near Naples on the western coast of Italy.

Meanwhile, the chasing pack had seen Germany 2 take its own course heading north east crossing Italy towards Croatia. Germany 1, Great Britain 3 and USA 2 were following similar tracks to cross Italy in the direction of Bosnia.

Shortly before 09.30GMT the Swiss team landed on the Black Sea coast of Romania, they really had run out of competition area to land on. Kurt Frieden and Pascal Witpraechtiger had covered 2435km landing in one of the very last fields that they could, would any of the remaining four balloons be able to beat them?

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