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Hotships in Crans-Montana 1999

This is a post which I made to the mailing list on 4-Feb-1999. Pictures to come.


OK, I'll bite the bullet and tell a little story about last weekend, which I spent at the Rassemblement International de Montgolfieres (RIM) in Crans-Montana, in the Southern Swiss Alps.

A few months back, I got a nice e-mail from Benoit Simeons, a Belgian pilot whose company, European Balloon Corporation, flies special shapes, large passenger balloons and one very new and sophisticated Thunder & Colt and GEFA-FLUG designed AS-105 GD hot air airship. He said that he would be getting together with two other hotship pilots, Charles Besnard and his son Jacques-Antoine, reigning hot airship world champion since last September's 6th World Chamionship in Gatineau, Canada, on the weekend of January 30. I couldn't help but accept immediately, even though I had not placed Crans on the map yet.

A few days later, I got a European road atlas at the gas station down the street here in Frankfurt, Germany, where I am currently working. After some searching I finally found the spot and calculated that Crans was about a seven hour drive away, if I maneged to keep up a speed of 140 km/h (90 mph) on the German stretch of the "Autobahn" drive. I called the car rental company and all was set.

On Friday, January 29, I left work early, picked up my little Volkswagen and drove off into the blue. Actually, the weather forecast was pretty grim, and the receptionist at the hotel where I was to stay said it had been snowing heavily all day, packing two or three feet of the white stuff onto the fields. Around 9:30pm that night I passed Lausanne and started heading into the mountains, climbing towards Crans. The gray sky of Frankfurt had given way to a clear and open sky. The full moon was drenching the cliffs and peaks in a warm and mysterious light. I hadn't been in that part of Switzerland in almost ten years and had completely forgotten how overwhelming this part of the Swiss Alps is. When I finally arrived in Crans, I was so tired that I just went to sleep and left finding the airshippers for the next morning.

On Saturday, the weather briefing showed too much wind and neither the hot air balloons nor the airships could fly. So we decided to go skiing. As soon as we got to the base station though, a guy from the lift came at us and told us that the gondola was not running. 150 km/h (100mph) winds at the top were making it dangerous to let the little gondolas run. So instead, we all went for a long walk up the mountain and discussed all the latest developments in hotship technolgy. Charles has been flying these thermal blimps for about ten years and had countless stories to tell. All of us learned new things, including Benoit, even though he had proven his piloting skills by placing second in the Worlds at Gatineau.

Of course at that point, I was getting scared that we were not going to be able to fly at all. But on Sunday morning, the winds were to stay calm.

After about a dozen balloons took off, the airships got to access the launch field, a small frozen lake. There ended up being four ships. First there was Jacques Besnard, who was flying his father's old "Le Matin" airship which is a mostly yellow and silver Thunder & Colt AS-105. Then there was Charles Besnard who was flying the new "Tribune de Geneve" ship, which is red and blue and also flies as the "24 Heures" airship with different banners. This ship is also a T&C AS-105, but it has a newer envelope design which was completed after Cameron's acquisitions of T&C and includes some improvements. Third was Jean Marmy, who is flying the light blue "Touring Club" airship, a three year old AS-105. Finally there was the EPUL airship, which was piloted alternatingly by Benoit Simeons from Belgium and David Chipping, who drove all the way up from Portugal for the event. The EPUL airship is the only AS-120 which T&C has made so far. With its larger 120,000 cu ft envelope it is ideally suited for flying in the warm climate of its home in Lisbon, Portugal.

We were so lucky that the wind actually died down even more after picking up slightly during our first hour of flying. The weather was just perfect and the four airships flying along the waves of wind along the crests and the mountainside looked amazing. When the wind was stronger, the airships had trouble keeping up with the wind and were just staying on the spot with full throttle. Then the wind would get weaker and the pilots would touch down on the launch field to pick up more propane and exchange passengers.

I actually got to fly for about half an hour, twice! I helped Charles and his wife Marianne set up the "Tribune de Geneve" and got the first ride. Of course, we were last to take to the air because we had to add the banners before takeoff. Charles has flown airships for so many years that he has many more hours in them then in the balloons which got him started with aerostation. And you do notice the difference. When you fly a balloon, you "simply" go with the wind. But when you fly a hot air airship, you have to use the wind against itself. The hotships are large and need an incredible amount of skill to be flown. When you're on the ground looking up at the procession of these giant fish in the sky, it all looks easy. But once you sit in there you realize the fine combination of steering, countersteering, burning, anticipating the wind, and taking the inertia of the ship into consideration which is required.

Landing in a hot air airship is actually quite different, yet very similar to a landing in a hot air balloon. All the newer pressurized hotships don't have parachutes anymore, because due to the internal pressure, too much air escapes even through a closed chute. All they have are large rip panels in the tail for final deflation. When you land, the pilot points the nose of the ship into the wind, throttles the engine or shuts it off completely, and waits for touch down. The ships have wheels. So instead of dragging across the ground like in a balloon, you roll along smoothly until you come to a complete stop.

After the first flight, I got a short break on the ground. I took the opportunity to shoot some ground to air picutres and warm up again. Despite me wearing Sorel boots and a warm fleece jacket, I was frozen to the bone. While I was resting, the ships were coming in from the downwind side, touched down to pick up a new passenger, and took off against the wind. The launch field was like a pit stop at a car race. And you wouldn't believe all the touch and goes the four pilots manged to make during nearly three hours of flying.

Then Benoit landed and invited me for a flight. He wanted to fly around his brother Patrick's balloon, to take pictures for the sponsor. So we approached and circled. I took off my gloves and shot pictures till my hands froze off or we got too far away. Then we turned around, made an other approach on the balloon and used up some more film. It was just great fun, being able to position the airship precisely so that we would get the balloon with the sponsor banner facing us and the blue sky and mountains in the back. I'm still amazed when I think about the maneuvrability of these hot air airships.

Overall, I think that this was the best time I ever had with hot air airships. Except maybe for the 1996 Hotship Worlds in Aosta, Italy, where I crewed for and flew with Brian Boland, whom many of you will know much better than I do. I just don't want to go back to work in an office anymore.

Buoyant regards,

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