More From Chateaux d'Oex

The 1997 Swiss Alpine Hot Air Balloon Festival

(Entries by Alf Erickson, after Stephani's Journal)

Wednesday, January 29, 1997 (cont'd)

For the first time on this trip we decided to use a launch site that was not in Chateau d'Oex. Up until now (or close to now) the committee that organizes the Alpine Balloon Festival made it known that they were pleased when balloons left from Chateau d'Oex, rather than from neighboring towns. After all, every town is competing for tourist money and this WAS the week or so that Chateau d'Oex really wanted to shine in front of the TV cameras.

Corkscrew Balloon IISo, now that the committee had gone off to do what it does best during the rest of the year, we took the opportunity to lift off from Gstaad. Gstaad is a frightfully tony watering hole for the world - well, for Europe, USA and Japan - and any other place that breeds rich people.

We took off at about noon with only three passengers on board - but, with enough food and drink for six. One of the passengers was one of our ground crew (Tim). He has flown with us a couple of times in the past when we have been "short" of passengers.

The air was really still, so most of our movement was either up or down - very little this way and that way (I mean horizontal stuff). We ranged from just inches from roof tops to way up to 13,500 feet. Our four hour flight managed to move us a stingy mile or so from where we started. Anyway, after all this up and down and after all the food and drink we landed on an ice covered BMW test track next to the Saanen airport landing strip.

Lars and KileyShortly after deflating, our friends Lars and Kiley landed their balloon right next to us. Lars and Kiley (husband and wife) are balloon pilots who currently fly balloons in Turkey. They fly passengers in their own balloon and they also fly advertising balloons. By the way, for your information, most hot air balloons are flying billboards.

After doing the obligatory Champagne toasts we drove back to the hotel for a rest before dinner. Hey, isn't this what a holiday is all about: FOOD!!

Two of my kids are flying in tomorrow afternoon to join us for another week of ballooning. They are David and Annie (BTW, Annie did a lot of the photos in my elephant polo section - go check it out). David is bringing his Brazilian wife, Adriana. They should be here at the hotel around 18:30 tomorrow. Annie has flown with me in Chateau d'Oex before. David and Adriana have flown with me twice before: once in the Swiss/Prague adventure and once in Burgundy/Loire. Incidentally, David has an alternative journal for the French journal that Denise wrote for the Burgundy/Loire trip.

Thursday, January 30, 1997

This morning we took the balloon to Rougemont for the lift off. Rougemont is a quaint little town roughly halfway between Chateau d'Oex and Gstaad. In fact, for several years we used this town as our base for ballooning - rather, we used its prime hotel, formerly the Viva, as our base for sleeping.

Today, the weather was almost identical to what we found yesterday, so we kicked in the burners full blast almost minutes after takeoff. Wait a sec! Get these priorities straight, Alf - before anything, we pulled out the balloon dining room board and quickly heaped upon it the full contents of the on-balloon larder, so that everything would be within easy grasp before we had to do anything serious, like looking for electric wires or ski lifts.

After that was done we quickly ascended to 14,000 feet in quest of some lateral air. But precious little was to be found, so we were in the same situation as we found ourselves in yesterday: a lot of vertical movement giving us telescopic and wide angle views of the same wonderful stuff. Of course, the 360 degree visual vistas here are impossible to beat anywhere in the world.

Today we were up for a little less than five hours. At first we thought we'd land near the airport in Saanen, where we landed yesterday, but the winds (tiny puffs) were fickle and they took us to the heart of Gstaad. We dropped down not far from the center of town. It was an uneventful landing: meaning we did not crash or require a helicopter rescue. Eschewing the customary Champagne landing toast we opted for Cognac - due to the chill in the air - it was really damn cold. In fact, Jean went to the heated Previa and passed on the drinks altogether. She glared at us through the semi-frosted window as we stood in the snow drinking the best that France had to offer.

Eventually we made a dash back to the hotel so that we wouldn't be late to meet my kids when they arrived. We made it to the Ermitage Hotel about 45 minutes before they did. We laid on some fresh flowers and fruit for their rooms. While killing time I logged onto the Internet and handled some e-mail while Jean went to the lobby for a smoke. It wasn't long before I heard familiar voices coming up the stairs. Hey, it was great to see them when they took my room by storm - lots of hugs and kisses.

After the girls take showers and the guys play with their computers we are off to du Cerf: a cheese fondue and raclette restaurant that is the perfect introduction to Swiss (rural) cuisine. God, I hope they like it! I'm sure they will. Annie was here last year with us and she adored it. At that time, she had her boys with her and they (the boys) were more into peanut butter sandwiches and Coke - but, this year she is sans kids (and she deserves it - ) so she can eat adult food. In passing, I really believe that Dads should take kids away on holiday once a year and allow them to park their spouses and kids at home. Oh, well, that is my philosophy.

I won't update anything until tomorrow - I want to spend the evening with family and Jean.

Bye for now.

Friday, January 31, 1997

It's yet another icy clear day in Switzerland. Just by looking out of the window it appears that we are again plagued by a relatively windless day. As in the song with the lyrics that go "it's a fine line between love and hate," it's a fine line between when there is too much wind and not enough wind. Of course, no wind is better than too much wind - with the latter you can at least go UP. OK, so how much is too much wind - well, it's about 9 or 10 knots. In order to gauge how much that is we don't rely on how much our hair gets mussed up - we are much more sophisticated about it - we send up a child's balloon filled with helium and eyeball the angle. If the little helium balloon goes "up" at more than a 45 degree angle then the wind is definitely too fast.

By the way, speaking of helium, when we have idle time while waiting for the wind to die down or shift direction we amuse ourselves by breathing in helium and singing stupid songs - hey, you know what helium does to your voice, don't you - ever seen that Woody Allen movie when the burly bad guys are chasing Woody through a carnival storage warehouse for helium balloons and guns are afiring and some of the balloons get major holes in them and the place fills with helium and all these pursuing thugs sound like Tiny Tim doing Tip Toe Through the Tulips. Well, that's what we sound like when we are cooking idle time.

OK, we are off for today's balloon adventure. More later.

We got back here at about 5:30 PM. But, a lot happened between then and now - nothing terribly spectacular - though we did think for a micro-milli-second that we lost someone overboard. But, let's go back the beginning for a bit. After we left Chateau d'Oex we drove for about 75 minutes to the Jungpass, which is a high point separating a couple valleys from one another. Pretty nice spot for a launch. It took us about 45 minutes to fill the balloon with air-air and hot air - another 15 minutes to round up the people who were taking photos or taking pees - and another five minutes to load on board the food and wine.

After all that effort we promptly made a prolonged burst of flame to take us up to 10-12,000 feet. At about 8,000 feet Adriana disappeared from view - I mean she just slipped into the bottom of the basket. As these balloon baskets are designed, only the people on their divided section of the basket can see what is happening below waist level on that side of the basket. So, one minute Adriana was munching something edible at eye level with everyone else - and the next minute she was gone - like she had gone overboard in a flash. Mike immediately put the balloon into a power descent. But, by the time we reached 4,000 feet Adriana was feeling much better. We chalked her short lived demise up to jet lag, too much sleep, not enough sleep, too little food, not enough food, lack of jet lag and all sorts of other things that make women faint.

The balance of the trip was uneventful from a personal point of view - but, it was spectacular from a scenic point of view.

Tonight we shall probably lay around the hotel until about 8PM. Then we'll migrate to a food and watering hole for something.

Until tomorrow ...

Saturday, February 1, 1997

As I look out of my hotel window toward the mountains I can see that one of the chalets on the slope is burning wood in its fireplace. Of course, this is quite common, as wood is the preferred source of heating fuel in rural Switzerland. It is also convenient for us balloonists as it tells us which way the wind is blowing when hugging to the ground and in which direction it is shoving things. When you have a lot of these little fires going on it is rather like having a lot of weather people on the surface pointing their fingers in various helpful directions.

Various Shapes and DesignsAnyway, dear reader, the plume of smoke that I was looking at was (and still is) heading straight UP. Which, as you know from your reads from the past few days, strongly suggests that we'll again be playing more vertical games today.

As an aside - just seconds ago I glanced out the window again to check on the plume and I saw "smoke" cascading upward (can it DO that) from our bathroom. I know that Jean smokes on the semi-sly but this was far more than could be attributed to a smoke filled room. After screaming for her attention she calmed me with a shrugish "Alfie, I was just letting the steam out from the bathroom - don't get so alarmed."

OK, we are out of here! I hope we have an "uneventful" flight.

Or "Ciao", as my Swiss chambermaid says as I leave the room.

Back home again!

Today we went back to the Jungpass - again in quest of the right wind. Unfortunately, the road from here to there involves loads of switch backs all over the place and back again - the stuff that makes lots of people car sick - I mean it doesn't bother me, but Jean and my kids looked positively greenish when they do this trip. But, my pilot and I felt real chipper when we got out of our Previas for a final stretch before the in flight stuff - but Jean, David, Adriana and Annie looked awful - like they wanted to evacuate various internal depository organs. Various Shapes and DesignsUnderstandably, they made a direct line to the barfo-toilets and the Coke machines while I fumbled with my video camera settings.

By the way, these new cams have so many features and settings that it is next to impossible to do anything wrong - or, right, for that matter.

Hey, but enough of this - let's get on with the flight!

We took off at about 1 PM. It was a bit of a sail for a while. We went up to 8 or 9 thousand feet and then we descended into the area which houses "Ruth's Teeth". This is a fabulously attractive ridge that is usually rich in wildlife; but, today it was bare of the normally plentiful chamois. The chamois (I might be off on the spelling here) is a very nimble footed mountain goat that over the centuries has developed the ability to thwart gravity at every level. From aloft it really looks like it has the knack of being able to leap down tall things at a single bound. They are truly amazing to watch. Look, I know that when you are viewing something from a height you have a deadened sense of perception, but these animals have a love of high places and steep slopes that is truly awesome. Anyway, it took us a long while to coax the warm rocks to pull the balloon close to the face of the ridge in our attempt to poke out the presence of these curious creatures.

But, being luckless at this search for the better part of half an hour we dropped near to the ground for a close inspection of the snow and a fallen cork from a bottle of our Pomard. After playing around this gum line for a bit we ascended to a little over 11,000 feet and ever so slowly drifted toward the landing strip over at Saaden. We were all feeling a bit sanguine over the recovery of the fallen cork. The landing was slow and easy. After doing the necessaries, Mike and I took a bottle of Champagne over to the control tower and shared it with some off duty controllers and pilots who had finished their flights. On our march back to the balloon I toyed with the idea of buying a jet. Of course, it would have to be "decorated" with pictures of corkscrews.

We'll probably try to snatch a snack in a bit. I have booked several dozen fresh oysters (as starters) and several hundred fresh mussels for tonight's dinner. The latter bits will be turned into moules marinere - with pom frites on the side. Until tomorrow ...

Sunday, February 2, 1997

The smoke from the chimney is now lofting at about a 45 degree angle; and, it is heading toward Gruyere. Yes, I'm looking at the same chimney that captured my first sentence of yesterday. However, this message is less auspicious than yesterday's as the wind is now borderline brisk and the direction seems to take itself into the land of fog and cloudy things.

Balloons InflatingHey, I just looked out of my other window! My corkscrew #2 balloon is now in the process of being inflated. The gasoline powered fans have been kicked in and the cold air rush has started. Within minutes the propane will heat the air that will fill the bag.

Running down stairs now!

My kids said, as I was going down stairs, "Dad, it looks like our balloon is going up". I said "yes". But, I thought: "get your butts in gear."

Gotta go!


When we left this morning I was predicting (based on scientific observations of my neighbor's smoking chimney) that we'd fly in the direction of Gruyere. Well, the wind was fickle today. It pushed us in the opposite direction and within three hours we were above Gstaad. It was one of those liquid days when time flowed effortlessly and the scenery just drifted by and the conversation was easy: sort of what heaven must be like on a really good day. It was a classic landing and deflation.

I think that the oysters that we had for dinner tonight were from Whitstable. When I moved to England in 1969 my second pilgrimage was to Whitstable. The first was to the Earl's Court Automobile Show. Anyway, Whitstable is on the Kent coast and its reputation for oysters has no peer - except, maybe, that little French town that starts with a "B" and ends with a "e".

Time out.

Monday, February 3, 1997

Good grief! This morning my son and his wife and my daughter woke up with the major heaves. It couldn't have been the oysters from last night as I had more than a lion's share of them myself and I feel great. The three of them are very incapable of getting too far from the porcelain God. And, since the balloon manufacturer did not install plumbing in the basket it looks like I'll be tossing heavy stones into the basket to give it some weight.

You see, this balloon that we are flying today has 250,000 cubic feet of hot air in it. That's a lot of air, and if it is not lifting the proper amount of weight it can be somewhat unmanageable if there is some wind at the landing site. My other balloon is a 180 (180,000 cubic feet) and it can fly comfortably with just three people on board in the winter. Of course, outside temperature is also a factor. The cooler the outside air the greater the lift. Here in the winter Alps we have tremendous lifting capacity - which is a knife with two edges - we CAN lift more but, we also MUST lift more. In the summer months I can take the big balloon up with impunity just carrying two or three people.

Hey, any of you people out there in cyber space want to go ballooning today? I need your weight!

OK, I'm off to find some stones.

Today was an odd day for flying. I've never had so many people hold back and remain in their rooms. But, at least I was able to give a couple of my ground crew a taste of winter Alpine ballooning in their steads. We also took along the cook who prepared all of our in flight picnics since we have been here. She is Swiss so very little impresses her.

Due to a paucity of lower level wind we remained fairly high in the sky for most of the afternoon.

Tomorrow will be our last day of flying balloons in the Alps, as we return home on the 5th.

Monday, February 4, 1997

All of the temporary buildings and structures that were associated with the balloon festival are now gone. It's over, it's over! The last truck left about half an hour ago. I'm feeling a little morose at the moment about this. Why do all good things have to come to an end? But, I'm being too Peter Pannish this morning - grow up Alf.

Anyway, today is the last day in the air. In fact, yesterday may have been the last day in the air. It seems that the same gang that felt under the weather yesterday is not feeling much peppier this morning. Believe me, dear reader, a hot air balloon is one of the last places you would choose as a sickness site. With the lack of privacy and closeness of the quarters, the sound of internal plumbing grumbling (yours or others) is a fearsome noise. Unlike a car, you can't just pull off the side of the road and do your deed.

We've been pretty lucky with the weather this year. Since January 18th we have only missed three days of flying (but, I better check Stephani's journal on that). In the seven years that I have been flying here, that is a record. One year we only flew about half of the allotted days; that was the year that we had hurricane winds in the valley.

I'll be back in a bit - I'M OFF TO PILOT MY OWN BALLOON: the Cameron 250 (250,000 cubic feet). Mike suggested it - he said that I had enough passenger miles in my log that I ought to start logging pilot miles, albeit student pilot miles. I agreed.

A couple of hours later and I'm back! I feel like a kid. It was easier than I thought it would be. Hey, that was so much fun. I started off on a tether. Well, first of all, I actually I used the burners to bring the whole contraption up to an erect position in preparation for a tethered flight But, I've done that prefatory stuff before. So, NOW it is tether time - this involves about a 300 foot line tied to the back of one of my chase vehicles. It went off splendidly. After half a dozen non-crash landings I was ready to soar sans tether. Not that I soared that far - I went about ½ of a mile. The two ground crew that flew with me were terrified. I'm taking them out this afternoon for pizza as a treat.

I just came back from crew pizza and now it is a major pack time. I hate this part of travel - when I have wedge, cram and stuff things into cases for the long flight home.

At least Jean and I don't have a 4AM departure - my kids have to be out of the door about then as they are catching early morning flights from Geneva to the west coast. We have about a 4 hour lag on them.

It was fun doing this journal. I'm looking forward to doing this again in the spring or summer, whichever comes first.

Tuesday, February 5, 1997

I'm writing this on February 4th as I probably won't feel up to the task in the morning. If all goes well, we'll be in Geneva later this morning, at JFK later in the day - and home this evening.

I spoke too early in the above paragraph. It is now deeply into the 5th and we are about three hours out of Geneva on a Swiss Air flight to Kennedy (America's most hated airport in America's most hated city).

When we left Chateau d'Oex at 8 this morning there were high winds at every altitude and there was no smoke coming from my bell weather chimney - and it was snowing - it did not augur well for anything. The day had a major suck potential for flyers and drivers both. Obviously, it was a no fly day even if we were game for it. Whatever, by the time that we hit the motorway, near the lake that runs by our auto route from just north of Montreaux to the Geneva airport turn-off, the snowy-sleet had petered out to a mild drizzle. We made the transit to the airport in about 1 hour 40.

I really like the Geneva airport: it's squeaky clean and it is never very crowded. Jean is always attracted to the shopping here because at this exit point we are usually awash with extra Swiss Francs which Jean has no problem spending. I think that is definitely a chick quality.

PS For certain, my next balloon trip will be scheduled for mid-July. It'll be in France for a start on the Loire Valley and a finish in Burgundy. Stephani Weaver will again do the major journal entries. Her husband and my friend, Robin, will also be with us. We may have other people with us - though I doubt it at the moment.

PPS Though, there is a fair chance that I'll take one of my balloons to England in May with some folks who are my family. This will be an exploration trip - uncharted territory, so to speak. But, more about that as my life goes on.


See also:

The Chase Team at Work

The Chase Team at Play

The Chase Team at Battle


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