Yesterday, 21 gas balloon teams from 13 countries took off from Gruyères airfield, in Switzerland to compete in the 61st Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race. Each team consists of two qualified pilots. In gas balloon races, one of the challenges for the balloonists and their meteorologists (who work from the ground) is to find the best wind trajectory that would help them fly safely as far as possible. The distance is measured in a straight line from the launch field to the landing site, even if the balloons veer off in different directions.
Crews accompanied their teams to the launch platforms and each team took off with their national anthem being played. For the first time, in many years, the launch took place in daylight and the 15,000 enthusiastic spectators were able to enjoy the beautiful Swiss backdrop to the launch.
According to meteorologists, the winds at flying altitude are towards the northeast, and will likely take the balloons over Germany and then Poland. Flying gas balloons over a long distance in Europe, involves many hassles with air traffic control, who want to keep the air space clear for airplanes.
Even though ballooning technology has improved considerably and communication is advanced, the gas balloon race is a great challenge and adventure. It tests the pilots’ skills and endurance, as they fly nonstop at high altitudes for days and nights, often over remote areas and large water transits, harnessing the wind.
The challenge is severe for teams who will try to fly through the narrow passage between Belarus and Kaliningrad towards Lithuania.
Experts predict a tight competition with some very experienced pilots participating in the race. Team USA-1 represented by Peter Cuneo and Barbara Fricke earned fourth place last year in the Gordon Bennett competition; they have also been four-time winners of America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race.
Cheri White and Mark Sullivan from the United States make up team USA-2.
Twice world champions team SUI-1 Kurt Frieden and Pascal Witprächtiger and the local team SUI-2 of Nicolas Tièche and Laurent Sciboz who earned second place in 2016 are likely to be close contenders.
Then there is the German team of Matthias Zenge and Benni Eimers. For the first time Benni will replace his father Willy who is nicknamed the “Record Man” after competing in the race 26 times with four victories to his name.
One French team FRA-1 includes Vincent Leys, already an eight-times winner.We can’t forget the Spanish team who finished third in 2016.
In the Gordon Bennett race, each country can enter up to three teams. Switzerland, Germany, and France have entered three teams this year. The other countries include Czech Republic, USA, Poland, Netherlands, Lithuania, the UK, Japan, Belgium, Spain, Austria and Australia.
To find out more about the race:
Follow the race live at: gordonbennett.aero/livetracking
Official website: www.gordonbennett.aero
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