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Ballooning in Switzerland


Floating over Switzerland a few feet above the treetops, skimming over azure lakes and emerald meadows – sounds romantic and adventurous, doesn't it? We thought so too, and since my uncle is a balloon pilot, we jumped at the chance to see my native country from a different viewpoint on a recent visit there.

We couldn't have picked a better day for our flight – a perfect fall day, with a slight ground fog in the early morning, and that burnt wood smell so typical of the September air in Switzerland.

Up at 6 a.m., my uncle, my husband and I, bundled up against the early morning chill, drove to our starting point, a small clearing in a forest. Our vehicle, a helium balloon with an attached wicker basket just big enough to hold the three of us, was waiting.

© Hélène Studer.A majestic sight, the red balloon already filled with gas by a four-man crew, weighed down with extra sandbags to keep it on the ground, swayed gently in the morning breeze.

According to the weather office, the prevailing winds would be northeast, which would take us somewhere over Germany, in the general direction of Munich. Our ground crew (crew of one, actually – my dad!) was ready to follow us in a 4-wheel drive with trailer, to bring the balloon back to the starting point after landing. We would be in constant radio contact with the jeep, to get information on wind conditions close to the ground, a pretty important consideration when attempting to land. We had our maps to keep track of our course, and finally, we climbed aboard, the crew removed the extra sandbags, and the balloon lifted gently off the ground.

We were off – and drifting straight into the tall firs surrounding us. Desperately trying to fend off the prickly branches, we asked ourselves: Is this an indication of things to come?

A few handfuls of sand thrown overboard to clear the treetops, and now we were REALLY off. A helium balloon works differently from a hot-air balloon; to gain altitude in a hot-air balloon, you simply activate the gas burner for a few seconds. A helium balloon already contains the gas, so in order to go UP, you have to get rid of some ballast (in this case, sand). When you want to come DOWN, you open a rip-panel on the balloon which allows the gas to escape, thereby reducing the lift.

We decided to stay at a fairly low altitude to begin with, so we could enjoy the countryside below us. What a sight it was – green fields, vineyards, fruit orchards, small villages, each with its own little church.

View from the balloon. © Hélène Studer. In the distance the Alps were still shrouded in thin fog, but above us the sky was clear blue. The wonderful silence was only occasionally broken by a barking dog, a ringing church-bell, tinkling cowbells – the sounds easily carried up to us through the fresh morning air. Soon the sun burned the last of the fog away, and it got really warm. Traveling with the wind, we could not feel the breeze. After a while, we decided to climb to a higher altitude. A few more handfuls of sand discarded overboard sent us soaring up to where the wind was stronger and we really started to move. Time for a sip of tea laced with rum, which we were careful to ration – the facilities are limited in a wicker-basket, so you don't want to ingest too much liquid.

Towards noon, the wind calmed down and we spent about an hour hovering over one particular village, a place forever seared into my memory. In a balloon, you're at the mercy of the wind, and there's nothing you can do but wait for its direction to change. We were so close to the ground we could talk to people. A farmer's wife rushed out of her kitchen and invited us to land and stay for lunch. A boy following us on his bike asked to be picked up and taken along. Then the wind picked up, and up and onwards we went.

We were now able to see the shores of the Bodensee, a large lake dividing

Switzerland and Germany. Soon we were wafting over the water and decided to have a closer look at things. Some gas was vented out of the balloon and we slowly sank towards the water. At about two meters above the surface, we tied a water-filled plastic container to a long rope and slowly paid out the rope until the canister hit the water. It dragged behind and acted as an anchor, slowly pulling us down to just above water level – sometimes to just a bit below as well.

We skimmed across the surface of the lake, to the amazement of various boaters who soon surrounded us. Some people offered to tow us to shore, but we weren't finished yet. Up came our improvised anchor, some sand was dumped, and we started climbing again. Up and up we went, until the sailboats were tiny white dots. At 1,600 meters above the surface, we suddenly heard a roar. A fighter plane from the Swiss Air Force circled us and dipped its wings in greeting before speeding on.

It was getting late by the time we crossed the lake, time to think about picking a good landing site. Easier said than done. Earthbound travelers don't usually take power lines and tree tops into consideration. We spotted a field that seemed big enough and approximately in the direction in which we were traveling.

A landing site? © Hélène Studer. But it was not to be. As we sank lower and lower, the wind at ground level picked up, and before we knew it, we had passed our chosen spot and were heading directly for a farmhouse. Frantically shoveling sand over the edge, we just cleared the rooftop, leaving the farmer's wife gaping up at us in amazement, while the dog beside her barked up a storm.

It took a while to spot our next potential landing site, and that turned out to be literally a last-minute decision. I casually mentioned to our pilot that the field ahead of us seemed like a good spot, and he decided to go for it. The rip-panel on the balloon was opened. We quickly lost altitude. Long, heavy ropes were thrown overboard, trailing behind us, slowing us down. Anticipating a tremendous bump as we hit the ground, we all bent our knees, held on to the rim of the basket and hoped for the best, but our landing was anticlimactic. We set down light as a feather in the middle of a herd of very curious cows. We were quickly surrounded by children and adults who were more than willing to help us get the balloon deflated and folded up, a two-hour task. That accomplished, everyone was invited for a glass of beer, courtesy of the aliens from the sky.

Luckily, we had landed quite close to a country road. We tried to convince the ground crew that this had, of course, been preplanned, but my dad kept insisting it was pure luck. Either way, it made it easier for the jeep to be brought in and the balloon loaded on the trailer. By the time we delivered the balloon and drove back home, we had gone through three sets of international customs and were exhausted. Our admiration for transoceanic balloonist soared by several degrees.

For more information on helium balloon trips in Switzerland contact the Ballongruppe Zürich, Obmann Peter Brader, Zielackerstrasse 10, P.O. Box 614, CH-8603 Schwerzenbach ZH. Tel: 41 1 826 15 00 or Fax: 41 1 826 15 20

To contact the Swiss National Tourist Office visit www.switzerlandtourism.com or call: 41-900-55-2000, Fax: 41-900-55-2009.

Towards noon, the wind calmed down and we spent about an hour hovering over one particular village, a place forever seared into my memory. In a balloon, you're at the mercy of the wind, and there's nothing you can do but wait for its direction to change. We were so close to the ground we could talk to people. A farmer's wife rushed out of her kitchen and invited us to land and stay for lunch. A boy following us on his bike asked to be picked up and taken along. Then the wind picked up, and up and onwards we went.

We were now able to see the shores of the Bodensee, a large lake dividing

Switzerland and Germany. Soon we were wafting over the water and decided to have a closer look at things. Some gas was vented out of the balloon and we slowly sank towards the water. At about two meters above the surface, we tied a water-filled plastic container to a long rope and slowly paid out the rope until the canister hit the water. It dragged behind and acted as an anchor, slowly pulling us down to just above water level – sometimes to just a bit below as well.

We skimmed across the surface of the lake, to the amazement of various boaters who soon surrounded us. Some people offered to tow us to shore, but we weren't finished yet. Up came our improvised anchor, some sand was dumped, and we started climbing again. Up and up we went, until the sailboats were tiny white dots. At 1,600 meters above the surface, we suddenly heard a roar. A fighter plane from the Swiss Air Force circled us and dipped its wings in greeting before speeding on.

It was getting late by the time we crossed the lake, time to think about picking a good landing site. Easier said than done. Earthbound travelers don't usually take power lines and tree tops into consideration. We spotted a field that seemed big enough and approximately in the direction in which we were traveling.

A landing site? © Hélène Studer. But it was not to be. As we sank lower and lower, the wind at ground level picked up, and before we knew it, we had passed our chosen spot and were heading directly for a farmhouse. Frantically shoveling sand over the edge, we just cleared the rooftop, leaving the farmer's wife gaping up at us in amazement, while the dog beside her barked up a storm.

It took a while to spot our next potential landing site, and that turned out to be literally a last-minute decision. I casually mentioned to our pilot that the field ahead of us seemed like a good spot, and he decided to go for it. The rip-panel on the balloon was opened. We quickly lost altitude. Long, heavy ropes were thrown overboard, trailing behind us, slowing us down. Anticipating a tremendous bump as we hit the ground, we all bent our knees, held on to the rim of the basket and hoped for the best, but our landing was anticlimactic. We set down light as a feather in the middle of a herd of very curious cows. We were quickly surrounded by children and adults who were more than willing to help us get the balloon deflated and folded up, a two-hour task. That accomplished, everyone was invited for a glass of beer, courtesy of the aliens from the sky.

Luckily, we had landed quite close to a country road. We tried to convince the ground crew that this had, of course, been preplanned, but my dad kept insisting it was pure luck. Either way, it made it easier for the jeep to be brought in and the balloon loaded on the trailer. By the time we delivered the balloon and drove back home, we had gone through three sets of international customs and were exhausted. Our admiration for transoceanic balloonist soared by several degrees.

For more information on helium balloon trips in Switzerland contact the Ballongruppe Zürich, Obmann Peter Brader, Zielackerstrasse 10, P.O. Box 614, CH-8603 Schwerzenbach ZH. Tel: 41 1 826 15 00 or Fax: 41 1 826 15 20

To contact the Swiss National Tourist Office visit www.switzerlandtourism.com or call: 41-900-55-2000, Fax: 41-900-55-2009.