16 JAN  | 15:15:00 | 2016

Flight across the Alps in the gas-filled balloons

January 18, 2016 we had a team flight across the Alps from North to South, from Germany to Italy. We had been waiting for this weather window for almost a year. We needed a stable anticyclone with a weak ground wind and good speed at an altitude of 4000 - 5000 meters. A gentle breeze (or lack of wind) was a must to fill balloons with hydrogen. And fairly strong winds (40 km/h) were necessary to fly over the Alps and land before the sunset. Estimated distance - 400 km. Two 1 000 m3 envelopes were used for the flight. We started from the city of Augsburg (Bavaria), located to the West from Munich. Computer simulation program offered three flight paths to us. We decided to stick to the middle one and try to get to Venice. That was our plan.

We decided to fly with two balloons. Balloon number 1: Benjamin Eymers, Mathias Tsenge and Leonid Tyukhtyaev. Balloon number 2: Wilhelm Eymers, Fedor Konyukhov, Oscar Konyukhov.

For Fedor Konyukhov this flight over the Alps was a part of preparation to the flight from the North Pole to the mainland, scheduled for April 2016 and the circumnavigation flight on the MORTON air-balloon (scheduled for June 2016).

How to prepare for the circumnavigation flight on a hybrid Roziere-type 15 500 m3 air-balloon? Hybrid balloons are those with burners and helium-filled (lighter than air gas) envelopes. That is hot air and gas-filled craft in one. It is obvious that in order to prepare one needs to fly, but having flights only in Moscow suburbs is not enough. Therefore we needed the Alps. The height of 5000 meters, frost (-25 ⁰S), use of oxygen for breathing. Looking ahead, I can note that it was a very useful and important trip. We tested our clothes and realized that for the North Pole we have to make some changes in the equipment, including oxygen cylinders and masks. Work with devices and transmitters in low temperature conditions also require additional training.

The start. Our balloons filling started at 2 am. This time the hosting club took over responsibility for filling the balloons with hydrogen (normally, pilots fill the envelopes on their own). So our task was to take off the envelopes and baskets from the trailer and fill ballast bags with dry (!) sand. Omitting prelaunch nuances, the launch of our balloon (Vilgelm Eymerts, Fedor Konyukhov, Oscar Konyukhov) was at 6:45 am. Just a couple of minutes later the second balloon rose in the air: Benjamin Eymers, Mathias Tsenge and Leonid Tyukhtyaev, and after a while one more balloon with the German team onboard took off, but they followed their own program and eventually flew off in the direction of Garda lake and landed there afterwards. 

If we compare flights on hot air and gas-filled balloons, the ascent in the gas-filled balloon is very dynamic. Once the straps were unfastened, we gained 3000 meters altitude just in a few minutes but there wasn’t the wind we needed, so, having got rid of some sand from the sandbags we lifted to the height of 4000 meters above the sea level. As expected, the balloon was in a steady wind stream blowing from north to south. For a few seconds the Russian flag was fluttering in the wind, then it hung down – which meant the balloon entered the stream, there was no apparent wind, we were moving with the wind speed. The figures on the GPS were very pleasing: the speed of 46 km / h, the rate of 180 (direct south). Also we were stunned with absolute silence. No longer could we hear the noise from the earth. The burners produced no sound. Absolute silence (not including radio broadcast).

Wilhelm congratulated us on the access to a given flight level and suggested we had some champagne. Balloonists have a tradition (since the time of the patriarchs) - to drink a glass of champagne during the flight. The thermometer showed -22 ⁰C, we did not really want any champagne; instead we drank a mug of chicken soup from a thermos. We could see our friends slightly to the West. And in such a friendly tandem, exchanging short messages via the radio, we moved towards the Alps. The rising sun illuminated stunningly the Alpine peaks in the distance.

At some point I noticed that the second balloon disappeared from our horizon.  First I thought that they had decided to go higher than we were going, but then I saw a white envelope rapidly descending onto the valley. Wilhelm contacted the second balloon on the radio and through the noise of hissing valve, we could hear a brief report on the events: at an altitude of 4600 meters the parachute shell valve suddenly began to slack off (release the gas), the balloon went down at a speed of 3 meters per second, the team was throwing the ballast off and trying to stabilize the fall and perform a controlled descent.

Such news we had after two hours of flight. Meanwhile we were going deeper and deeper into the Alps at a speed of 50 km / h and were absolutely unable to help our friends. We couldn’t land for there were already glaciers and mountains beneath. Even if we landed, we would be separated by the distance of 15-20 km and a pair of ridges. We were watching through binoculars as the falling balloon crossed the valley, hovered over the slope in the foothills of the Alps, and then crossed the ridge and disappeared from our view. Silence in the basket. We were listening to the radio broadcasting and waiting for the news. Wilhelm remained calm, although the pilot of the second balloon was his son. The only thing he told us was that there were experienced pilots, and they would cope.

In the end everything turned out fine, the pilots managed to land on one of the central streets of a small German town, bypassing the transmission line, the open water of the lake, gardens, a forest and the town hall. Our friends were on the ground safe and sound, the back-up car was going to pick them up, and we continued the flight at an altitude of 5000 meters, breathing oxygen.

There is no sense in describing the beauty of the Alps. And even pictures do not convey this majestic beauty. I just want to look at the ridge of mountains, glaciers and remember this picture. Pilots are usually prone to philosophical reflections.

Suddenly the gearbox on one of the two oxygen tanks got out of order. It started veering out of all holes. We had to pull the plug on that bottle only to find ourselves with one oxygen bottle for 3 people with two connectors. We breathed in turns. We couldn’t descend because of the peaks 4 thousand meters high, which we had to pass with some altitude adjustment, plus if we started to go down, the wind would pull the balloon the opposite direction, to the north! We had to remain at 4.5-5 thousand meters for some more time. For that moment we were going well.

So we passed Austria. Ahead of us were the Dolomites, Italy, we wanted to go over the famous ski region of Sella Ronda, but were pulled in the direction of Garda Lake, to the south-west. As a result, we crossed the Dolomites in their western part and began the descent. The lower, the more the wind twisted to the East. It became obvious that the landing would be in the region of Padua - Venice.

We started with 25 ballast bags (with sand), at the landing moment we had 17 bags. We were descending slowly. 5000-4000-3000 meters. We could remove oxygen masks. The sea and the vessels remaining off the Venice harbor became visible. We could see planes landing at Marco Polo Airport (Venice). Our transponder was working properly; flight operations officers could see us. Our back-up team was late for a couple of hours because they had to return to Germany to pick the second team up, but we needed to land before the sunset. We had some time left. We calmly selected the landing area, the ground wind was weak, it pulled to the South. We made a stand-up landing on a small road near the river. A police car appeared right from behind the bushes – they were patrolling to catch refugees. They checked our documents (passports, pilot's license, and balloon documents). Waiting for the back-up car, we stayed there surrounded by local farmers, their children and two policemen. We made up our minds not to pack up the envelopes in order the back-up team could find us easier, but we were already on Italian land. The 395 km flight took us 9 hours and 45 minutes.

The flight was over. The project was sponsored by the "Open Sea" Foundation.

We have agreed to fly on two balloons from Germany to Russia this spring. The route length is 2000 kilometers. The start will be in the Düsseldorf area, landing - in the Pskov region.

Oscar Konyukhov

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