At least once a year, everyone in Château-d'Oex looks towards the heavens.
During the International Hot Air Balloon Festival, this village in canton Vaud turns into the capital of hot air ballooning, attracting some 60 aeronauts from all over the world.
How the festival took off
Château-d'Oex has a significant story to tell, beginning with the inauguration of the first-ever alpine hot air balloon festival in 1978. At the time, two bright minds came up with the idea of hosting such a festival in the scenic valley.
More than four decades ago, Charles-André Ramseier, the erstwhile director of tourism, along with the current mayor, launched the festival. It has since turned into an important gathering for aeronauts, balloonists, and visitors from around the world.
Interestingly, the festival's launch spot for the balloons has a record-breaking history. In this very spot, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones set off in 1999 to circumnavigate the globe. The Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon achieved this feat in just 19 days.
Information on visiting the festival
I was there on the inauguration day of the 2015 edition of the International Hot Air Balloon Festival. As such, I was able to witness the pilots work diligently on their inflator fans, burners and carabiners before taking off to the skies.
Château-d'Oex can easily be reached by public transportation. The train from Gstaad takes just 24 minutes, or 70 minutes from Montreux.
The next edition of the International Hot Air Balloon Festival will be taking place from Jan 21 until 29, 2023.
Impressions of the 2020 Hot Air Balloon Festival in Château-d'Oex by Dominik Gehl
Up in the air
Some uniquely shaped balloons
Espace Ballon Museum in Château-d'Oex
Hot air ballooning is present in Château-d'Oex throughout the year, even when there is no festival. Espace Ballon is the local museum dedicated to this adventure, highlighting ballooning from all angles. The permanent exhibit showcases the history of flying, starting with the legendary attempts by Icarus to Bertrand Piccard's endeavor.
The Espace Ballon Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 2 to 5 PM, December to October. Gain free admission by showing a valid festival ticket during the International Hot Air Balloon Festival.
Flying a hot air balloon in Château-d'Oex
Calmly gliding across the Vaudoise Alps and seeing the world from above must be an amazing feeling. Hot air balloon flights with professional pilots will take you to 3000 meters above sea level. From these staggering heights, you will be able to see beautiful peaks all around: Eiger, Grand-Combin, the Matterhorn, and Mont-Blanc, as well as the Jura and the regions of Lake Geneva and Fribourg.
The hot air flying experience lasts approximately 3.5 hours, with the flight duration being 1 to 1.5 hours. There will be a crew apéro afterward, and you will receive a flight certificate.
An interview with two legendary aeronauts
In 2015, I had an opportunity to interview two legends: aeronaut Brian Jones, the co-pilot of Breitling Orbiter 3, and Tim Ellison, the first-ever disabled air balloon pilot in Europe (and the second in the world.)
I was expecting to hear a lot of fluff about their feats and fortitude. Instead, I met two men whose egos would not even fill up a toy balloon.
"Celebrity is a fleeting phenomenon."
Before my interview with Brian Jones, I managed to tell whoever would listen that I was nervous about interviewing a personality like him. And I was told just one line which almost sounded rehearsed: "He is an absolute gentleman and you have no reason to worry."
And a gentleman he was. After having served in the Royal Air Force for 13 years, Jones earned his commercial license in the late '80s and took to air ballooning full-time. He has never looked back since. "Coming back to Chateau d'Oex always reminds me of my trip with Piccard. It brings back very special memories. The village is like a second home to me, and the people have embraced me as well."
On Bertrand Piccard
Jones spoke to me about his experience with Piccard on the 19-day mission that made history. "We were two very different men. We had our own outlook towards things and our own opinions. But that is why we got along extremely well. We were so much in tune with each other that I could sleep very well, knowing that my life is safe in his hands and he could do the same."
On the Winds of Hope Foundation
Today, Jones is an active participant in the Winds of Hope Foundation, a charity he set up with Piccard and other partners using the prize money they had won. "I was 51 when I circumnavigated the globe and until then, I hadn't done much for charity and it always did weigh on my mind. So we set up the Winds of Hope Foundation that aims to create awareness of neglected diseases around the world."
Jones continued: "I wanted to use my celebrity status as long as it lasted. And so we worked to raise awareness for noma, a disease that affects 80'000 people in poor countries. We focused on Niger, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mali, and other African countries where noma is predominant. In a recent WHO report, the occurrence of noma has reduced from 2000 cases in the year 2000, to just two cases in Niger in 2012. "It's a victory," Jones said proudly.
His repertoire just does not seem to end at that. Mellow and mild-mannered outwardly, but a hurricane of ideas when you dig deep, he shared with me the success of his mission to teach disabled pilots to fly.
"I wanted to teach disabled people to fly, so I partnered with Tim and taught him to fly an air balloon. Tim was a natural pilot and it was a pleasure to teach him. It was more of a partnership to demonstrate that the disabled can fly as well as we do."
On Solar Impulse 2
I also asked Jones about his thoughts on the Solar Impulse 2 mission. He said: "I am confident that Piccard's and Borschberg's expedition will go well. It has been a long project in the making, and the prototype went well. So I see only the best happening."
"Flying is therapeutic."
Tim Ellison was an RAF Harrier Pilot who was left a paraplegic after an engine failure crashed the plane at a height too low for him to eject. That was 1992. Today, he has fine-tuned his story to give it a positive tweak. And in 2014, Ellison became the first disabled air balloon pilot in Europe - and the second in the world.
I asked him to share his experience, and he was upbeat: "It was very important for me to keep flying. After the accident 23 years ago, it was very easy for me to feel disabled but I chose to keep going."
Today, Tim has his goals set for himself and aims to teach flying to other disabled people. "I hope it turns into reality," he said with a confident smile. And so ended my conversation with two very inspiring men. They may be flying high, but they have their feet well-grounded on terra firma.