Three South African recreational balloonists went to France recently. The Grand Est Mondial Air Ballon Fiesta 2023 took place at the Chambley-BussiŤres Airbase in the last week in July 2023. Previously known as the "Lorraine Mondial Air Ballon" fiesta, the first fiesta took place 32 years ago and every 2 years thereafter during, the last week of July. This event is Europe's largest hot air balloon fiesta.
Left to right yours truly Hanke Fourie, Richard Bovell and Martyn Evers
Chambley-BussiŤres is located in the eastern part of France in the Meurthe-et-Moselle Department around 16 km from the French City of Metz.
Richard Bovell has been the South African Ambassador for the event for a number of years, attending his first fiesta in 2003. Martyn Evers joined the fun flying at the 2011 event and Hanke Fourie for the 2017 fiesta. For various reasons this is the first event that the intrepid trio from South Africa have attended since 2017.
The 2023 fiesta started on Friday evening 20 July 2023 and ended on Sunday evening 30 July 2023. The Aero Club mascot, Owumbo the lion, travelled with us on an A380 from Johannesburg to Dubai and a further 6 hours on to Frankfurt. His first international flights were recorded in his logbook!
Our "chariot", a Sky 65 is a British registered balloon that is stored permanently in Kleinmascheid, Germany around 100 km north of Frankfurt airport. A last comfortable stay in a hotel on the 19th July 2023, before a 10-day camping adventure at the Chambley airfield is undertaken. After collecting our balloon, the trip in our rented AVIS Van to Chambley is started. A quick stop at Luxembourg airport to collect another friend joining us from the UK and we are set for fun flying.
We arrived on the Thursday evening after a long trek from Frankfurt to a fairly empty field, a day before the fiesta started on the Friday evening. But from the Friday morning balloonists began arriving in droves.
To save time and to avoid travelling to the airfield for the morning and evening briefings, camping at the airfield was the solution much to the amusement of our spouses left behind in the Johannesburg winter. This helped tremendously, since the morning briefing is at 05h45 and the evening briefing 18h30 at the briefing center. From the start of the fiesta, the winds were fairly fast from the east.
After the first briefing and welcoming speeches on the Friday evening it was time for flying to commence. The wind direction on the field was from the east and fairly fast. So, on the launch field and with a great view of some of the balloons taking off, we just enjoyed the spectacle of the flying bill-boards, with a glass of French wine, baguettes, cheese and cold meat, our planned dinner for later!
Saturday morning was the first flight where most balloons took to the skies, as some balloons only attend the fiesta on weekends. Owumbo the Lion had his first balloon flight in France.
This fiesta is known for a hot air balloon great-line-up. On a predetermined day, all the balloons inflate together along both sides of the three-kilometer runway and along some taxiways and with the help of a helicopter or microlight and video footage, an accurate count of the number of balloons is completed. Sunday morning was the day planned for this line-up, but fast winds ensured this great-line-up and mass ascension was cancelled. What a pity, as in GEMAB2017 the number of balloons in this line up was 457! The 2023 fiesta had more than 400 balloons and more than 700 pilots registered.
An Ambassador's Lunch was held on Tuesday 25 July 2023. We woke to a day of rain and wind which continued all morning, the rain was pouring down when we went to lunch, so a glass of wine with lunch seemed be in order! Richard Bovell as ambassador and I attended. Great lunch with the other ambassadors from as far away as the USA, Ireland, England, Switzerland, Latvia, Japan, Mexico, Marrocco and Taiwan. Philippe Buron Pil‚tre, the organizer from the start of the fiesta 32 years ago, indicated that this will be his last event as the organizer. We truly hope a successor can be found and that this fiesta will continue for long into the future!
Betrand Piccard, the balloonist who flew around the World in 1999, was also in attendance. Great ambassador not only for ballooning, but all forms of flying.
The rain stopped after lunch, the wind calmed in the late afternoon and we could unfortunately not fly the evening flight due the great glasses of French wine and champagne!
A low-pressure system heading south from England, caused more rain in the week and winds that made flying difficult. 6 flights over 3 consecutive days were cancelled. Despite the weather, some flights have taken place although the weather was not ideal. But every day thousands of spectators arrived in morning and evening hoping to watch the colorful spectacle unfold. Concession gazebos for sponsors were occupied with invited guests and just on the other side of the picket fence hundreds of balloons inflate creating a spectacle for visitors enjoying a glass of French champagne in this scenic part of France.
The flying area is magnificent. Most fields are harvested, no fences and friendly farmers, make this a great flying area.
At the end of the following week Owumbo was shipped off via La Poste to the South African team participating in the World Rally Flying Championships being held in Macron, to continue his French adventures.
Sunday morning 30 July was unfortunately our last flight. It was a fast flight and we landed in a large harvested field, but with the heavy rains over the previous few days it required a tractor and the help of a friendly French farmer to retrieve the retrieve vehicle and enable us to get the balloon back to base and to refuel!
Unfortunately, with the adverse weather, we only managed 6 out of 17 possible flights. But what a great French flying affair!
We travelled back to Kleinmascheid to a comfortable hotel room and bed on the Sunday night. The next day we prepared the balloon for its hibernation awaiting the intrepid balloonists' next adventure in Europe. This adventure came to an end with two flights back to South Africa aboard an Emirates Boeing 777 to Dubai and an Airbus 380 to Johannesburg.