Fred-Paulin Gétaz presides the International Balloon Festival in Château-d'Oex, which is not just hot air.
Thank you for meeting with us. Can you tell us a little about the history of the Château-d’Oex Balloon Festival?
In the early 70s, Charles André Ramseier spent some time in the United States, where he had the opportunity to go hot-air ballooning in New Mexico. He was so enchanted by the experience that he was determined to bring the sport to Château-d’Oex. The opportunity presented itself in the late 70s when, as head of our tourist office, he met the German pilot, Hans Büker. This chance encounter led to the creation of the first Féstival de Ballons, held in Château-d’Oex in February 1979. Since then it has been held every year, always in winter, and has grown progressively over the years and become internationally renown.
How and when did you get involved with the festival?
During my military service, I worked in telecommunications in the army unit seconded to help during the 1994 festival. At that time there were no mobile phones so the army trained the ground crews and organisers to use radio for their communication. In 2002 I joined the organizing committee in a technical capacity and last year I was elected president.
What is your responsibility at the festival?
The organizing committee has 25 members and 60 volunteers. I focus on assuring the long-term sustainability of the event, in strengthening our role as a centre of excellence, and in ensuring that the programme maintains a level of interest for balloonists as well as the general public.
The 2019 festival will again last nine days, from 26 January to 3 February. Each year we attract some 60 to 70 entries. Security concerns limit the maximum number of balloons we can accept to 80; we already have 60 registered for 2019. We are delighted that this includes three new teams that have never flown in Château-d’Oex.
Hot-air ballooning in this region is challenging so we tend to get pilots who have significant mountain-flying experience. Some pilots refer to the festival as the Formula One of alpine ballooning. We continue to develop Château-d’Oex as a centre of excellence for alpine hot-air ballooning and provide ongoing training throughout the event. During the 2019 edition, workshops will focus on meteorological applications and tools, the use of radio for communication between balloonists and ground control, and restrictions with respect to other aircrafts.
In terms of innovation, the Fondation Espace Ballons is conducting a feasibility study, in collaboration with the School of Engineering and Architecture of Fribourg, to develop a hot-air balloon simulator. This would be used to train new pilots and to give members of the public an opportunity to experience what it is like to fly a hot-air balloon.
2019 is an important milestone for us for three reasons: it marks the 41st edition of the International Balloon Festival; it’s the 20th anniversary of the amazing round-the-world trip by Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones in the Breitling Orbiter; and it’s the 40th anniversary of the inauguration of the pilots’ association, Le Centre Alpin Ballons à Air-Chaud.
What activities are planned for the public?
In addition to the daily balloon flights and competitions, we have many activities for both adults and children. Passengers can take part in balloon rides with departures each morning and afternoon – weather permitting.
We also have a number of new events planned. On Saturday Bertrand Piccard will make a commemorative flight in a model of the Breitling Orbiter to celebrate the anniversary of his famous flight. Later in the day, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones will give a presentation on this remarkable event, followed by a fondue evening and music. The additional activities and animation organized on the weekends include flights by blimps and “cloud hoppers”, flights by balloons with unusual shapes, model balloon flights, aerobatic displays, and paraglider and parachute performances. Members of the public can also take helicopter rides with Air Glaciers.
Undoubtedly one of the most striking events in the programme is the famous Son et Lumière Night-Glow – scheduled to take place on Friday, 1 February 2019. The balloons are lined up on the hills behind Château-d’Oex and inflated in unison. Their gas burners light up the night sky and, with the mountains as a backdrop, it’s very dramatic. To make the event even more spectacular, members of the Swiss Ski School ski down the surrounding slopes carrying lighted torches while paragliders, illuminated by flares attached to their backs, drop down from the night sky.
What activities do you have for children?
On Wednesday, 30 January, we have a special children’s day with a number of activities. This includes a treasure hunt – inspired by a similar event that was extremely successful during the festival Aux Pays des Enfants held in Château-d’Oex in 2018.
The same afternoon Michèle Piccard, the wife of Bertrand, will be available in the Landi hall to dedicate the book that she has written for young children, L’Avion Qui Vole Avec le Soleil, about the solar impulse. Children will also have the opportunity to make and fly their own balloons. Volunteers from the Association Ballons Pirates will show them how to construct balloons out of papier maché. The balloons will be launched at the end of the day and can rise up to 1,000 metres in the air.
What are the competitions for pilots?
The programme of the festival always provides opportunities for pilots to perfect their skills, particularly flying in Alpine conditions. We will have a series of competitions that test the pilots’ skills and dexterity, as well as their ability to read the wind conditions. These include: 1. the Two Gruyères Competition, where each pilot has to fly down the valley to Gruyère, drop a marker on a target in the centre of the courtyard of the château and then fly on to touch down in a nearby field; 2. the Hare and Hounds Competition, where the leading balloon (the hare) takes off a few minutes before the other balloons (the hounds). After about 45 minutes flying, the hare lands and unfurls a fabric cross which the hounds then have to hit with their markers; and 3. the David Niven Cup, where the objective is to cover as much distance as possible in one flight. In 2019 we will have two categories for this competition: the category David Niven for conventional balloons and a new category for balloons equipped with a double envelope, the Piccard-Jones eco-trophy. These balloons remain aloft approximately four times longer than a conventional balloon, using the same amount of fuel. Their extra flight time should enable participants to cover up to 500 kilometres.
What does the festival bring to the region?
It has a significant economic impact. The balloon festival has become a permanent fixture on the international ballooning calendar and Château-d’Oex has become known internationally through it. Last year we attracted some 35,000 visitors, many of whom stayed locally in apartments, B&Bs or hotels in the region, including Saanenland and Gruyère.
What role do marketing and communication play in the event?
Since the Balloon Festival is subject to good weather conditions, we need to assure that we have an excellent communication with the public. The publicity is handled by the tourist office of the Pays-d’Enhaut.
Social media has become particularly important and during the 2019 festival the public can follow events on our website, our Facebook page, our Instagram account and on YouTube. Two young YouTube enthusiasts will accompany Michèle Piccard throughout the festival and regularly post their coverage of the events. We also maintain a hotline with the latest information during the festival.
We even have a local radio station – The Radio Bus – which will broadcast from the take-off zone each day. This is a local radio station that is animated by school children from the Pays-d’Enhaut and the Riviera region.
What is the budget of the event and how is it sponsored?
Our budget is approximately CHF 1m. Much of this is provided by our sponsors. Businesses that wish to support the festival can choose between five different categories of sponsorship.
Thank you and very best wishes for the success of this upcoming event!
Hotline: +41 (0)26 924 25 24