02 May 2022

64th Coupe Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett 2021 in Torùn, Poland: 2 French Teams on the podium!

The full story of Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett's France Team 2 - Eric Decellieres & Benoit Havret - who finished just 3.58km behind 1st place.

Congratulations to Eric & Benoit, recipients of the 2022 Montgolfier Diploma for their extraordinary performance in a Gas Balloon in 2021.

By Eric Decellieres, France Team #2, 64th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett. 

Postponed to 2020 due to the CV-19 pandemic, excitement levels were high for this Gordon Bennett race in Poland. Winning three times in a row in the 1930s (1933, 1934 and 1935), Poland was already a major gas ballooning nation. And when they won their 4th victory in 1938, the 1939 edition was hotly anticipated, but the invasion of Poland by Hitler in September prevented the realisation of this legendary race...

1983: Back in Paris for the bicentennial of the first human flight, the Gordon Bennett saw the victory of Poland once again, 45 years later. It’s a sign! But unfortunately, the Iron Curtain still exists for the Eastern block and the 1984 race took off from Zurich, Switzerland.

Finally, after another 36 years of dearth, the Polish Team Mateusz Rekas and Jacek Bogdanski won the 63rd/2018 Gordon Bennett from Montbéliard! But decidedly, fate continues with the Covid-19 pandemic, which is blocking the entire world in its sports activities (and others!).

In spring 2021, during the CIA video meeting, the organiser is still uncertain about the financial status of the race. Sponsors can no longer support the same way after almost a year of business and financial uncertainty. The options are being discussed, but everyone must wait.

Finally, in May, the city of Wroclaw, which had been the original location, gave up and organizer Arkadiusz Iwanski finds a replacement in a few days. The new location is the city of Torùn in northern Poland, in the direction of Gdansk.

All the competitors throw themselves on the map and have the same thought: ouch, it is very north, very close to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.  And not far from the forbidden countries such as Belarus and Ukraine. But no matter, everyone crosses their fingers so that the race takes place, even if it is short……

The command centre of the French Team is holding its working meeting as scheduled at the end of May to be ready on D-Day! Team differences this year: for the first time, the usual FRA1 Crew of Vincent Leÿs and Christophe Houver will not be there, having announced in Oct 2019 that they were taking a year off. We’ll have to do without them and their experience and take our chances with our little but growing experience.

The race organisers keeps us informed, but with little detail. We are all asked to be double vaccinated (pilots and chase crew alike) against Covid-19, and also to schedule a PCR test on arrival. And just before takeoff. Tricky! Then finally, we are told we won’t need it after all. 

We receive our hotel information only two days before our departure for Poland. Until the last minute, we are aware that everything could be cancelled for various reasons, specific to the Polish government and their management of the pandemic.

Upon arrival, we know that the most suitable takeoff window will be on Saturday evening, which will leave us 24 hours more to prepare and rest. But we also make time to enjoy a little bit of the beautiful city of Torùn, kept in its former splendour because Hitler did not want to bomb it due to its historical significance.

Everything goes smoothly from reception to preparation, with sand calibrated, dry, in 25kg bags. In short, everything is easy. From briefing to briefing, the information is the usual. But a big discussion is taking place about Ukraine being open for flight at the last minute! Two-thirds of the west of the country are open for flying, but not for landing! This causes big reflection/discussion among all the countries participating.

Personally, I was against flying to Ukraine for security reasons, even if it was allowed, and we share that with Event Director, Benoit Pelard. Finally, the discussions are brought to an end, based on point of rules: FAI-CIA regulations require the list of Open Countries be published long in advance (60 days, rule 6.3). In fact, whatever country it was, it was blocked.

The Little Prince - inflation

Saturday night: So here we are; the three French crews gather in the field and discuss the three possible options, of which only one can prove to be the winning one beforehand, provided that they negotiate the “turn” and above all be very patient… and ready to fly for a very long time!

Option #1 is to go southeast rather quickly.  But the next day, it will be necessary to land after a few hundred kilometres at the Belarusian or Ukrainian border… This is what three balloons eventually did.

The 2nd option is a bit intermediate, in order to fly towards Lithuania via the small hole of Kaliningrad, but difficult to score a great distance afterwards. Alexis Béjat and Paul-Henry Carail take this option, as will another Swiss team. It will prove to be difficult, and all of them had been shaken a little on the second night. Congratulations to them anyway and above all, more experience gained in difficult conditions!

And the third option, which many teams will choose, is to wait more than 24h at low altitude in order to let the depression pass southwest of Torùn. Then to wrap around the depression by circumventing it by the North, with more or less safely passing by rain and storms. Our routers, Simon Pelard and Jérôme Poguet, offer us this option, with a 4-day flight plan to land on Wednesday morning in western France. The command centre shares a good analysis of all these options and each crew then decides according to their experience, their equipment, their desire and the physical and mental limits of each. The MOINE team (father and son) also take this option.

GB2021 Benoit
A happy Benoit on take off

With Benoit, even if it is only our 2nd flight together, we are well in phase since our 2019 Gordon Bennett, with the good and the bad points (the refusal of Munich airport that forced us to land in 2019), because we prepared so much in our head, in our checklists, in our equipment in early July. So, we choose the “long and patient” option, knowing perfectly well the super potential of our balloon, The Little Prince, that Vincent lends us once again with confidence (this balloon previously won 6 GB races!). Asking the routers for maximum safety through the North of the depression, we still take the lifeboat and the life suits in case we fly over the Baltic Sea (with weather uncertainties). And we only take one oxygen tank out of two, it should be fine.

15 privileged fliers
Privileged fliers

As soon as we took off, we had to go - according to the models - towards the southwest, then finally everybody goes to the northeast. After the moment of surprise, the command centre just asks us to be patient. It’s just a story of a few hours of getting the right weather model. It doesn’t change the overall strategy and the patience it will take.

GB Torun POL
Take off from Torùn

We spent the first night not far above the ground (between 50m and 300m @ 5-10kt), with all the attention that this requires. And according to the flight log, at 03:19, we even went between two wind turbines with 7kt of wind…. Zen attitude!

Then the first day brings another difficulty. We will have to do the same in the middle of the very many wind turbines, and in the daytime thermals. It’s going to be nice, but it’s going to be constantly intense because we’re going to go in all directions all day. Through the wind turbines, which is very impressive, very little overhead, going backwards, etc.… and at some point, we will even suffer a big, horrible 200m downdraft that will send us to the ground, without hitting too hard, and fortunately between a farm and a wood, in the middle of the fields.  This leads to even greater vigilance for the rest of the day. We sleep moderately, in very short periods of 15-30min, much less than during my three previous GB.

Sailing close to wind turbines

The second night goes on with a little more sleep because we fly between 1000m and 1400m. The second day will be quieter because we start heading to the west and we climb up to 4300m for a total of seven hours with oxygen supply. The weather is beautiful! And everything is going great on board: we contemplate, we have fun with the meals we take at regular time. All under an absolute concentration of piloting in order to target our waypoints!

Sunrise over Poland
First sunrise over Poland

All Polish air traffic controllers are admirably cooperative, then the same with the German ATC. Thanks to the good preparation of the Event Director and his ATC team! Thanks to them!

There are only 21 sandbags left out of the 70 we had at the start. We know that we have the potential for another two nights. The balloon is becoming lighter and lighter, with the potential to gain altitude present. At 11.40pm, the ATC calls us because they no longer see us: we reset the transponder and the gears are set. Anyway, we each have our own transponder with Benoit, and they are the same two: always have a back-up of everything!

Suddenly, we are informed by our command centre that apparently the Polish balloon landed a little abruptly on the outskirts of Berlin because of the rain and snow (ice) on their valve. In short, we don’t really know, but the control of Berlin is very tense because four airliners have just been re-routed temporarily so neither the race management nor our command centre knows if it will pass and thinks, like us, about the GB race stopped prematurely in Munich two years earlier.

Bad weather ahead

We go down immediately to find winds that will take us around Berlin. It’s not without its difficulties. After hours of fine piloting, sometimes at 10-20m just above the forest and a 360° without explanation, we finally manage to pass south of Berlin. But it cost us a lot: about 9 bags of ballast… the famous 9 bags that we will unfortunately miss at the end of the flight! But no matter, we can continue our race! No rain for us, unlike FRA1 which has passed on a slightly different trajectory.

Start of the 3rd day: there are 10 bags left, and it’s 8 degrees Celsius at sunrise: we really didn’t get cold during this Gordon Bennett! And we’re going to have a nice day at altitude on average at 4500-5000m and 6h of oxygen. So, the oxygen is almost finished (<30%). Next time, we’ll take both cylinders!

Oxygen time

On arrival in Strasbourg in the early afternoon, the radio reception is superb! The encouragement goes with it, and we even have an airline pilot passing by who tells us that it’s not only the ground that encourages us. It’s great! Several competitors among the favourites have just landed: SUI1, POL2, GER1, etc.; Some due to valve leakage. Others due to lack of ballast after flying in rain and snow. The race was therefore difficult for everyone! It’s starting to feel positive, and as Christophe Houver often says, its money time, the most crucial time when it will start to pay off, and then another race starts - you have to fly as far as possible, and nothing is finished yet!

Inside the basket

We pass through the Vosges mountains in a rather stable way. We consume a little but no more. At 19:30 there are six bags left. Then five bags at nightfall. It doesn’t sound like much, but all my calculations show that it will pass for the fourth night. It will be very tense, but we always remember Vincent’s advice: at the end of the race, you no longer have a 1000m3 balloon, but a 500m3! And the sand counts twice!

Less than 10kg sand left upon landing!

Vincent messages us several times during the flight about the ballast, the state of mind, fatigue. He knows that we can do it and reassures us, “it’s going to be OK.” I too am super confident:  Calculations after calculations. Eleven hours of night flight until sunrise. Expected trajectory. Confidence and support of the command centre. Absolute confidence in my co-pilot, Benoit. And another point, despite my little experience compared to many others, I am in my fifth race (four GB and one America's Challenge) and we can better perceive the performance of the balloon, the course of things, the self-confidence, the zen attitude that we acquire, even with the worry that “it sucks”…… and you really feel like you’re one with the balloon, you feel it live, move, almost even “breathe”.

Benoit is a little more sceptical just before the fourth night, on the one hand because like me, this is the first time he will fly into a fourth night. But this is only his second race, and of course, we are already quite tired after 70 hours flying. But the podium is ahead: we know that there will be two French teams on the podium, and by communicating with FRA1, he tells me that they are landing tonight with his father, because of the lack of sand to spend the night, and in more military and other areas that complicate the case. At 9 pm, sunset, we only have four bags of 10kg!

I know that we have to keep ballast for the landing, but we can also count on the equipment to help us land: the suits, the lifeboat, etc… all this very useful weight to throw before a strong impact/landing.  I have already seen it on videos of Gordon Bennett landings by Germans, Swiss and others. We’ll do the same.

Another point: you have to keep sand for the fine piloting during the night and the hours before the landing. I open a big bag and I tell Benoit everything I can sacrifice: the slippers, my sweatshirt, the emergency clothes, the remaining food cans, the fruit juices, etc. I only keep half a litre of water until the next day, no food… and Benoit does the same! We now have nearly 10kg of ballast. This will be done all night long with 1 apple juice here, a slipper there, water, a sweatshirt… a curious way to fly, but very efficient! The last night is very difficult, we fly quickly at 26 knots at low altitude (between 300 and 500m) and this requires a very high vigilance.

Around 1am, we move to first position by exceeding the 1302km of FRA1, and a moment later I tell Benoit, we are silver medal. A beautiful emotional moment in the basket, and that lasts for a while, as the most difficult part remains. It should be noted that for two days, we know, we feel that the SUI2 team of Kurt Frieden and Pascal Witprächtiger will probably take the gold medal at the wire. For the past 48 hours of racing, they got right on our path by foxing on us with 3 hours of lag… beautiful strategy. As Kurt will tell us at the awards ceremony: Vincent previously did the same to him in 2009 and 2012! It should also be noted that this will be the fourth gold medal for the duo, and that Kurt already has 23 Gordon Bennett on the counter… way ahead of our second race together like Benoit and I!

During the whole race, we unfortunately did not sleep because of the race circumstances (whereas usually we manage to sleep well by alternating, etc.). Therefore, we hold strong, we motivate ourselves, and we are victim almost at the same time of a well-known phenomenon: hallucinations of fatigue! Dr. Jean-François Leÿs told me about this in 2002 when they returned from the GB and won with Vincent. He could see the lights going up and down, and Vincent had also told us that he had heard music, etc. Very amusing!

I look at the red lights of the windmills (they are everywhere between Orléans and Cholet!) and I see them going up and down. And at some point, I see a mountain in front of us with the windmills up there… arrrgggh!! And Benoit sees the same thing. We look and re-look, we concentrate, and we understand our hallucinations!!!

You have to be focused and fight against what the brain thinks it sees! I put on the Night Vision once again to support Benoit with the sand shovel, and we manage to fly correctly. The lower you go at night, which is the strategy, the more you realise that the speed doesn’t go down. The command centre announced about 8-10kt at sunrise after Cholet, but in fact, the 26 knots are still there! I had watched the sunrise for 7:14 am, so at 6:30 am, we have to be ready: everything is set in the basket, the harnesses are strung on and attached to the floor, the helmets carefully put on.

The daylight comes: Cholet is in sight. As agreed, Benoit will make the landing because he flies frequently during year and is therefore in a better position than me for the precision of the final approach. In addition, we will only be entitled to one chance given the lack of ballast.

The city passes under our feet at high speed. Then we drop the guide rope that crosses trees and lines for more than 1 km. And at some point, I am ready to throw everything at Benoit’s orders…… valve opening… and now we have to go, it’s clean, clean and sliced! Benoit opens the rapid deflating system quite high enough (I say 50m, he says less), …. but in any case, it’s effective!

Perfect landing at 26 knots

I throw everything overboard, the angle of impact is very high, and looking at the GPS one last time, it always shows 26 knots! As Vincent will tell us later: the advantage with Benoit is that he doesn’t refuse the ground! He did well. We hit hard, clean, and the balloon quickly deflates, less than 50m from the power line on our left front! Congratulations to Benoit who makes a superb landing after 81 hours in the basket. What lucidity! We embrace warmly!

Landing spot

What a great human adventure between two pilots, but especially with all the command centre friends supporting us. Our three super retirees to retrieve (Bernard Bonnel, Jean Rousseaux and Alain Fabre) who will have driven about 7700kms (4800miles) by car in 12 days!

And at that moment we are temporarily gold medal, but only for three hours, as well we know! We’ll even take the picture when SUI2 passes us before landing 3km further! It’s the sport. They were better. But what a feat to have two French teams on the podium - this hadn’t happened since 1912! It is especially great, that FRA1 Team (Moine father and son) is on the podium after flying my old balloon of 1989 and its 1300h of flight that I lent them (year of birth of Hervé!). The Germans do not believe that an old, netted balloon from their home, re-registered in France, makes a nice 3rd place with 69h flight! Bravo to the Moine family!

SUI 2 overtook - just!

We are a little overwhelmed by the kind words of the fans on social networks and our mobile phones, but what a feat!

François Moizard calls us from his house on the Ile d'Yeu and tells us that he takes the 8am boat to join us! Great! In fact, four days before, he was at the take-off in Torùn with us. And the day before, at the restaurant, I told him: if we make the podium (our goal!), you pay for dinner for us at the restaurant! The bet was settled the same day a few km from our landing point with a nice steak in the company of our chase crew!

As we return to Poland, we will pick up Vincent and Laurence Leÿs to drive them to Torùn as a surprise for the awards ceremony. The emotion is strong for us on the podium with the two Marseillaise (national anthem) preceding the Swiss anthem. But it also seems a strong emotion for Vincent who sees his students on the podium with two medals for France! It’s an objective achieved. And also, for Benoit Pelard, who, after more than 10 years of competition in GB, presented us with the medals with pride, after having directed the race brilliantly, being the first French event director of GB since the modern era (1983). As for me, I have a special thought for my father who left us too early 3 ½ months before the race…. Dad, this medal is for you!

Our stats :  1556.05km in 80h53min.  What a flight!

In short, what more to say if not thank you to all the fans of this beautiful French team. To our magnificent Command Centre who worked days and nights for the performance and safety of the three balloons. To Vincent Leÿs and his balloon club for the loan of Little Prince and the passion that you transmitted to us. To our chase crew who arrived only a few minutes after the landing. And thank you to my love Stephanie who always encourages and supports me in my wildest and most ambitious projects!

Two happy men - just landed

And thank you my friend Benoit Havret for this confidence and pleasure of flight that we shared! It took a lot of self-sacrifice, resistance, motivation, a desire to win, a fusion between the pilots to achieve such a result. I always re-read with astonishment the 19 pages of logs we took (Time, altitude, Direction, speed, waypoints, ATC contacts, and others) during these 81 hours that in the end, seemed to pass very quickly. It makes us laugh when people say that spending eight hours on a plane to go to the USA is a long time!

Two happy men - with medals

We want to compete again, and with the next two editions of the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett taking place in Switzerland, we will be ready to fight again, while being very humble that the race is still very difficult, and that we can also finish last next year! But the important thing is to participate and have fun safely!

Team France Gordon Bennett 2021
Team France Gordon Bennett 2021

This article was first published in French in Aéronote N°118, December 2021. Header image: Jean Rousseaux.