23 Sep 2016

The view from below: Gordon Bennet Event Organiser Stefan Handl’s take on this year’s race

With 24 teams from around the world taking part, the 60th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett was the biggest ever.

Stefan Handl, 45, had the job of running the championship and making sure the 24 teams could have a safe, fun race.

Involved in the Gordon Bennett championship since 2004, this was Handl’s third time as Event Organiser, but his first in charge of a race starting in Germany.

“Access to a underground hydrogen pipeline makes the airfield near Gladbeck the best launch field in the world,” said Handl, who works as a machine safety expert when he is not coordinating world-famous balloon races or flying hot-air or gas balloons for fun. “But we had to postpone the start of the race from Friday until Sunday, as the pilots would only have been able to fly for eight hours given the conditions on Friday.”

Delaying the start of the competition proved that right move, as the eventual winners Team SUI 1 flew for more than 58 hours, making it all the way to Stavros in Greece.

“Our forecast was correct, so that meant the competitors could have a good flight,” Handl said.

That didn’t mean he and his wife Sabrina, the race Safety Officer, could sit back and relax, though. The couple, who live in Heroldsbach in Germany, had to keep a close eye on the pilots - particularly those who decided to fly over the Alps.

“Between Sunday and Wednesday, I only slept for a total of 10 hours,” Handl said. “We had to be especially vigilant about the teams flying over the alps as they were dealing with temperatures of -15 degrees, which meant they had no water because their supplies were frozen. If you have to call out search and rescue services in situations like that, you need to be very fast.”

Fortunately all the teams who flew over the alps got across without any problems. But Kurt Frieden and Pascal Witprächtiger of Team SUI 1 were the only competitors to make it all the way to Greece - becoming the first gas balloon pilots ever to fly in Greek airspace.

“Dealing with air traffic control is always one of the biggest challenges of organising a gas balloon race, and arranging for the first ever gas balloon to land in Greece was interesting because they have no experience of it,” Handl said.

“It all went well, though. I had to drink a lot of coffee to keep going during the race. But the organisational team was brilliant and it was a really fun experience.”