16 Sep 2016

What’s so great about Gladbeck?

“Gladbeck is the best place for gas ballooning in Europe,” says Paul Spellward from team GBR-01 at the 60th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett Coupe in Gladbeck, Germany.

Situated in the heart of Germany’s industrial north west, the village of Gladbeck grew quickly on the back of the late-19th century coal boom, and prospered through much of the 20th century.

Now a town of 75,000 people its coal days are now behind it, but industry is still vitally important to the region.

Indeed, one of the biggest hydrogen pipelines in Europe passes right by it, and it is this more than anything that makes Gladbeck such a centre for gas ballooning in Europe.

Because unlike traditional hot air balloons, which rely on gas burners to heat air which then causes the ballon to rise, gas balloons need to be filled with gas that is lighter than air.

That can be either helium or hydrogen. Helium is expensive – it can cost €10,000 to fill a single gas balloon – while hydrogen is cheap.

“It costs €75 to fill the balloon envelope,” explains Spellward, “That actually makes it cheaper than hot air.” He laughs but his wife, Elaine Spellward, confirms it: “After one-and-a-half hours of using gas in a hot air balloon, yes it’s true.”

The Gladbeck Gas balloon launch site Gladbeck site was set up more than 10 years ago by gas balloon pilot Wilhelm Eimers. He has flown the Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett 25 times – 2016 will be his 26th – and won it in 2014 along with co-pilot Matthias Zenge. (That’s why the competition is in Germany – whichever country wins it, hosts the competition two years later.)

The site sits on top of a buried hydrogen pipeline, which gives extremely easy access to the gas for balloonists. A small club house sits next to the hydrogen gas filling station, from which long hoses are used to fill the balloons.

Protected from wind by a high wall of trees on all sides, and with dedicated rigging points embedded beneath the lush green grass, the site is now perfect for gas balloonists.

This year it has been expanded to accommodate the 24 competition balloons and 12 ‘fiesta’ balloons – non-competing gas balloons – as well as half a dozen hot-air balloons and several thousand spectators.

Each balloon takes around 20 minutes to fill, and the process of filling all the balloons prior to take-off takes several hours. But at Gladbeck that is not a problem. “Here we just open the tap and the gas flows out,” Spellward says. “It’s what makes this the centre of gas ballooning in Europe, if not the world.”

Follow the action at www.gordonbennett.org, 16-25 September 2016.

Photo credit: FAI / Markus King