For a week in mid-winter every year, a small, cuckoo-clock Swiss village is invaded by a multicoloured airborne flotilla, and after sunset its bars and restaurants are alive with the babel sounds of visitors from the some of the furthest flung corners of the planet. For this one week,
there are probably more cubic feet of cheese fondue and raclette consumed per square restaurant than anywhere else in Switzerland.
It’s the International Hot Air Balloon Festival in Château d’Oex, two hours from Geneva and bang in the middle of an area once home to generations of well-heeled ‘gels’ trying to bag the best-looking ski instructor at eye-wateringly expensive Swiss finishing schools. The present Duchess of Leinster, the late Princess Diana, and the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker Bowles all did time here. But one by one the schools went to the wall, and with them a vitally important source of revenue for the region.
The Balloon Festival, founded in 1978, is one way in which Château d’Oex has reinvented itself, and it attracts balloons, pilots and crews from all over the world. This year, among the participants from Japan, Latvia, Canada, Italy, Holland, Spain, Monaco, Luxembourg, Belgium, France, Britain and the United States, was dapper 66-year-old Dubliner Tom McCormack.
One of Ireland’s most-experienced hot air balloon pilots, McCormack got his licence in 1977 and has flown all over the world. It takes him two long days of driving across Europe to get to the event from Dublin, so why has he made the journey not once, not twice, but four times?
“Château d’Oex has something really special,” he says. “I’ve been flying a bit in the Wicklow mountains recently, and of course that’s great, but … well, compared to this, they’re just hills. It’s tricky flying here, the winds are all over the place. You need a much higher level of skill to fly here. It’s sport flying at its very best.”
So how did McCormack get into the sport, which is not exactly up there with GAA, rugby and racing in the Irish sporting lexicon? He laughs. “I met a girl in a pub,” he says. “It just came up in the conversation. Her father was a balloonist and he persuaded me to give it a go.” Qualifying as a balloon pilot is not just a case of up, up and away, however.
“Technically, a balloon is just a different type of aircraft,” McCormack says. “You have to study all the same things as an airline pilot; you are operating in the same airspace and you have to stick to the same rules.”
But whereas flying an aircraft is all about the destination, flying a balloon is all about the journey.
Although there are no more than perhaps a dozen balloonists in Ireland today, Ireland has a longer and more distinguished history of hot air ballooning than you might at first suppose.
Maria Edgeworth reported seeing a gas balloon in Dublin in 1812, not long after the Montgolfier brothers had the seemingly insane idea of sending a sheep, a duck and a rooster up into the air beneath a billowing sackcloth envelope filled with gas.
More recent ballooning history took off in 1970 when The Irish Times carried an advertisement inviting people to join the Dublin Balloon Club. This attracted people from all walks of life who survived a baptism of fire, sometimes literally.
“It was very old fashioned stuff in those days, only one burner, helmets and trail ropes … all a bit seat of the pants,” McCormack says. “Some of the landings were horrendous, you’d get balloons tearing through fields at 40 knots.”
But just one year later, Ireland also started the first ever national hot air ballooning event, which still runs annually and is known as the Irish Meet. Three years after that Dublin Balloon Club members went on to win both the British Championship and the first ever Alpine Balloon Race.
McCormack’s hobby has taken him all over the world, with many notable moments, including a visit to Syria six years ago at the invitation of the regime of president Bashir al Assad. But Château d’Oex has a special place in his heart. “It’s so special, so beautiful,” he says, and he is hoping to come back.
One of the founding fathers of the festival, Charles Andre Ramseier, now the village mayor, makes it clear that he thinks the Irish are pretty special too.
“It is always a real pleasure to welcome Irish visitors. They are very experienced pilots and it is great to see how much they enjoy everything that the area has to offer,” he says.
Aer Lingus and Swiss Air fly direct from Dublin to Geneva