Mad about balloons
One hundred hot-air balloons have been taking to the skies over Switzerland in one of the largest festivals of its kind in the world.
Balloons of a variety of weird and wonderful shapes are taking flight over Château-d'Oex, a picturesque resort some 90 kilometres south of the capital, Bern.
The Swiss International Hot-Air Balloon Festival is celebrating its 25th year, and more than 100 of the world's best pilots took part, watched by thousands of spectators.
Throughout the week, various competitions are giving balloonists the chance to compare their talents.
All in a day's ballooning
Balloons are unloaded at one entrance to the snow-covered launch site, and equipment is then moved into position with sleds. No vehicles are allowed on the field - to keep it clean and free of mud - and spectators must watch from outside the fenced perimeter.
Balloons begin inflating at about 1000 and can stay aloft for as long as the pilot wants to. Two to three hours in the skies is the usual flying time, although some pilots descend so they can join the afternoon launch at 1500.
The winds were not so cooperative for Peter Mason, flying the Financial Times balloon, which is shaped like a rolled-up newspaper. He's made 170 flights in Château-d'Oex, with very few hitches.
But on this occasion, a tactical manoeuvre during a competition went awry, and Peter became lodged on the side of a mountain, with too little fuel to lift him out of the forest. The balloon had to be packed up and airlifted to safety by rescue helicopter.
Ballooning is essentially a gentleman's sport, and assistance was immediately offered by fellow pilots and their crews, who brought along champagne and a picnic for the FT team.
Peter, whose ballooning exploits include setting the world altitude record and flying over Everest, was philosophical about the mishap. "There are good days and very good days. This is a good day."
His team have now taken their balloon to the World Economic Forum in Davos, where it will float over the heads of global leaders for the coming days.
Celebrities present at this year's event included American adventurer Steve Fossett, who completed the first solo round the world balloon flight last year.
Swiss balloonist Bertrand Piccard was also there, flying a replica of the Breitling Orbiter 3 in which he completed the first ever round-the-world balloon trip in 1999.
"Sometimes it's as difficult to cross from one side of the valley to the other as to cross the Pacific because you can never change the winds," he told swissinfo.
"You just have follow the winds. That's what makes ballooning almost a philosophy. It's like life. You're pushed in one direction - you can't change the events but you can change your altitude and try to take another wind."
One of the few women pilots present at this year's event was Lorna Vanparys, the competition organiser.
She has noticed an improvement in the quality of the pilots. In a competition to drop a marker on a target set in the courtyard of the Château de Gruyère, eight pilots won. Normally there is only one winner.
She says Château-d'Oex is a perfect place for the festival because of its exceptional microclimate.
"In most places you have to take off within an hour after dawn, and that's not easy for the spectators," she told swissinfo.
"Also, in most places you can't fly in the evening or late afternoon. So we can keep balloons in the air here all day long, which makes it an enormous media event. Also, it's one of the most beautiful places in the world."
swissinfo, Julie Hunt in Château-d'Oex
A balloon and basket costs a minimum of SFr100,000 ($68,300).
Insurance costs SFr20,000 a year.
SFr100 will buy enough propane for a single flight.
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