On Sunday morning in Siberia (around midnight back in Western Europe), the Generali Arctic Observer team met up with Jean-Louis Etienne and his balloon in the middle of Sakha in central Russia. Once the balloon was totally deflated, the team and the rozière balloon were taken on board a large Russian MI-8 helicopter to head for Yakutsk, with the return to France scheduled for early in the week.
Paris, Generali flight headquarters 11th April 2010: Jean-Louis Etienne did not have to wait for too long. After a good night’s sleep to recover, the balloonist was joined by his technical team early in Sunday morning. It took the team just a few hours to deflate the balloon, fold it up, stow away the gondola and load everything on board a huge Russian transport helicopter. „I was very tired last night. I fell asleep while I was eating and woke up to find a spoon in my mouth!“ said a smiling Jean-Louis Etienne on Sunday morning. „I slept like a log and now I’m feeling better. All of the equipment has been loaded onto the MI-8 helicopter. I’m now going to get a bite to eat and get myself warm.“
Now able to look back at what went on, Jean-Louis Etienne has been analysing the difficulties involved in such an expedition in comparison to his many Polar experiences in the past. „I’ve done quite a few expeditions by land and by sea. The difference is that in the air, the slightest problem can be fatal. In the air you don’t get a moment to rest. If something is not right, you can’t take a break and think about what can be done. You have to analyse things very quickly and come to a rapid decision. That’s what makes everything in the air so exciting, particularly in such circumstances. I had some tense moments when I was flying low. I was practically bouncing along the ice cap at fifty knots. It was quite impressive. I finally managed to get some rest when I touched down on Terra Ferma.“
Hardly back on the ground, the untiring doctor-explorer is already looking towards the future and his next adventures. „I’ve been thinking for two years now about a project for an ocean-exploring vessel, which will be able to sail around the Polar regions. But that’s a long term project. Before that I’ll certainly be getting in some more balloon flights. It’s an absolutely extraordinary means of observation. You fly along slowly. There is no wind or noise. It’s like having a balcony looking out over our natural world.“
A day-by-day account of the Arctic crossing by balloon
Monday 5th April, 0610 hrs: take off from Longyearbyen in Spitsbergen.
„It wasn’t just a little bit of excitement, but a huge emotion that I felt at the start,“ explained Jean-Louis Etienne a few minutes into his flight. „It was an extraordinary moment. A highly charged moment. And gradually it turned to a scene of magnificent beauty. Now calm has returned. I’m gradually lifting up over Longyearbyen. It’s truly magical. I’m starting to see the outline of the mountains. There’s a landscape ahead of me with mountains and water. There is total peace. It’s really magnificent and exactly how I imagined it.“
Tuesday 6th April: He flies past the final stretch of the Svalbard islands and begins his crossing of the Arctic Ocean. „I flew along the mountain sides and had a few scary moments suddenly seeing dark rock faces slipping by,“ explained Jean-Louis Etienne during his first link-up with Flight HQ at Generali’s premises. „Flying over mountains is not that easy. I had to remain low enough to find my way from one valley to another and at the same time stay as close as I could to the trajectory that Christophe Houver (flight coordinator) gave to me. At one point I found myself flying in foggy conditions, as the wind was in the right direction in the mist. Piloting the balloon in misty conditions is a bit stressful, especially with the mountains around!“
„Over Spitsbergen, I saw some reindeer staring at me in amazement. When I left the final island behind, I came down much lower above the Arctic Ocean. But I couldn’t see anything because of the clouds. I could hear noises, the cracking sound of the drifting ice, as it slid to the north of Spitsbergen. It was the first time I’d ever heard this cracking sound.“
Wednesday 7th April: snow storm around the North Pole.
„I was really given a battering in the snow storm. For fourteen hours I sailed along at low altitude trying to stay 150 metres from the ground, which was the ideal level. It was tiring, and even scary at the end, as in these violent winds there were upcurrents and then columns of sinking air, which meant that the balloon rose very high up and then suddenly fell just as violently. When it descended the solar panels took off and smashed against the gondola. It was quite spectacular and exhausting. I haven’t had much sleep since the start. There is certainly some very disturbed weather at the Pole at the moment.“
Thursday 8th April: power problem aboard the balloon following the snow storm.
„We sent him up to an altitude of 3000 metres to give a boost to his batteries,“ explained Christophe Houver, the flight coordinator. „By saving energy, he has easily got 48 hours of self-sufficiency. The flight and his safety are not in question. We just took the measures that were required to allow the flight to continue more or less normally. Consequently, the fact that he climbed higher up moved him away from the ideal trajectory (towards Alaska, editor’s note). He moved to the right and this large shift means that he is now heading for Siberia instead of North America. But that doesn’t really change much about the flight itself. He is going to cover around 3000 km (1875 miles) across the Arctic Ocean.“
Friday 9th April: heading for Siberia
„For twelve hours now, I’ve been flying at 5000 metres. After three days at low altitude, between 100 and 300 metres, suddenly moving up to 5000 metres, is very tiring for the body. Fortunately I have some oxygen on board. It’s really tough, physically challenging, but I’m dealing with it. Flying for more than fifteen hours without sleep at very low altitudes at around 300 metres with winds reaching 50 knots, you really have to know what you’re doing, and you don’t have time to rest or admire the scenery! I’ve been thinking about this for so long and so completing this crossing of the Pole by balloon is making me very happy.“
Saturday 10th April: touch down in Sakha (Siberia) after 121h and 30 minutes of flying and having covered 3130 km (1956 miles). Jean-Louis Etienne successfully completes the first crossing of the Arctic Ocean by balloon and he does it all alone.
„Landing is always a fall back to Earth. Everything went well though. I had intended to go much further, but I found myself faced with a huge, thick wall of mist. I didn’t want to go back up again to cross to the other side without knowing where I was going. On top of that I was tired. I therefore decided to touch down as soon as possible before being surrounded by fog. I came straight down. It went well. I was expecting worse. I’m now on a rather rocky plateau, which is partly covered by snow. I feel very satisfied and relieved. There were after all some tricky moments during this flight. I was beginning to feel the effects of not sleeping enough. It was time to bring it to an end to savour this flight, which was long and difficult, but so thrilling. I realise that you don’t push back the limits, but discover them. When you are determined, you can really do remarkable things that you thought could not be done. Eastern Siberia is one of the coldest parts of the planet. This morning it was -27°C! I’ve got a little bit of food left. I’ve got water, heating and I’m going to sleep and then get some more sleep. …“