Stefan Wälchli in the new hot air balloon

Balloon adventure

“When you’re in a balloon, nothing else matters”

Stefan Wälchli has spent more than 3,000 hours in the air. The passionate balloon pilot flies the familiar Handy bottle – and now also an organic strawberry.

Silvia Schütz

6.30 a.m. – there’s a mystical atmosphere in a meadow at Mättenwil near Brittnau AG. Ground mist lies over the nearby meadows and fields as the sun rises from behind a fine veil of droplets.

Fifty-two-year-old Stefan Wälchli has carefully chosen this morning for the maiden voyage of the Migros organic strawberry. Just a few days ago, he received approval from the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA). Today, the wind and weather – the most important factors for a smooth trip – are also right. If the wind in the take-off or landing area is too strong, the balloon will remain on the ground. The same applies if thunderstorms or weather changes are forecast. “When the sun is shining and there’s hardly a cloud in sight, passengers cannot believe it when a flight is cancelled. Whether the predicted thunderstorm then actually arrives in two or three hours later is irrelevant. Safety comes first,” says Wälchli.

Hot air balloon taking off in a field
Shortly before 7 a.m. in Brittnau, Aargau. The balloon slowly rises.© Daniel Winkler

Preparations are underway, with the balloon lying like a colourful, 30-metre-long snake in the dewy meadow. As soon as the basket is connected to the envelope, Stefan Wälchli uses a fan to blow air into the recumbent balloon and then heats it up. The strawberry rises into the sky, the guests climb into the basket and the gas burner injects more heat into the envelope until we take off smoothly and silently.

Fascinated by balloons since childhood

“In the balloon, I’m floating high above everyday life, and nothing else matters,” says Wälchli. He has been fascinated by the colourful spheres in the sky since childhood. He completed his pilot training 30 years ago and founded Ballonpilot GmbH 15 years ago. His father, a passionate balloonist for decades, helped him to get into this expensive hobby. He makes 100 trips each year. Preparing the balloon, travelling to the take-off site, the balloon trip itself and returning to the warehouse is a day’s work. For guests, the tranquil trip lasts a total of four hours.

Over 3,000 hours in the air

The organic strawberry is the latest of three balloons branded for Migros. All three are supported by Migros with contributions. Stefan Wälchli is particularly proud of the registration number he has organised for this latest addition to the fleet: HB-BIO. Migros is also important to Wälchli outside of ballooning – he has worked for the company since 1987, currently at the Basel Cooperative as a marketing specialist. He spends most of his free time in the air and has to date spent more than 3,000 hours in the wicker basket. As his wife is also a balloon fan and their two sons are already grown up, Wälchli has no problem reconciling his hobby and family life.

Stefan Wälchli stands in front of two of his four Migros balloons.
Stefan Wälchli and two of his four Migros balloons.© Daniel Winkler

We are a good 2,500 metres above sea level and travelling between the Jura range and the Alps. The view extends from Lucerne via Solothurn to the city of Bern. “You can see how small Switzerland is,” laughs Stefan Wälchli.

During the flight, Wälchli answers questions from the guests, and from time to time fellow balloonists enquire via radio about the wind conditions. Balloonists are part of a community that also convenes regularly at major events – including in Cappadocia, Turkey. Every year in July, 160 balloonists take off from there at the same time. Wälchli’s highlights also include Alpine crossings. At altitudes of over 5,000 metres, the balloon glides – driven solely by the wind – from Switzerland to northern Italy in four to six hours before landing somewhere there.

Wälchli also enjoys flying in Switzerland. “This is where the landscape is most varied.” As the balloon comes in to land, it flies closely above the roofs in the town of Langenthal, crosses a pond and then touches down next to a stream in a field, making one or two hops before coming to a standstill.

The clock only shows 9.30 a.m., but the highlight of the day is already over.

Stefan Wälchli’s four balloons

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