After FusionMan's jet wing, a homemade airship attempts the crossing
- Matthew Taylor The Guardian, Monday September 29 2008
It had started in near-perfect conditions just after 8am, when Stephane Rousson and his blimp floated a few feet into the air and - with a slight wobble - set off on a record-breaking attempt to cross the Channel in a pedal-powered airship.
But a few hours later, a shift in the wind left the 39-year-old Frenchman becalmed, hovering 10 metres above the waves in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. However hard he pedalled, he was unable to make progress and was forced to admit defeat. Just after lunchtime yesterday, Rousson deflated his airship and continued to France in his support team's boat.
"We were about three-quarters of the way across but the wind was flowing in the wrong direction for me to make it across," he said from France. "I'm not disappointed. I feel happy because it had nothing to do with any technical failure, it was purely the wind that got in the way of this achievement ... The success is not with me, but I have had so much fun. My legs are a little bit burnt and I'm sure tomorrow I will be feeling a little sad, but I'll have a few beers."
The French adventurer, who described the trip as "both totally unnecessary and a very eloquent statement on human nature", had set off from Hythe in Kent in bright sunshine.
He was accompanied by two support boats and had hoped the 28-mile journey to Wissant in France would take about five hours. The team had banked on wind-free conditions but just after 1pm a light breeze blew up, halting his progress.
"Unfortunately there was nothing to suggest from the weather forecasts that there was going to be this change in the direction of the wind," said Rousson, who had been forced to abandon a previous attempt in June because of strong winds.
Yesterday's failed attempt followed a successful flight across the Channel on Friday when the Swiss adventurer Yves Rossy, 49, took just 13 minutes to fly solo across the sea using a single jet-powered wing.
Rossy, nicknamed FusionMan, had flung himself out of a plane 2,500 metres (8,200ft) above Calais and fired up four jet turbines on his carbon fibre wing which propelled him towards the white cliffs of Dover and a place in the record books.
Rousson, who had swapped good luck messages with FusionMan, said that his attempt to cross the Channel in his homemade airship had consumed the past five years of his life, costing him his relationship with his girlfriend, Louise, whose name adorned the airship.
He had been waiting for more than a month for a day when no wind was forecast. During his preparations he said that even the gentlest breeze would be enough to blow him off course: "What feels breathlessly still to most people feels like a storm when you're trying to fly a pedal-powered airship."
But he said he had no regrets about taking on the challenge, which had been inspired by the film ET and Gossamer Albatross, the first pedal-powered plane to cross the Channel in 1979.
"When I was young, I saw the movie and watched the little guy pedalling on a bike flying in front of the moon with ET. I always wanted to fly," he said.
Rousson's airship has bicycle-powered propellers slung beneath a helium balloon, giving an average speed of about 8mph. The adventurer sat below the balloon in a fibreglass gondola.
During the flight, all that stopped Rousson's "zeppy" from floating off course was an anchor trailing below. If that failed there was a dagger, for puncturing the balloon, on the pilot's seat.
Speaking from France yesterday Rousson said it was too early to say whether he would make another attempt at the crossing.
"All my money has gone into achieving this over the past five years," he said.
"I'm quite a bit in debt. If I found a lot of money I would definitely try again but I don't have a large budget at the moment. I have had such fun. I have just spent almost eight hours pedalling and I have done my best to make this achievement happen."