A Frenchman planning to pedal across the English Channel is keeping his fingers crossed for near-perfect conditions when he attempts a world first later this month.
Stéphane Rousson plans to pedal his way by airship across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, suspended from a miniature Zeppelin for the 28-mile ‘flight’.
Rousson, holder of a professional pilot’s licence from Nice, is due in the UK around the 20 September where he will stay in Kent and await a rare windless days – statistically more likely in September and October – ready to pedal his way above the Channel between Hythe and Wissant.
A previous attempt in June was cancelled as there was only just too much wind.
The crossing requires a five-hour spell of virtually still weather to avoid potential disaster – even a 4mph lick of breeze could blow the pedal powered balloon dangerously off course or add many hours to the flight time.
“What feels breathlessly still to most people feels like a storm when you’re trying to fly a pedal-powered airship” says Rousson. There are only a handful of perfect days each year, usually in May and June or September and October.
The ‘craft’ itself consists of a recumbent style pedalling machine rigged by various gears to two huge carbon-fibre propellers, used both to power the craft (along with Rousson’s legs) and steer it.
A carbon fibre frame suspends the pedaller and machine beneath an 18m polyester balloon, Kevlar-coated and filled with helium. The whole contraption weighs in at around 80kg. In ideal conditions it gets up to about 9mph.
Alongside the wind, convection currents are one of the pilot’s greatest fears. Potentially they could lift him and his machine all the way into the troposphere where the balloon would explode. There is a plan, of sorts, for this eventuality though.
“If I set off early in the morning or during the night this won’t be a problem, but if I get taken by a convection current during the day, it’s all over. There is a valve that allows me to reduce the pressure in the balloon, but if I’m taken up too quickly, I’ll have no choice but to cut it open with a knife and hope for the best” says Rousson.
Pedal power has already been used to cross the Channel. In 1977 the Gossamer Condor, piloted by amateur cyclist and hang-glider Bryan Allen, claimed the honour of the first pedal-powered crossing.