How a World Champion Balloonist landed on a Certina Chronograph as his Skyward Companion
A common topic amongst horologists is what defines the concept of a “tool watch”. Personally, my mind wanders to many of the subjects The Wristorian has covered in previous articles. Tool watches in stories range all the way from Aquastar watches in undersea habitats, a mountaineer’s Rolex 1655, to the countless Seikos used in difficult climates and environments. The impetus for this article was my curiosity surrounding less "mainstream" pursuits, slalom skiing, pigeon racing, spearfishing. The more obscure the better. In this case, the tool watch I’m focusing on is a regatta chronograph, and what happened when it got a chance to rise to the occasion in the world of competitive hot air ballooning.
I first came across a photo of Peter while doing some digging through archival photos in the Getty
editorial photo database. A pastime I’ve gotten into the habit of embracing on weekends over a cup of
coffee, ever since my brother took up the mantle of The Wristorian. It’s a fun thought exercise in trying
to identify watches from old photos, and occasionally finding leads that may yield a story for The
Wristorian blog. Generally, I try to brainstorm topics that might yield an identifiable watch or two from
an interesting era or event. I’ve been interested in what watches were used diving professions, the
Dakar rally, mountaineering, and a lot of the mainstream events that utilized tool watches historically. I
always like to champion the obscure when the opportunity presents itself, which has led me to research
watches sold by racing pigeon equipment companies, watches used in Canadian canoe races,
motorcycle touring, and others.
In my past 3 years combing through internet archives for quirky watches
on fascinating people, I’ve gotten pretty good at finding lesser-known sports and events, but I’m always
curious what other archives or topics we can search. In this case I was hooked on “hot air ballooning” as
a subject to research. There was an appeal to me personally to research something that is so far
removed from sports or events we usually associate with tool watches. I had tried to dig into the topic of
watches used by balloonists previously, without any success. As luck would have it, that day I came
across a mysterious chronograph on the wrist of an Australian balloonist named Peter Vizzard. Not long
after poking around online and floating some hopeful emails out there, I was talking to Peter and the
story lifted off.
Today, there are approximately 1000 times more hot air balloons in the world than there were in the
mid-1960’s. In 1966, Peter Vizzard constructed his own aerostat out of sticky tape, plastic film, and a
propane torch for burning weeds. This propane torch would not only create the lift necessary to get his
makeshift lighter-than-air craft aloft, but also ignite a passion for ballooning that would inspire Peter to
fly in competitions in more than 30 countries around the world. He went on to win first place in the
1983 World Hot Air Ballooning Championship in Nantes, France representing his home country of
In the early 1970s Peter found himself in Geneva searching for a watch that would be useful for
ballooning. His search was directed at a mechanical watch described to him by salespeople as having an
altimeter complication built into it. This would be a useful feature for a balloonist given that wind speed
and direction can fluctuate at different altitudes. He was not able to locate the altimeter watch (which
was most likely a Favre Leuba Bivouac) but ended up with a Certina Chronolympic Regatta ref. 8701 504.
This watch ended up having its own useful features for ballooning, despite its nautical nature.
Hot air balloon racing is a topic I previously knew nothing about, which is a large part of what makes this
type of research and article enjoyable to put together. As far as I can recall, I have never been near a hot
air balloon, let alone in one. After writing this article, I’d someday like to bring the Certina Chronolympic
back up to float lazily through the sky. One of the big questions I set out to answer was “How do you
race a hot air balloon?” What I learned is that there are different events that rely less on speed, power,
or handling like you might see with traditional motorsports, and instead rely on the pilot’s ability to plot a course,
utilize wind speed and air currents, or navigate through the air with as much precision as possible.
One competitive event is known as “Hare and Hounds”. The premise of this competition is that one
balloonist will pilot the “hare” balloon and beginning at the launch point, get a head start of a few
minutes to begin flying before the other competitors (the “hounds”) attempt to chase and catch the
hare. The premise of the competition doesn’t sound complicated, however the options for the best way
to catch the hare aren’t always straightforward. The direction and speed of wind may vary depending on
the altitude the balloons are flying, so pilots must decide if they want to fly low to the ground utilizing
ground-based wind speed/direction or fly to harness the high-altitude cloud-based wind. Generally, the
hare balloon will land in a specific location and there will be a large marker placed on the ground. This is
the target the hound balloons are aiming for and the first hound to reach the hare wins the competition.
To me, the next important question is, why did Peter choose this watch and how did it help him with hot
air ballooning? To understand and appreciate that question we first need to take a closer look at this
quirky chronograph. Outwardly, it is a funky looking watch no matter how you slice it. The dial is a
mixture of mint green hands, blue and white alternating minute markers from 0 -15 minutes, a vibrant
red from minutes 15 – 45, and an hour totalizer sub-dial at 6 o’ clock with a tiny black hand and blue
numerals. This far out dial design is packed into a large, blocky, cushion case. What makes this watch
even more unique is the Certina 29-064 Valjoux 728-powered movement. The modifications to the
Valjoux 72 allow for the chronograph to function with a red central minutes hand along with the hour
sub-dial at 6. This allows the wearer to time minutes only, or if left running long enough, the elapsed
time in number of hours and minutes using the hour totalizer along with the central minutes hand. The
mint green hour and minutes hand would still indicate time only. Central minutes are pretty standard
for a lot of regatta timers during this time period, and this watch was designed specifically for regatta
use. I think this function could have been applied to many different sports, hobbies, and professions, but
in this case, before I get too far off course, we need to circle back to why Peter chose this watch and
how it worked for him as a tool watch.
I’ve already described how Peter came to purchase the watch back in Geneva. When discussing the
Certina with Peter, he stated “In fact, if I recall correctly, it’s main attraction was its indestructible
quality”. Even later on after the watch arrived in my hands from Australia, I told him it had arrived safe
and sound and he responded, “No need to say safe and sound, it’s the toughest watch I ever had!”. As
far as a mechanical chronograph’s usefulness in hot air ballooning, Peter described many of the events
in a competition as time-related and that an accurate record of flight times should be logged. In
addition, prior to GPS units in balloons, the speed between two points (on the ground) on a map was
determined by the time spent between them. The “rate of climb/descent” or “ROC” was determined by
use of an altimeter and watch in the event the ROC instrument failed. With these variables in mind, you
can begin to see the application of a chronograph like the Certina in a pre-GPS age of ballooning.
We still have tool watches today, even if they often feel like we wear them because we want to keep the
spirit of what they represent alive. I think that is a big part of the appeal for myself. Countless people
relied on watches as tools back in the 1960’s, 1970’s, and beyond. Sometimes it feels like the stories of
tool watches all highlight explorers, professional divers, world champion cyclists, Olympians, aquanauts,
soldiers, or scientists. This Certina is proof that a tool watch is what you make of it. Certina probably
never planned for the regatta chronograph they designed to be timing the speed of a hot air balloon
during the 1975 World Hot Air Ballooning Championship in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Peter and his
Certina were there though, taking the 3rd place spot amongst 34 competitors representing 15 countries.
I have his Certina Chronolympic Regatta, sitting here with me as I write this down. I don’t really know all
the stories it carries with it, but I know some of the places it’s been. I know it’s had its ups and downs,
been both hare and hound, and seen places the world round. That’s a great story for any watch, and it’s
special because of it. I’d like to thank Peter Vizzard and Judy Lynne for being great correspondents,
never getting bothered by all my questions, and for your part in the history and progress within the
world of hot air ballooning. Thanks to the Wristorian himself, my brother Justin, for giving me a platform
to share the watch with anyone willing to read it. Lastly thanks to whoever has decided to read this! The
best part of having a story is having someone to listen to it. I must credit my sign-off here to Peter, as I’d
like to part ways the same way he ended most of our email’s.
With buoyant regards, Devin C.
Special thanks to Devin for his contribution to the site and for telling Peter Vizzard's story through his vintage Certina. What do you think of Vizzard's choice of watch for competitive hot air ballooning? Did you know that was even a thing? If so, or if you want to let me know what you think of the article, sound off below!