Report of pilot captain Ansermier: Gordon Bennett Race 1921

Here we print the report of pilot captain Ansermier, who won the 1921 flight from Bruxelles for Switzerland together with captain Armbruster under very difficult conditions:

“We arrived at Bruxelles on September 15th 1921, where we had sent our balloon some days before. To our big surprise, we had detected, that the gondola, trail-rope and several instruments were missing. We searched, sent telegrams, travelled here and there, all in vain. Much later we learned, that some sports loving French customs officers had let pass the envelope and net with no problems, but had simply kept back the basket with its content, being also transit good from Switzerland to Belgium.

We hired a basket and a trail-rope, but we didn’t manage to close the rip out-panel, being glued, opened, glued again and again for seven years now. So we have to face the risk, to meet an accident at the landing due to an abnormal operation of the panel.

The president of the Belgian aero-club, Mister Jacobs, as well as the winner of the Gordon Bennett Race of 1920 in America, Lieutenant Demuyter, supported and helped us on all of our steps in a very kindly way. Also helpful proved the officers of the Belgian air service.

In the hangar, we checked the balloon, fixed holes, repaired the net and so we were prepared for inflation of the balloon on the Solbosch field close to the forest of Cambré on Saturday, September 17th. All 14 balloons were laid out in a hawk staggered agreement and inflated simultaneously to supply the same quality of gas to every competitor. Every balloon had its own inflation tube. Saturday afternoon inflation started, but interrupted at 6 p.m. to supply enough gas pressure to the housewives in their kitchen. At 9 p.m. inflation was restarted. We stay the night, supervising the inflation, even knowing that we will have to face one or two more sleepless nights in the narrow basket.

In the early morning, while captain Armbruster changed guard with me, I used the time to admire the wonderful new material of our competitors. We Swiss fight against the odds, our material is old, we fly on our own costs and have to pay for the gas by ourselves, while our competitors are supported by their government, own new balloons, missing nothing for a long flight. One compares: Envelope and net are new, the baskets have walls from cork, a construction of rattan serves as seat and storage. Bags contain a whole library of maps and atlas, oxygen tanks on the floor, also hammocks allowing rest for the pilot and his second man. Further on ropes, survival belts, blankets a.s.o. I do not even want to talk about the supply in food and drinking. But also compass, altimeter, barograph, thermometer, electric lamps, mouthpieces, oxygen masks, a sail of linen to be used as a trail rope over the sea.

Depressed I return to the basket of our old ZURICH who unfortunately doesn’t possess all this luxury. I don’t talk about my impressions with my comrade Armbruster, but seeing our flag flying, my want for victory grows.

Sunday, September 18th, the inflated balloons rocked proudly in the wind, almost too proudly, for the Italian balloon TRIONFALE IX wants to escape. Several inflation crews had to be called to get hold of it.

Balloon BELGICA of Lieutenant Demuyter, winner in the race 1920, rocks around in the heavy wind, which suddenly rose and tears its net. From time to time it scrapes its neighbour ZURICH, like to stroke it. We kept ZURICH close to the ground, so it moved only a little and mocked against the storm like an old oak.

We are ready for along time. The official asks us, to launch out of sequence before the others, because they were late. We accept and level out quickly. Just in this moment, our representative, Mister Bally and the Chancellor of the Swiss diplomatic corps, Mister Federer, addresses a short speech to us and hands over a wonderful bunch of flowers with ribbons in the national colours of Switzerland and Belgium. I expressed my warmest thanks and receive a telegram from the president of the Swiss aero-club, Colonel Messner, remembering us in firm words, that Swiss men had never surrendered without fight.

A friend, Major Sorg, an officer of the Swiss army balloons and an excellent aeronaut, who had participated in past Gordon Bennett Races and was living in Arras, had decided to help and encourage us. Our dear comrade commands the last preparations and gives the traditional order: “Everybody let go!”

Slowly, well levelled, our balloon rises. The band plays a national anthem, but to me it doesn’t seem to be ours. A wind from the east pushes us severely to the forest nearby an we fly just over the tree tops. It’s exactly 4.57 p.m. We salute to the crowd, wave the bunch of flowers from the Swiss delegation, have a last view to Bruxelles, fix the instruments, what we could not do before, and fly in the direction of the North Sea: East Southeast/West Northwest.

We fly via Alost, Gent, Bruges, and at 7.21 p.m. we reach the Belgian coast at Oostende with a speed of 12 meters per second, i.e. 48 kilometres an hour. Now night had come, numerous ships travel in the Channel, French and Belgian beams search for us. Against the rules, we carry no light, no other balloon is in sight. Within one hour and 34 minutes we had crossed the Channel and approach Ramsgate, the first English village, which we cross in an altitude of 880 meters. The sky is clear, we fly up the river Thames, reach London-Wollwich at 10.25 p.m., cross this giant city in its full length, always in an altitude of 880 meters. Thousands of lights delight us, we are astonished by the busy night in this town of 7 million inhabitants, we can clearly identify the pedestrians on the street intersections, the tramways, bridges, the famous Hyde-Park. This view is marvellous and we can enjoy it for more than one hour.

At 1.06 a.m. we are above Oxford, at 3.50 a.m. above Cheltenham. Even having not slept the night before while supervising the inflation of our balloon, I feel no need for sleep being on the guard. My comrade Armbruster sleeps well on his bag of ballast in a corner of the basket. The lower layers carry us about 10 degrees more north than the higher ones. We cross Hereford, the night appears longer and longer to me, but the temperatures around +5° C are tolerable. Often I let the beam of my electric lucifer -lamp fall on the instruments on board, because I feel a change. We approach the mountain area ahead of the gulf of Cardigan, are in an altitude of 1000 meters, from time to time we are heavily shaken, but I don’t wait, stop the falling and dump some bags of ballast. Almost an eternity had passed until daybreak. Finally the horizon brightens, the villages awake and in the distance I can guess the sea. I discuss with my comrade Armbruster. I do not want to risk flying out to the Irish Sea without his agreement. We agree and soon decide, to cross the sea and Ireland and to land on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, the last boundary of Europe.

At 7.30 a.m. we fly over New Quay and are now above the Irish Sea, after we had covered 450 kilometres in the night before. The aeronaut thinks, but the wind guides. We thought we could reach the Irish coast within less than 4 hours – and stood for more than 18 hours above the sea.

When leaving land at New Quay we climbed to 1600 meters, the pressure on the barometer shows 682, thick fog is dominating, we are in a sea of clouds and can’t see the sea anymore. Captain Armbruster makes some surveys. At 9 a.m. still fog, also at 11 a.m. At noon we are at an altitude of 2050 meters; the fog disappears, we can see the sea. A steamer is heading for Dublin; he thinks we are in danger, calls us with his horn and crosses over to our track. So we have no radio we cannot tell him our plans and thank him. 1 p.m.: We see a balloon above the sea, about 80 degrees east of our position, but even with our telescopes we cannot recognize its nationality for his flag is very small, compared to ours. Later we learned, that it was an American, flown by the pilots Hoffmann and Mac Kibben. The balloon makes an unequal face (every balloon has its face), it is pear-shaped and very close to the water. We watch him for long, consider him to be lost, but cannot help him, but quite a number of steamers are around here.

In vain I looked for other competitors on the horizon, I had to conclude from this, that we were alone in this area.

For a long time the American balloon stood in sight, climbed a little, fell again; we know, this is the end and hope for some better wind for our comrades as well as for us, pushing us towards the coast, for we were sure to beat him, because at this moment our balloon was in an excellent condition. But, the same as we, it is not driven towards the coast. We are stuck about 15 kilometres ahead of the coast. Our competitor is lost out of sight. Soon after he falls, is recovered by a steamer and brought to Liverpool. So he had no more ballast, he fell quick to the sea. Second pilot Mac Kibben was hurt on his head by the load ring and thrown into the water. The balloon, now relieved, shot up, then the pilot pulled the emergency rope and also fell to the sea. The pilots were fished up, balloon, gondola and instruments sank immediately. Both comrades of the air had fought till the end, they deserve utmost respect.

We fly along the coast without seeing it. The wind, which had turned, has nearly no speed at all and drives us slowly to the north. Since four hours we had to be over Ireland.

At 3 p.m. the air suddenly changed. We fall to the sea, the water splashes over our heads, the ballast gets wet and becomes a sticky mass; we swallow salt water, dump more than 100 kilograms of sand, climb and fall again. Another dump of ballast, now we climb up to 3600 meters. But also up here there is no favourable wind to be found. At 3.55 p.m. we fall back to the sea again; we have no more ballast, but then climb again.

At 6 p.m. we are in an altitude of 700 meters; we can see the coast of Ireland through the fog. Sometimes it appears to me, that we are coming closer, but the wind turns again; we throw overboard the ballast bags, being empty but of some weight due to the moisture. They are followed by the bottles of St. Emilion and Apollinaris. At 7 p.m. the night comes slowly. For a long time the ships have disappeared. Who knows, our last hour has probably come, but we are not touched by this, for we had considered it already before the take-off. But still the will was vivid in us, to gain victory for our country.

Since our first fall to the sea, the big compass for land and sea use is out of service. It is full of salt water and sand. We don’t agree any longer in the determination of the heading, I use my own little compass and have already marked the place, where we will sink. Captain Armbruster still hopes to reach the Irish coast, but I am sure for two hours now, to see the end.

The wind pushes us back to the open sea, heading NE, towards Scotland, 180 – 200 kilometres away. We had slipped into our life jackets. I am not very confident about them, even if we suppose, that they will keep some hours, the night is long, there are not ships in this area, we have not seen a single one for three hours in bright daylight.

8 p.m. The night is around us. The eyes get used to the darkness, the batteries of our lamps are worn out, only an electro-mechanical jupiter lamp throws some beams to the barometer, showing a worrying high pressure reading and a horrible low altitude. We see an island, raising dark out of the waves; slowly we are approaching; the wind pushes us to the north-easterly corner; I release the trail-rope.

The balloon comes closer to this island of luck; we open the valve for some times and descend slowly. Captain Armbruster pulls the rip panel, the balloon smoothly lays down on a bed of bushes and collapses like an exhausted animal. It is exactly 8.20 p.m.

Switzerland had won the Gordon Bennett Race for the second time!

Although we don’t know about our classification, I feel the impression to be among the firsts and the other competitors are more south.

We retain our composure. Now we detect, that we had covered 756 kilometres as the crow flies, at a maximum altitude of 3600 meters and a flight-duration of 27 hours and 23 minutes.

Lambay Island (Ireland), on which we finally had landed, is situated 6 degrees west of Greenwich, on 53,30 degrees latitude, 8 kilometres from the Irish coast. The next village is called Rush.

The island belongs to a British noble man, Cecil Baring, but he had travelled to London with his wife the day before. His daughter, aged 17, welcomed us in the old castle from the 15th century in which no luxury was missing.

The next day the envelope was folded with the aid from some servants of our host; a sailing-ship brought us to Hoth near Dublin, where we put the balloon on the railroad. In Dublin we found some time to admire the beauty of this town and to stand the storm of photographers and journalists.

Captain Armbruster went to Bruxelles, where he had an outstanding welcome and celebration, while I had to return as quick as possible to the barracks at Bern at the end of my holidays.

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