17th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett

Detroit, United States, June 30, 1928


1William E. Kepner
William O. Eareckson
USA740.80 km48:00:00Kenbridge, Virginia (USA)
2Hugo Kaulen
Hugo Kaulen jr.
GER739.30 km41:25:00
3Charles Dollfus
Georges Cormier
FRA720.80 km42:35:00Dan River, North Carolina (USA)
4Georges M. Blanchet
le Gallee
FRA669.00 km00:00:00
5S.A.U. Rasmussen
DEN624.60 km00:00:00
6Ferdinand Eimermacher
K. Zech
GER619.80 km32:14:00Blue Ridge Mountains (USA)
7 Palmer
USA594.00 km00:00:00
8Eduardo Bradley
ARG568.00 km00:00:00
9 Naylor
USA523.00 km00:00:00
10 Thonnard
BEL478.00 km00:00:00
11Otto Bertram
Georg Fröbel
GER474.00 km26:00:00
12Ernest L. Maag
SUI404.00 km21:00:00West Virginia (USA)

Book Article

From the Book: Die Gordon Bennett Ballon Rennen 
(The Gordon Bennett Races) by Ulrich Hohmann Sr

Start: Detroit, Airport Henry Ford, June 30th

In Germany, especially in the "Münsterland", the permission for German balloons to return to the Gordon Bennett Races, had created a state of balloon euphoria. Already the preparations of the German teams were watched by the press extensively, Ferdinand Eimermacher had a talent for "public relations".

Together the two German teams took the steamboat RELIANCE from Hamburg to New York, which was little occupied from Cherbourg on. Not more than 40 passengers were on board and experienced quite stormy sea. This did not matter to Hugo Kaulen junior as long as he could ask a female person to dance, but balloonmeister Zurwonne was lost in his cabin for four days. The special dinner to honour the Gordon Bennett competitors (Caviar on ice, turtle soup, cooked salmon from the Rhine, asparagus stalks, pheasant a la Alsacienne and bombe glace Reliance) on Sunday, June 17thunfortunately met only a few admirers. Hugo Kaulen junior, however, danced.

They had two weeks to America, and in these two weeks, there was always the same "lousily weather", as Eimermacher called it without any glossing over. No reason therefore, to flee too often from the hotel room on the 49th floor of the sky scraper on the Detroit River.. Just in time, one day before launch, the weather turns and promises improvement. At home, the attention on the event is again drawn to readers of the newspapers, the "Münsterische Anzeiger" written on June 30th:

"In all nations today the eyes look with the most tension to the two million people in the city of Detroit, where once again the most famous of all races, the Gordon Bennett Race of the air, will have its beginning in the evening hours. Beginning of launch will probably be fixed at 4 p.m. American time, and we Germans, especially we from the Münsterland, have all reasons to commemorate this hour, at about 10:30 in the evening, with our best wishes. Only somebody who has once seen the interest of the whole American world in the Gordon Bennett Race, can estimate, how much ambition and what a stimulation is given to the individual pilots of every nation by the sympathising with the interest of the population."

This newspaper was right: The United States really wanted to know about it this year. They had won twice in a row in 1910, when Hans Gericke ruined the final possession of the cup for them. This should not happen now again. Demuyter from Belgium was not there, who else could steal the success? The Germans again? Well, Kaulen senior had performed a good fight the year before, but he had changed his co-pilot. And his junior did not yet have enough perseverance, as it was proven the year before. Eimermacher? His balloon was not the lightest, he himself also had his 200 pounds, this allowed the Americans to take on board almost ten bags of ballast more. Never before they had heard of Otto Bertram and he was still 45 years of age. Could the French be serious opponents? Blanchet was at the Gordon Bennett Race for the fifth time, but never in front. Charles Dollfus was still young, they did not believe he would be capable to win. Everything favoured the Americans. They had the support of the US Army (and the Goodyear-company). A wonderful, light balloon was at their disposal. Added by the home advantage, not much could go wrong.

In America the economic activity was blooming (the big Wall-Street crash came one year later), in Europe it was not as well everywhere. Compared to others, Germany seemed to be still in the best position, but even there in the first six month of the year almost 31.500 emigrants were registered (in 1910 there were only about. 27.000 in the whole year). France could nominate only two teams, Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland were represented only by one team, but the word "team" was not right for Swiss Ernest L. Maag, for he was all alone and flew solo with a hired balloon of 1000 cb m. He had no real chance.

The early date of the race was chosen in consideration of the Olympic Games, which drew more and more interest, and which were opening in Amsterdam on July 28th. Also the Germans took part again in the Games for the first time since 1914. They entry was not opposed any longer. Much more interest was created by the fact, that for the first time women were allowed to participate in the classical disciplines (since then, women had been at the Olympic Games only once, 1908 in archery), this against the will of the founder of the new games, Pierre de Coubertin.

In aviation, Risticz and Zimmermann prepared to improve the world record in motor flying, which they managed on July 8th with 65,5 hours. Also there were a lot of discussions about the dramatic rescue of the Italian General Nobile, who was stranded with the airship ITALIA at the North Pole on May 24th and was finally picked up by the Swedish pilot Lundberg on June 24th. 16 ships, 21 airplanes and totally 1500 men were involved in this action, Roald Amundson met his death at this rescue operation.

We have already talked about the Germans Kaulen sr. and Eimermacher in the 1927 chapter. Otto Bertram was there for the first time. He came from one of the oldest German balloon clubs, the Chemnitzer VfL, founded in 1895 (after the Berliner VfL in 1881 and the Münchner (Munich) VfL in 1889). Born 1883 in Saxony, he joined ballooning in 1914, when he was a sailor and later served as captain of a ship. He participated in four Gordon Bennett Races, but his biggest success in ballooning was in advance of a Gordon Bennett Race: He became the first German champion in ballooning, when he flew 1047 kilometres in the balloon CHEMNITZ III with his co-pilot Prehm from Darmstadt to Dlugossen in Poland on April 4th 1935. This championship was also the qualification for the Gordon Bennett Race in the year 1935. Still after World War II he visited gas balloon races in Germany before he passed away in Celle in 1960, aged 77.

In Detroit on launch day all streets were congested. 60.000 cars were counted by the American Automobile Club, who regulated the surging spectators. At 10 a.m. already 50 airplanes started for a race of 6000 miles round the USA. Also an air show was presented, attended by German glider pilots. Etzel Ford again holds the pistol in his hands and this year Eimermacher is the first, to make MÜNSTER VIII climb. The track is quite similar to the one of the previous year, first east, then south from an altitude of 1500 meters on. And again, like the year before, Eimermacher finds himself in front of the Appalachian mountains at the beginning of the second night.

There are uncounted stories and anecdotes about Ferdinand Eimermacher. He had written a ballooning history in Germany. He fixed his memories in his book "Welten, Ozeane und Sterne" (Worlds, Oceans and Stars), which appeared in a private publishing venture in 1956, because the chosen publisher requested to wipe out some sequences which turned out too crude to print. The book fits to the earthiness of the author and is very interesting for balloonists but has little to tell to readers who are not much involved in this subject. They would be bored by the detailed descriptions of the flights. A reprint from the sixties, titled "Im Bund mit Wolken und Wind" (United with Clouds and Wind), allows to guess how Eimermacher lived and flew. Even if we suppose, that some sequences are presented a little blown up and dramatised, the impression of the enormous strain of this race 1928 is still left. He writes:

We approach the last, still higher mountain range. We count twelve bags left. We can see the plain ahead of us, but are afraid, not to reach it anymore. We fly with only 3 kilometres an hour. Little papers, we had thrown overboard indicate the double speed close above the ground. We have to go down to this layer, to finally gain the plain and with the plain the faster winds. We level out the balloon about 30 meters above the tree tops. When we come closer to the last range, we recognise how wild and rough these mountains are, which had been considered insurmountable for a long time. Suddenly we are in front of ridge of the mountain. A wall of purple and blue take our sight to the opposite valley. This wall loomed to a heavy, deep black cloud, waving up and down eerily. It reminds me of a big fire, when burning masses of tar and impenetrable black blue smoke makes whole streets impassable. The Lord shall save us from the breakout of this thunderstorm! Stranding here in these mountains might cut us off from the rest of the world for weeks. The balloon stands still, as if it fears the disaster. Finally, after ten long, frightening minutes, it takes up speed again. The dreadful clouds give way and let us pass with a scornful grin. Thanks to the Lord, this cloud monster gives us our freedom, we move down to the hilly plain. As we had hoped, we pick up a speed of about 30 kilometres an hour and with this speed joy is growing again. We count 10 1/2 bags, our situation is quite satisfying. One hour later, at 9 p.m., we reach a middle sized town, Waynesboro in Virginia. The needle of our compass indicates a southbound heading.

This navigation shocks us, for we have to detect, that unfortunately we had not yet reached the desired plain but only a huge valley, about 80 kilometres wide, and then have to fly over the last, but most wild range of the mountains.

The sky shows a more and more threatening face. I guess a disaster. From my last visit to America, I know that Virginia almost always has terrible thunderstorms at night. It is 10 p.m.. We come closer to the mountain. The dark, puffed up clouds lay heavily on the peaks. We climb up, break through the enormous masses of clouds, and can see the head of the thunderstorm, ghostly illuminated by the full moon. We descend again. The speed decreases here in the mountains, so we can reach the big plain of Virginia first at 0.30 a.m. to my calculations. Once again it goes up to the pale gloom of the moon, and again down to the pitch darkness.

11 p.m.! My calculation are, that we have to cross just two more ridges. Again I have bad feelings. I watch like a hawk, work with slices of paper and altimeter. Just in the moment we are again in a bedlam. The balloon shakes, paper slices rush upwards, the altimeter climbs to the sky, 3500, 3700, 4000, ...5000 meters. Now there is a jerk. Instinctively I grab the basket ropes. A feeling of dizziness overcomes me. Zech startles up, grabs the ropes and moans: "What are you doing, I become sick!" The basket turns in his ropes. Next to its board, something appears and grabs to me. Before I recognise, that it is the handling line, thrown to the level of the basket by a gust of wind, there is again a hard jerk. The basket, lifted in his ropes, swings back to his old position. Zech moans: "Stop it, or I have to vomit." Then he falls back to his sleep like death. Meanwhile, our balloon climbs on.

Now we sit on the head of a gigantic thunder cloud. It is evil, could I fix my fur coat better. Uncomfortably my co-pilot crouches in the corner of the basket. The view to the cloud giants that dance around us is incredibly nice but also horrifying. One close by especially stares at us and then pounces on us with all his size to destroy us.

With a whistle we rushed to the deep. I still don't dump any ballast, for the balloon would not respond to my hands in the falling stream. Black clouds surround me. The altimeter indicates a quick fall, the needle can be watched leaping back. With tension I listen to the deep. The horrifying whistle increases, the clouds grab us from below, lift us up and drags us down to the deep, towards the giants of trees. Ballast and one more bag of ballast go overboard, as useless as it is. I believe, I have to do something.

The enormous mountain yawns to swallow us. I believe, the end of the world has come. We sink into the canyon, where the dry giants of the jungle enclose the rock-walls. I give a kick to my co-pilot, for I have no more time to wake him up by other means and yell, shout at him: "We will get run through!" Zech jumps up, instinctively I throw another bag overboard and we both jump to the opposite corners of the basket, to escape from the deadly thrust. The sharp stab of a 150-feet high giant of the jungle passes close to our bodies. I only get a enormous punch to the left upper arm. I feel no pain, just tumble to the other side of the basket. We experience, how a huge branch pokes into the body of the balloon writhing in pain at the lower hemisphere, slits it open and turns the appendix upwards. On one side below us we can see the fluttering envelope while the basket, breaking the branches, sinks deeper and deeper.

Howling and slapping the storm grabs the wreck and tries to throw it to the deep. As quick as possible we fix the one and only handling line left to the next branch to keep the basket up when a fall comes. It is 11.14 p.m. Frightening seconds pass. Spasmodically the wind hits under the envelope, cuts more and more wounds to it with the sharp branches and finally presses even the gas down to us. We fear to suffocate, when the next gust of wind finally throws the envelope on our heads.

Also, the attacking forces of the still not completely deflated balloon are so big, that the giant tree as a whole grunts and groans and one branch after the other falls down to the deep creaking. To our horror even our last fixed point starts rustling in a frightening manner. I try, to deflate the balloon by ripping off, but it is useless, the envelope has become totally entangled in the trees and is completely deflated by its many wounds. The shreds are fluttering already on the neighbour tree.

We have to leave the basket at once. We agree in all steps. Everything is done with cold blood and objectivity. We cannot recognise, if the released trail rope even reaches the ground of the canyon, but we know, it touches the lower trees. So out! The security rope, I always have with me, will then hopefully lead us to the ground finally.

As pilot I want to stay in the basket. Zech crawls out with some important tools and disappears to my eyes. It takes a long time, which appears almost infinitive to me, until I can finally hear from below: „I’m down!"

"What kind of ground?" I shout down. "Swampy" – "O.K., then I’ll dump our necessary equipment!" Part after part I let fall down. Approximately 40 minutes have passed, before I finally may also leave our doubtful place up there. With a heavy rucksack full of instruments, camera, binocular a.s.o. on my shoulders it goes down from the dizzy height. – To climb down on a rope for hundred meters is not easy at all, especially for me, with a weight of more than 200 pounds and loaded with a heavy rucksack. Now I also feel the injury of my arm. A stabbing pain forces the sweat out of my skin. The trail rope appears endless, I nearly can’t hold myself any longer. Is it the pain in my arm or appears the response of my comrade, whom I ask, if I’m not already down, too close – I leave the rope. – Then I fall, hit hard on the ground and can’t get back on my feet anymore. Broken leg is my first thought.

So far the report of Ferdinand Eimermacher. Thank’s god, it wasn’t a broken leg, but severe bruising at arm and leg, as it was detected by the doctor at Lynchburg after the rescue. Until he came there, Zech however had to cover a 24 hours walk before he reappeared at the inaccessible landing place in the back forest with a farmer and his two hands. The remaining parts of the balloon had to be given up. Ferdinand Eimermacher recovered on the hospitable farm of Mister Griffim and then returned to Germany satisfied with his sixth place. Father Kaulen and son nearly made it, to take the victory (and thus the winning of the cup) from the Americans. They came only 1,5 kilometres shorter than Kepner/Eareckson. A very close result after a total distance of 740 kilometres.

In Münster in Westphalia, Eimermachers home-town, something had happened which is called a „super-canard" in the newspaper world. There, on July 3rd, the „Münsterische Anzeiger" came out with an extra edition showing as headline on page 1: „Eimermacher winner in the Gordon Bennett Race." The report: "New York, July 3rd– In the Gordon Bennett Race the German balloon MÜNSTER VIII won with the pilot Mr. Eimermacher Münster (co-pilot: Zech-Herford)". How could this have happened? – About seven hours after the involuntarily landing of MÜNSTER VIII, the people of Lynchburg had seen two other balloons. So for the time, Eimermacher was ahead. So from this advance of seven hours and the wish to win, it could be, this false information developed. A little subdued (and in much smaller letters), the "M.A." wrote the same day:

"The cheer was to soon. The flag at the town hall, run up this morning, when news came up that the balloon MÜNSTER VIII had gained victory in America, is taken down again. A bad fortune did not only take the victory from Eimermacher but has also hurt him and robbed him his balloon. After long hours of fearful doubts, torturing but still hopeful uncertainty the following telegram arrived at the family of Mr. Eimermacher at 8.30 p.m. yesterday in the evening:

Lynchburg, 1.03 p.m.: In the second night, 11 o’clock, balloon damaged. Strong gusts of a thunderstorm made balloon rise to 5000 meters, then threw him to a canyon on a dry giant trees. The gas escaped. Condition of the balloon unknown. Recovery appears impossible. Co-pilot is well, myself slightly hurt, pulled tendon, haematoma on feet and arm. After an arduous walk finally here.

As well as a success for Mr. Eimermacher, it would not have been his private affair, also his misfortune is not his personal thing. But as hard as this strikes German aviation and the town of Münster, it strikes Mr. Eimermacher even harder in his sporting ambitions. His wish to win was so big, much bigger than the hopes, that were with him. So this set back hits him extremely hard, and he does not need to know, that due to false information– he had been celebrated as winner for 12 hours."

When Eimermacher returned to Münster in the afternoon of July 26th, he gets a welcome as if he had won. Considering the strain he stood, his courage and dare devilry, this must be allowed with full heart. But looking back to the reports, the fact is interesting, that the success of father and son Kaulen is not mentioned with a single word (not to talk about the participation of Bertram/Fröbel). May local patriotism make people really so blind, that the son of the home town is put equal to the faith of the whole German aviation?

The balloon US ARMY won the race, so the second cup went to the final possession of America. Henry Ford soon agreed to sponsor a third cup. So the Gordon Bennett Races were not at the end, they could continue.

Another anecdote of the 1928 race should be told: Orville Wright, first man in a plane, was the director of the race. One of his duties was, to set up additional rules. So he requested that every participant had to send a telegram with the required data to the championship-office within 24 hours after the landing. When one competitor tried to follow this rule, the man at the telegram office told him, he could not send the telegram: A balloon had landed nearby and destroyed the wires!