Book article about the 20th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett

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

Economy recovers very slowly from its heavy crisis in July 1931. In Germany still 5.260.000 unemployed are counted in August 1932. But it is also the time of records and big success in sports. The biggest flying boat of the world, DO-X, with space for 100 passengers on three decks had made a flight to New York (with intermediate landings) already on August 1931, now it is on a trip round the world. American Amelia Earhart-Putnam was the first person to cross the Atlantic twice in a plane. After a flight in 1928 she manages the tour Newfoundland – Ireland in 13 hours and 55 minutes on May 21st, 1932. English Amy Johnson flew London – Capetown in 4 days and 6 hours, beating the record held by her husband for almost 10 hours. Car racing and professional boxing were sporting events of much interest. In car racing, Brauchitsch on Mercedes and Caracciola on Alfa Romeo fought on the racing courses, in boxing Schmeling, Sharkey and Mickey Walker fought for qualification to the world-championship in heavyweight.

One month before the start of the Gordon Bennett Race the 10th Olympic games had finished in Los Angeles. The athletes from the US had won 44 gold, 36 silver and 30 bronze medals there.

Eight nations had nominated balloons, for the first time two crews from Poland were present. (In 1923 they had withdrawn their nomination before launch). Poland was the country, to which the trip should go and they would play an important role in future races. But we are not so far yet. In the town on the river Rhine 16 balloons are prepared for flight on this Sunday. Favourites prior to launch: American and 3 times Gordon Bennett winner Ward T. van Orman as well as 4 times-winner Ernest Demuyter. The German participants are full of hope; Ferdinand Eimermacher, Erich Leimkugel, Otto Bertram and Alexander Dahl are already experienced veterans, which is even truer for French Ravaine and Blanchet. Switzerland sent young people to the race. With the exception of Gerber, who had taken part once 20 years ago, all the others are there for the first time. Also Austria had returned again to the circle of participating nations. It was the first (and only) participation at the races between the two wars. Baron von Effhofen had chosen Franz Mannsbarth as co-pilot, a very well known officer in Austria. As first lieutenant, he had built together with engineer Hans-Otto Stagl the “Stagl-Mannsbarth-Airship” shortly after the First World War. 91 meters long, powered by two diesel engines of 150 h.p. each, working on four propellers being capable to carry 30 passengers, it was the biggest airship of the world in those days. But financing created difficulties and military in Austria showed no interest for the ship, so the builders had no choice but to sell their ship in a public auction. Mannsbarth however kept close with ballooning, how close is shown by the fact that his wife Hedwig became the second female balloon pilot in Austria in 1929. (Nr. 1 was Josefine Hinterstoisser in 1911.

About the race itself, two pilots should report, who were involved in the race only in the second row. First of all, there is the very well known meteorologist and pilot of these days, Dr. P. Perlewitz. Before launch, he made the following forecast:

“The weather for inflation will be good from the early morning on, light winds, cloudy sky after some rain showers, but mostly bright. Wind direction on the north slope of the Alps in the average from south to north, particularly south easterly or south westerly.

The main weather situation is influenced by a strong storm depression with its centre in Scotland and a trough to East Germany. The backside of this trough has brought thunderstorms and heavy winds to north Germany in the previous night. This is the weather situation north of the launch place Basel. To the south there is a flat high above the Alps and Italy, with its centre over Sardinia.

During inflation over the day, the main weather situation has not changed, only the depression above Scotland has filled up a little bit, so that the wind speed will slowly reduce everywhere. The trough to the Baltic Sea has moved a little further to the east. Winds in north and middle-Germany are fresh to strong, in south and southwest Germany low.

Winds in the altitude are strong almost everywhere, so balloons, who can make it to the middle of Germany, may count on a speed of 80 kilometres an hour. But it is questionable, if the balloons can manage to reach the area of the “Fichtelgebirge” by flying low at the beginning. Most of the balloons will probably fly across Bavaria, where they will particularly meet no wind, then fly to Austria or Czechoslovakia. They will then still have the opportunity to make a big bend north easterly to Poland or Russia. Other balloons, which can manage to reach Saxony or Northern Bohemia, may fly on quickly to the countries on the Baltic Sea, Northwest Russia or even Finland.

This is the answer to the main question of the inexperienced: “Where do the balloons fly?” The correct question would be: “Which altitude is flown by the pilots, to gain the best direction to cover the longest distance?” At first of course, they cross the lowest layer, bringing them to the north or north east, which means, to the Rhine valley. From there the decision for the victory will occur.

The participants were told before launch and will find it proved during their flight, that in higher altitudes they will meet stronger winds from the south west and west, while in lower layers there is a weaker streaming from the south west.

With the streaming in the higher altitudes, the balloons will proceed faster, which appears to be an advantage, but they also get away more and more from the storm depression over Northwest Europe and so may fly too far to the East into no winds over Austria or Czechoslovakia. The balloons that fly lower, precede slower first, but approach the depression in the North and may count on increasing wind speed later and a quick flight across Germany.

But they must also avoid flying too low, to loose time and then miss the depression. We see, that meteorological as well as tactical calculations are not quite easy”.

The Americans studied these forecasts best. Last not least their knowledge of meteorology was one of the roots of their victories in the previous races. Before every race, they had watched the weather conditions for a long time, researched and analysed them. This gave them their hope to win.

But I don’t want to leap ahead of the events. The balloon commission of the German airmen association had sent its member and president of the balloon department of the “Osnabrücker Verein für Luftschiffahrt”, pilot Bernard Brickwedde to Basel. Brickwedde, a friend of Ferdinand Eimermacher, wrote three reports for aeronautic journals: From the events before the start, the start itself and after the race.

A walk between 17 balloons
Basel, a sea of flags! – Every balloon has its own post box 
The Gordon Bennett-Party! All turn up in tails, except…?

The whole town of Basel is under the rule of the Gordon Bennett Race. Even the weather fits to this great event. Bright sun. Wherever we look, wherever we listen: “Gordon Bennett”. Soon we get the impression, that everything is organised perfect. We visit the championship office, which stands in enormous activity. Every balloon has its own post box, containing frequent news from the championship directory. – Large maps present the actual weather. The prospects are vividly discussed and judged from different views. By these discussions, it shows, that optimists find a lot of little doors to hope even at marginal weather conditions, hoping for a south west-wind, leading them to the north east, to Silesia, Poland, Russia. A telegram, which just came in, tells, that Russia had again refused the request for entering their airspace. This is a big pity, for the weather situation promises a long flight. So it may happen very easy, that the frontiers are crossed unintentionally. This creates a discussion, for to the rules, this would lead to disqualification of the pilot. This is also a disadvantage for the military pilots, who have strictly to obey the prohibition to enter Russia. Very pleasant is an announcement of the German “Reichspostminister”, that the German radio will broadcast on frequency 183,5 (1634,9 m) weather reports and 15 to 20 minutes disk music to allow the pilots to take a bearing every hour between 1 and 5.30 a.m. in the nights of 25th to 26th and 26th to 27th. This friendly agreement was joined by the Polish radio, which will broadcast its news in three languages: Polish, German and French.

There is a permanent coming and going in this championship office. Languages of all nations fill the room, well translated by a young Swiss girl. We drop our regards at the post box of our German pilots and leave for the launch field. The streets are crowded. A lot of participants of an international converging really add to the traffic. Foreign road signs create traffic jams, some dented bumpers, but it all unravels in a fabulously calmness. Almost all shop windows present their advertising with balloons. From the worst taste to perfect art of advertising our dear old balloon is used. All the taxis are adorned with it; they had cut it out of the official poster and put it to their windscreens.

The launch field shows a colourful image. Hundreds of flags with the colours of the participating nations fly in the strong wind. Big wind readers, mounted to the gas tanks to be seen from the distance, indicate a wind from east southeast on the ground, while in the altitude the clouds pass with a quick southwest. Much life also here! A good organisation, everything is prepared for the visit of the crowds. I look for the pilots, nobody knows, where they did hide. The spectators, already on the field, are very interested. The newspapers had brought long articles about Gordon Bennett and the balloon. Whole pages with a lot of pictures tell of the balloon. Also pictures of all the pilots are shown in the papers. We can see, how the spectators look to these pictures with interest and compare them with everybody who looks like an airman. There is a lot of air traffic above the town. Passenger planes for circuits allowing a bird-eyes view of the Gordon Bennett town and the launch field. Also the plane of the Europe Air Rally, the Klemm of the successful Swiss participant Fretz from Zurich and a Heinkel He 64, flown here from Berlin by Junck are presented. It is time, to get prepared for the welcome party, where evening dress is required. It is a banquet offered by the government, foreign guests may bring their wives with them, as it was told on the notice board, while the Swiss ladies don’t take part. They are expected first at the following big Gordon Bennett party.

A tall, fair-haired Swiss lady holds the prologue, welcomes the president of the federal republic of Switzerland, the honorary citizens of the town, representatives of the university and last not least the pilots, who came from the north, south, east and west, even across the Atlantic. These “romantic knights “, who still use gas, wind and sand to perform their sport in a time of motorization. Standing the Swiss national anthem is sung. Then follows the overture to “The Bat” and a perfect performance of the second act of this operetta. While about 4000 people move around at this big party, I search for our German pilots. It is not easy, to search and recognise people within this colourful group of moving uniforms, tails and evening dresses. In four big, tastefully decorated ballrooms the people dance to the lively music of four first class bands. One ballroom is totally decorated with aviation items. A big glider hangs from the roof, the walls are decorated with pictures showing events in aviation. Piccard, who had promised to be present, had to withdraw because of a bereavement. But other prominent people from aviation can be seen. We’d like to talk with the pilots about the previous flight, but time is short and this hurly-burly is not the right place for it. I look for Ferdinand Eimermacher, he shall tell me more. I go to the hotel, to ask where he is or to wait for his return. They tell me a little beer bar and right, there he is, Ferdinand Eimermacher. Lucky and satisfied he sits there with meteorological maps and a beer and thinks about the previous flight. A party in tails and evening dress is not his case; he sits there in his leather suit, as he left Münster. The present, rare weather situation allows a lot of opportunities, which may lead to a great flight, if used well and if rain doesn’t put and early end to it. We have one or two nice and undisturbed hours here in this little restaurant.

We discuss the question of crossing the Russian border and the prohibition of the Soviet Union. The competition officials had left it to the decision of the pilots, to take the risk of crossing the border of the Soviet-Republic with good luck and without permission. The Americans will make every effort, to take the cup, they had already won twice in a row, home finally. They, for example, had made an agreement with the radio station on the Eiffel-tower, to give them special weather reports in a secret language.

The Swiss crew of the balloon ZURICH carries parachutes with them, to jump from the balloon in case of a thunderstorm, they could not get out of way. They had remembered the fate of the Swiss balloon, which was hit by a flash of lightening at the Gordon Bennett race from Brussels in 1923, which killed the crew. Also the crew of a second balloon was killed by a flash of lightening at this event. We also learn, that the crew wants to extend the flight by the parachuting of one crew member when running out of ballast. But this was prevented by the rule, that after landing the crew has to be present completely.

Because normally on the second days very high altitudes are reached (6000 meters and more), all the crews carry oxygen with them, either in small steel bottles or balloons of fabric or rubber which they fix to the side of the gondola. The pilots are ordered, to dump cards and telegrams on Monday prior to their landing, to tell their position.

Finally, I have to praise the arrangements for inflation and launch. Every balloon has got its own box for storage. During inflation, the balloons are closed off by ropes, the launch field, opposite of the stands is separated from the spectators by a solid fence. The take off is well visited, but it could have been better. Rain showers at noon have kept spectators away. I want to mention, that the balloon mail, carried by a Swiss balloon, which shall be sent from the landing place, contains 1500 letters by noon.

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