With Balloon “ZURICH III” to the White Sea
From the National-Newspaper, Basel September 17th and 18th, 1936
by Dr. Erich Tilgenkamp
Again the flags of the competing nations of the Gordon Bennett Race fly over the huge Warsaw airfield of Mokototow. Again uncounted thousands of spectators are around and watch with interest the last preparations for the start of a race without a race track, for a flight to the unknown. After a period of wonderful nice weather, without wind but with bright sunshine, the first disturbances of a low pressure area, approaching from the Baltic Sea, can be seen. The sky is covered, but fortunately the wind is low, so inflation can be done as scheduled and without problems. Over there is the golden yellow silk balloon of the Belgian Demuyter, probably the best pilot of the world, who has logged more than a thousand flights. Very great the Germans. They had come with special constructed silk balloons, over which even a net made of silk spans. Brand new they gleam far over the field and attract the admiration of the spectators. They are the lightest balloons in the race, almost 200 kilograms less weight than ZURICH III. It is now already three years old and has done some stormy flights. But proudly it shows the white cross in the red shield on its body. It has lost its bright silver colour and changed it to a dark mouse grey. On the other side of the field are the racing balloons of the Polish.
My comrade Maurice ten Bosch and me have prepared technically quite well, so we don’t have to work a lot on the field. Once again we discuss the weather situation considering the last reports with meteorologist Dr. Berger from Zurich, who is in Warsaw because of the congress of the F.A.I.. A big low pressure area had formed over the Baltic Sea, promising winds from south to west, that means drift to the north, up to the White Sea, or to the east, to the great plains of Russia. With eagerness, our dear president, Col. Messner, takes part in the discussion. As an old, proven fighter and Gordon Bennett-winner, he contributes advice, while Lt.Col. Walo Geber helps, where a hand is needed. Major Mazurek, the proven builder of our balloon, reports, that it is time to climb into the basket. Then strong hands of soldiers grip the basket and carry us across the field to the launch position in front of the stand for the honourable spectators. The basket is filled with sand bags up to the edge. Thousand kilograms of ballast it carries. In one corner, already connected, are the oxygen bottles made from aluminium. The breathing masks from the Dräger-company are clear and on the map board, reaching out of the basket, the map of Poland is spread. A command sounds over the field, officers and soldiers stand at attention and our national anthem sounds over the huge field.
In a moderate speed we climb towards the night sky, coloured deep red in the west. Very fast and not higher than 50 meters, we cross the huge parking lot. The horns beep and are added by the sound of the sirens of the ships and boat in the darkness of the river Weichsel. This was our last impression from the world outside, because from now on our concentration belongs mostly to the balloon.
Very weak and with a vague light the moon shines through the close layer of clouds. The other balloons have already disappeared in the darkness, only WARZAWA II follows us like a shadow in a distance of about 800 meters. We blink over with our big beam light, but get no answer. In the light of our torches we start working. One pilot controls the instruments and cares for the ballast, the other checks the track of the flight and does the navigation. We have reached an inversion and our heading turns more and more to the north.
Frequently we get weather information from Warsaw, Berlin and Moscow by our radio, interrupted by music. So the hours pass by. From time to time a hand full of sand, to stop the sinking tendency of the balloon, once a short navigation and comparing to the map, it is quite monotonous and wonderful calm around us.
At 11 p.m. I hand over the piloting to my comrade and crawl into my sleeping bag. At 1 a.m. a big river with a huge bending comes to sight ahead of us, we manage to identify it on the map then the clouds take us into their soft, white bed and silent, unseen and without visibility we proceed. Maurice ten Bosch has now taken over the place in the sleeping bag and tries to find a few minutes of sleep. The whole concentration belongs to the instruments now. At 5 a.m. the new day dawns slowly and heavy in the east. We have climbed and are now hovering to the northeast at about 1500 meters. From time to time there is a hole in the clouds and we can see a little piece of the earth, a railroad -track, a road, a piece of a forest, the edge of a lake, but it is too little , to fix our position on the inaccurate maps of Russia. At 8 a.m. we have breakfast. Some good gulps of hot bouillon, a piece of dark bread with sausage, some sweeties and fruit. Also a gulp of cool water from the rubber bag.
The weather reports allow us, to draw accurate weather maps. They back up our intention, to fly very low. But suddenly the inversion disappears. The balloon starts sinking. Sandbag after sandbag is emptied and the open space in the basket grows. We can now see the floor and count the bags. On the shoulder of a railroad-track we see a big soviet star, so we are in Russia. Slowly, step by step it goes up again, while the load in the basket is more and more decreasing. Again the sun approaches the western horizon; we are in the basket for already 24 hours. We estimate our speed at about 40 kilometres an hour, so Warsaw must be already 1000 kilometres behind of us. Even if we had looked eagerly the whole day for other competitors, we were not able to discover at least one balloon. After a long time, we can finally see the earth below us again. It doesn’t look very well, a huge Tundra spreads, a horrible picture.
How shall I describe a Tundra? A brown yellow dirty plain, on which nothing can be seen, no tree, no bush. The earth seems to be pushed together like waves. Bad for a balloon, who is forced to land here, because on a Tundra you can’t walk, one sinks like in a swamp. A power line and several roads indicate that a larger town is close.
Night had come in again, we have only eight bags of ballast left, and it is questionable, if we can keep the balloon up until next morning. We still don’t know, where we are. Finally two large spots of light can be seen ahead of us, they approach quickly. Like in fever, we look to our maps, to find these two towns, for now we have finally the chance to fix our position. Closer and closer the lights come, more and more details can be seen. Exactly in the middle between the two towns we cross a big channel to the north. It is Leningrad and Kronstadt.
So we don’t find the inversion again, we have to climb higher and soon ZURICH III is again bedded in the white cotton wool of the low clouds. We have to save our ballast as much as we can and have to try everything, to put the night behind. The drizzle has developed to a heavy rain and from 10 p.m. on, it poured like from buckets. The rain drums on the envelope with the sound of machine guns, with no interruption, for hours, incredibly, what comes down. The water on the balloon creates little creeks, running down the envelope and falling down right above the basket. At three places, it runs directly to our heads, as if we had opened some faucets up there. To use a map or a log book is impossible, within a few minutes the paper is so soaked, that it falls apart. The water pouring to the basket loads the balloon more and more, we have to get it out. Above our heads, we have fixed a bag to the load-ring, where we collect the water, to keep at least some of the flood away from us. While my comrade uses both caps of our thermos flasks to catch as much of the water coming down from the balloon, I have taken the big shovel for the sand to bale out of the basket the still rising puddle of water. For hours we work like this. A strange occupation for balloonists. Everything, really everything is completely soaked. The sleeping bag has become unusable, in the side bags of the basket the water stands several centimetres high, and on the floor, we stand deep in a dirty, brown liquid. We had put rubber gloves over our wool gloves, but even this precaution proved useless, because as time passed by, the wool gloves became so wet, that it was better to take them off. But the worst was, that we could not protect ourselves against this flood. At about 11 p.m. we are completely soaked down to our skin. Even to the tin cans for the films, I carried under my waterproofed suit in the pockets of my vest, the water had found its way. With resignation we give up the struggle against the water.
Meanwhile ZURICH III climbs higher and higher, towards the morning light. 3000 meters, 4000 meters, it is getting quite cold, the thermometer drops to minus 15 degrees C. Everything that was wet and soaked just before, now covers with a thick coating of ice. The instruments did not work anymore. The barograph stood still, the wind wheel did not work any longer, even the watch in the pocket stopped. The water layer on the basket floor changes to a sheet of ice, the water bag becomes a single block of ice. If we want to drop sand, we have to knock it to pieces before. Everything becomes hard and deeply frozen. Our clothes are stiff as if they were made of iron. We are shivering, our hands tense up and don’t serve us anymore. Endless painful hours approach, and still day won’t break, while our ballast ends up. We are freezing, if freezing is a word for that. My comrade stands like a tree next to the variometer, while I crouch down in a corner and try to catch some warmth. Dear reader, jump in the Lake of Zurich in an ice cold winter night, and then sit on a bank at minus 15 degrees C for six hours. Then you may imagine, how we felt.
Soon we had been on our way for 40 hours and start feeling our nerves. To this, the thin air in the altitude adds discomfort. Our resistance decreases. We have only one hope: the sun. How long minutes can be! Time is acting so slow. To save sand, we drop an oxygen bottle, tied to a little parachute it swings down to the darkness. We have no idea, where we are. We can still realise a northbound direction, sometimes we can detect a high wind speed from the drift of the clouds. We estimate about 60 kilometres an hour. At about five a.m. day breaks, we are up to 6000 meters. From time to time we take some oxygen, this refreshes our bodies. Then the sun breaks through. But it is very, very low on the horizon. We realise, that we are far up in the north. In fact, we are drifting just a few kilometres below the Polar Circle. So our hope for getting warmer is destroyed, while the temperature is still decreasing. At 8 a.m. my body breaks down. I am at the end of my physical power. Down! But the vent is frozen and we don’t manage to pull it off. Resigned we let the balloon drift on. Even if we can see the sun now, we don’t have the power to fix our position with the sextant. We think, we are 700 to 800 kilometres north of Leningrad. Our pulses beats heavy, the loins are full of unbearable pain, again the tensed hands grip to the vent-line. With a last powerful jerk we rip off the plate, the balloon sinks!
Wonderful, how it is getting warmer and warmer. At 0 degrees C we already feel very warm. We fall through the clouds and still see nothing below us. The air is so stable, that our fall does not exceed more than 2 to 3 meters per second even without dropping ballast. Everything in the basket changes. What was hard and stiff before, now again becomes soft and wet, water drops from everywhere. At about 600 meters, we come out of the clouds and see the earth again. As far as the eye reaches, forests and lakes, lakes and forests. Spontaneously we both say: Finland.
With a speed of about 50 kilometres an hour we rush close to the tree tops. Below us is the ruffling water of a big lake, ahead of us an island with little, weathered, gnarled fir trees. An unforgettable beautiful picture. We look for settlements or other signs of human action. Far away, in a bay surrounded by fir-trees, we can see a lonesome fisherman in his canoe shaped wooden boat. On the other shore, a thin pillar of smoke rises from the forest, but nothing else can be seen from human beings or settlements
Meanwhile we have reached the island and cross it only a few centimetres above of the tree tops. Exactly in our track is an old giant of a tree, four times as high as the other firs. We don’t realise it until the balloon crashes against the brown trunk, the net gets caught in the branches thick as arms, and we swing around the trunk like in a carousel. All efforts, to get the balloon free, are useless, the time for it, allowed by the rules, is over, and we are still not on the ground, have landed against our will. We rip out, the gas escapes, the envelope falls on the firs, while the net stays spanned high up in the trees. For us, the Gordon Bennett Race is over.
Where are we? We cannot discover our giant lake with the island on the map. So we try, to find any indicator leading us to a human settlement. But our fairy island seems to be uninhabited. As far as the eye reaches, a white carpet of moss covers the ground, so in the first moment we thought, snow had already fallen. We think we see a path, but it is an illusion. Then my brave comrade tells: There comes a father with two children. With eager we look to the bush, but it is again an illusion, only some broken firs which looked like it. With a cry of cheer I discover the cabin of a charcoal burner. With big steps we walk across the blueberry bushes, covering almost the whole island, towards our new discovery, but it is again an illusion, just a big rock. So we separate. One of us walks to the shore, the other is heading towards the inner part of the island.
To draw attention, I shoot all our ammunition, the shots sound far over the water. Then a boat with two bearded men comes. I talk to them in German; but they only shook their heads. Also some sentences in Russia have not result. Shrugging their shoulders they press only one word over their lips: “Finski”. So we are in Finland. The sound of a motor then again draws our attention to the water. Over the wide plain a big, grey motorboat is heading for us. Soon we can recognise Russian soldiers with their typical long, grey brown coats. To their guns the bayonet is fixed. So Russia. The motorboat hits the stony beach, the soldiers jump out, an officer walks to us and asks us – if we feel well. Together we look for our balloon in the forest. Then we pack our instruments, while the soldiers study every detail with interest. Then we have a long, long trip with the motorboat across the lake to a little village, Wokonavelok. The commander of the border station welcomes us, leads us to a big room, orders tea, bread and butter, and, what was a big present for us, orders to heat up the huge oven. So we finally get out of the wet, which created so much pain for us within the last almost 24 hours. Around the oven hangs all of our trousseau, while we are sitting in our underwear and huge Russian felt boots, given to us by the commander, in front of the open fire and suck in the warmth.
Then we return to the island, accompanied by 15 soldiers, to recover the balloon. We want to save the fur-trees, but wood seems not to be of much value up here, without thinking about the soldiers cut 15 trees to create a huge open space. In the middle, lonely and abandoned, the giant fur, on which the net hangs down. It also falls down. Meanwhile it is night again. For 60 hours we are now on our legs and so tired, that we fall to the beds without further questions. Before, we have to unpack all of our instruments and present them for control. Camera and films are confiscated and sealed in a parcel.
A wonderful trip in the motorboat across Lake Kuito with its steep forested shores brings us and our material to Uchta, the main village of the garrison on the north end of the lake. We are lodged in the officers’ mess and have excellent food. To the commander, a nice man, we talk about our sorrows because of the wet balloon, it must be dried before shipping it by rail for 2000 kilometres to Warsaw. He knows an excellent and astonishing solution. The great gymnasium is emptied, the balloon is spread to the floor and the walls, and then the room is heated up to a temperature of 50 degrees for not less than 40 hours. The net is hung to another room like a fisher net and also dried for 40 hours at a temperature of 60 degrees. Day and night two soldiers have thrown wood to the ovens with no interruption. Then balloon ZURICH is packed well by Russian soldiers, put to a truck and transported across Karelia to the railway station Kiem on the White Sea. We drive ahead in a Ford, on a wide, but incredibly bad road. About 200 kilometres we drive exactly east, through forests and forests, passing blue idyllic lakes and huge rivers. From time to time we can see an abandoned log house, the home of a charcoal burner. Life up here close to the Polar Circle must be very hard and one of the soldiers, speaking a little German, explained, that the year before not less than 600 families have left the area.
The “Polar Arrow” brings us to Leningrad, where we arrive very “reduced” – we had no baggage with us and nothing to change – so the manager of the Grand Hotel Astoria in Leningrad refused to give us a room. First after our confirmation as Gordon Bennett pilots he changes his mind. The Russian Aero Club helps us. They also care for the transportation of our material to Warsaw at no charge. We spend an afternoon of interesting discussions with Russian stratosphere scientist and meteorologist, Professor Motschanoff, have a sight seeing trip of Leningrad, which had hosted the Gordon Bennett pilots already two years ago, an on goes the voyage as guests of Intourist to Moscow, where we take part in the efforts to find the lost Polish comrades of balloon L.O.P.P.. But Russian bureaucracy starts slowly and lot of time is lost. When the search and rescue planes were finally ready for take off, they could not leave because of the fog. So we also left to reach the home town of ZURICH III via Warsaw.
A journey of six thousand kilometres to unknown and strange areas far north is the result of our flight. It was hard and difficult, but also unforgettable beautiful. Big Belgium ace, Demuyter, became the winner, a well earned victory for the best of all.
The unlucky team from Augsburg, Ernst Frank and Hans Bauderer had sacrificed much money to pay for their new racing balloon. Still four month after the race, 7.500 out of 12.000 Reichsmarks, balloon and the travel had cost, was uncovered. So the cup for speed, offered for the first time, was only a little comfort. They had made the best average speed with 45,6 kilometres an hour.
Finally, let’s make a little detour to the time 30 years later. Until the end of the sixties, gas balloons where flown with a glued rip out panel. This was a little dangerous, if the old glue was not removed completely before closing the panel again, it might open in flight.
Two pilots then tested a rip out panel which was sewn and then closed with a tape. This was a big step forward and since then, all gas balloons flew with a rip-out panel secured like this. The two pilots were honoured as “inventors of the sewn rip-out panel” and always argued, which of them had the right to carry this title.
Why this is told here? In the 1936 race the French and the Belgium balloons appeared with a sewn and glued rip-out panel. The ballooning magazines printed accurate and long reports about it. The quarrel 30 years later was absolutely unnecessary.Return to 24th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett