Book article about the 28th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett

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

Gordon Bennett Races had lost nothing of their fascination. It had become more difficult than in the old days, to stay within the set borders, but as we had seen, long flights were still possible. According to the rules, Poland was in charge to host the race of 1984, but renounced. This was, beside financial problems, also for political and geographical reasons. Right in the middle of nations that did not love ballooning very much, the balloons would soon have reached their limits. Poland gave back the honour of hosting the race to the F.A.I. and Switzerland stepped in and helped out. This country, rich in ballooning tradition, already had hosted the race in 1932 as a substitute, when the USA had not been able to host it. The race was invited to Zurich and the date was put to fall, because then the tendency for thunderstorms is less, as the statistics of the past 15 years, contributed by the Swiss meteorological institution, showed. The day of the launch was decided by the moon, for at full moon navigation is much easier for the pilots. The time for the launch was set by the air traffic control of the airport Zürich-Kloten which was close to the launch field. The controllers did not want to have balloons in the sky as long as there was the evening airplane air traffic, so the first balloon could not launch before 11 p.m. Short after midnight, all were on their journey. But before this happened, the organizers of the race had to solve a lot of other problems.

First of all, there was a problem with the transportation of the hydrogen. The balloons were no longer, like until 1938, filled with coal gas, which had been available in every larger town. Hydrogen had to be brought from a chemical factory to the launch field by a special transportation truck. Seven of these trucks were necessary. They had to be back to their factories in the evening. Originally, the launch was set for Sunday evening, October 14th. But for Sunday, no permission for driving these trucks could be obtained from the authorities for road traffic. What could be done? Inflating the balloons on Saturday and leaving them on the launch field for 24 hours. This would increase the risks. Hydrogen is easy inflammable (it becomes only if mixed with oxygen). Condensed in the special tanks of the trucks little could happen, but a whole night and a whole day on the launch field with the gas in the balloons, an accident might occur. So the organization put the date for launch to Saturday, the night before full moon.

This new date had to be discussed again with air traffic control at Zürich-Kloten. Permission for the flight of the balloons was given with a limitation of the maximum altitude, above the plains of northern Switzerland, only fight-level 80 (2700 meters) were permitted, over the Alps they were allowed to climb up to flight level 140 (4700 meters). At first in other countries the maximum altitude was put up to flight-level 190 (6300 meters). This was a big reduction to the tactical calculations of the competitors. An Ernest Demuyter (and several others) had gained their victories by climbing to high altitudes short after launch, to use the higher wind speeds up there. This was no longer possible due to the much heavier air traffic.

Also prior to the race were the Swiss organizers efforts to drill at least a little hole to the “Iron Curtain”. If something like this was tried by a neutral country like Switzerland, the chances for success might be better as if done by a nation, bound to a block. Dr. Ernst Iselin, in charge for the organization of the race, tried it on two different levels: On one side, he approached the eastern countries by the Swiss foreign office, on the other side via the national aero clubs. After lots of applications and requests, may telephone calls and fax messages, the answers came in. German Democratic Republic, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria rejected any fly in and fly across because of “full airspace”. Hungary and Romania opened their borders. If the wind would come from the northwest, a runway down to the Black Sea would have been open. Even if there was only a little success in the year 1984, our Swiss friends had put out their feelers, cleared the terrain and set an important foundation for a change of mind in several countries of the eastern block. Balloonists of the whole western world owe them gratitude for this.

The pilots were not involved in the difficult and long discussions prior to the race. They discussed the successful Atlantic crossing of 56-years old American Joe Kittinger one month before (September 18th), who had landed with his balloon ROSIE O’GRADY BALLOON OF PEACE after a flight of 5600 kilometres near Savona in Italy. For the first time, a pilot flying solo had managed the crossing, after flying 84 hours.

Not much attention was paid to the first ladies crew at a Gordon-Bennett-Race. Women’s liberation had never been necessary in ballooning. Already in 1913 Madame Goldschmidt flew the race together with René Rumpelmayer, in the race 1983 Helma Sjuts from Germany and Nini Boesman from the Netherlands were among the pilots. Nikki Caplan and Jane Buckless from the USA were considered as competitors like all the others.

On the day of the launch, Saturday, October 13th, 1984, weather forecast reported a high-pressure situation typical for fall, with high clouds and winds from 80 degrees, it could not have come better. The flight went to west south west and the pilots could decide to fly around the Swiss Jura mountains in the south or in the north. At daybreak they arrived in the area of Lake Neuchatel and drifted to Burgundy, passing the control zone of Geneva airport in the north. At about noon, the Americans Ben Abruzzo and Dewey Reinhard had to solve a dangerous situation. On their new, nettles Raven balloon DOUBLE EAGLE IX the rip panel opened and the balloon started to fall at 5 meters per second. 400 kilograms of ballast, the heavy batteries and the oxygen-bottles went overboard, to stop the fall. They managed a safe landing at Gland on Lake Geneva. At late afternoon, the three Germans, the two Americans still in the race, the French and one Swiss finished the race and landed in the area of Macon – Roanne – Lyon, Swedish Hans Akerstedt landed before nightfall near Clermont Ferrant. The two Polish balloons, two Swiss and the Austrian flew into the second night.

Short after dawn on Monday morning, the Polish balloon flown by Ireneusz Cieslak/Waldemar Ozga had reached the Atlantic coast at La Rochelle. Almost the same spot was the landing field of Swiss Peter Peterka/Rolf Gross six hours later. With 749 kilometres both crews were ranked fourth. Winner of the year before, Stefan Makne and his new co-pilot Jerzy Czerniawski had flown lower in the last hours, getting a heading more to the left, southwards. Northwest of the little town of Royan he reached the sea, 21 kilometres more than his fellow citizen Cieslak and the Swiss Peterka/Gross. It was only good for 3rd rank, the cup, they had hoped for, was missed. The strategy, to fly low and left, was much more consistently performed by the Austrians Josef Starkbaum/Gert Scholz. With their rented, heavy balloon BASEL they could not have flow higher. They crossed the Gironde, then the narrow peninsula Medoc and landed directly on its west beach. 10 kilometres more than Makne/Czerniawski, good for rank 2. For the first time since 1932 an Austrian team was in the race again, and with such a good result.

Winner of the race became Swiss Karl Spenger with co-pilot Martin Messner. Flying 793 kilometres in 43 hours they gained the third victory for their country after 1908 and 1921. The distance they had covered would have been enough for winning also in earlier days in 1924 or 1928. The name of the co-pilot sounds familiar, in the year 1908 it was Emil Messner, grandfather of Martin, who made the dramatic flight across the North Sea as co-pilot of Theo Schaeck. It is unique in the history of these races till today, that two men from one family appear in the list of winners.

Martin Messner reported about this race from the beginning to the end. No view to the preparations and the situation in the basket can be more authentically.

Return to 28th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett