The Gordon Bennett Race 1987 seen by a Pilot

On early Saturday morning, we are awaked by balloons, Franziska Reuscher inflates her hot air balloon right in front of our hotel. But even after this, it is impossible to continue sleep due to the noise of helicopters and hot air balloons.

Erich and me are not allowed to work. Reinhard Mattausch and Günter Oberseider, our ground-crew, as always, perform extraordinary inflation together with the team from Augsburg..

The weather offers the possibility, to fly high in direction of Yugoslavia, but also, to fly low out of the valley to southern Germany, to find an easterly wind component close to the ground there, which may lead us to Belgium or even England. The latter, I consider to be very difficult, Volker Kuinke wants to try the low way. We want to fly high.

The launch is again very impressive, like last year at Salzburg. The national anthem sounds and with 2 – 3 meters per second we climb to 3000 meters. To the north, we can see Mittenwald and Krün, later the valley of the river Inn with the towns of Innsbruck and Hall. We are heading east, then more and more we are turning right. Almost a full moon just some small clouds. We have a spectacular view of the Alps at night.

Our flight passes the Zillertal, the Gerlos-pass, the Salzachtal. Navigation must be done terrestrially, for there is no radio contact with VORs in the mountains. In the valley of the river Salzach we probably drop one shovel of sand too much, it turns right towards the slopes of the Großglockner, the Kitzsteinhorn and the Große Wiesbachhorn, 3564 meters high. Enormous turbulence pull us up at 5 meters per second, then again down at 6 meters per second. The situation isn’t funny! Erich dumps sand like a world champion, I am occupied with fixing our position, comparing the heights of the mountains in front with our altimeter and reading the vario. The flight goes parallel to the high alpine road of the Großglockner.

After the balloon has stabilized behind this main ridge of the Alps and our heartbeat had become normal again, we can see the lights of the valley of Gastein. In the lee of the main ridge, the flight slows down, we feel, as if we would not make any more progress at all. At 4 a.m. our position is 7 kilometres south of Spittal on the river Drau. We are exactly above an illuminated radio transmitting tower. The stock of ballast had already shrunk a lot, we hope for the sunrise to come soon. Slowly we move towards the basin of Klagenfurt, covered with clouds.

On the horizon we can see the first signs of the daybreak. Becoming brighter, we see two other balloons above the sea of clouds ahead of us. As we later learn, they are Helma Sjuts/Alex Schubert and Karl Spenger/Martin Messner. We are higher than they are, approach closer and overtake them. The clouds below us appear endless. To the south, like an island, the Karawanken rise above the clouds, to the north the Alps, we had just come over, ahead there is the front ridge to Graz and in the back we can also see the mountains of Italy. The horizon becomes red, the sun has to climb above another layer of clouds, finally it pulls us up with its warmth. Right before we reach Klagenfurt, the clouds end and we can see the ground.

The high altitude turns us further to the right, our heading is now 130 to 135 degrees, we will keep it the whole day. Vienna information passes us on to Zagreb information, crossing the pass of the Seeberg, we reach Yugoslavia. With the sun and the altitude, also our mood rises, but with only four bags of ballast left, we will not be able to stand a second night for sure. We keep the balloon as high as possible to make distance and fly along the valley of the river Save, arrive at Zagreb at 10:30 a.m., as the eagle flies it goes on via Sisak, Dubica to Banja Luka.

With the help of Lufthansa flight number 633 we manage to inform our chase-crew (they are at Villach) and pass a message to our relay station at Nürnberg.

We stay at the altitude until only three bags of ballast are left, they are reserved for the landing. A normal flight with passengers would have come to an end at Banja Luca, the area behind doesn’t look very good for landings. There are mountains again. The 75 kilometres we had flown on behind Banja Luka later assured our 3rd rank.

Below of us some kind of “Black Forest”. Navigation on a map of the 1:500.000 scale is a little difficult. Helpful is Sarajevo VOR, giving us a bearing of 324 degrees. First slowly, then faster and faster the balloon sinks. We want to land close to a village, but with three bags of ballast left, we have not much choice. Crossing the ridge of a mountain, we approach ground, the wind is low and often changes its direction. It blows us across a canyon, in which we don’t want to land. A little ballast let us climb again. Across the canyon we approach a larger meadow. Erich strongly pulls the valve, with 2 – 3 meters per second we hit the ground.

At once six young men are there, who carry us away from the barbed wire and help deflating the balloon. Communication is possible only by gestures. We hope to file our landing report soon. While Erich packs the balloon, I walk with one of the young men for half an hour across mountains and valleys to get a tractor. Always when we meet people, they talk to me, but except “dobr dan” and “dovidschenja” I know no word in serbo-kroatian language. With the tractor we return to the landing field. The balloon is already packed. We put it on the trailer, say farewell to the numerous helpers and drive on.

Erich and I wanted to go to the next town Travnik, the tractor brings us 20 kilometres in the wrong direction, to the village where our driver comes from. There is a little restaurant, but no telephone. Our request for something like that is not taken too serious by the people there, they want to have a party first! With the radio of the doctor, we can finally make contact to the militia, who reaches us 6 ½ hours after the landing. Now a lot of paperwork has to be done, the witnesses are questioned and the balloon is sealed in a garage.

By police car, we are brought 40 kilometres to Travnik to a hotel. Finally, at 1:30 a.m. I can report our safe landing by telephone. I also can reach our chase crew at Zagreb, then deep and healthy sleep comes.

Next morning at 8 a.m. Erich wakes me up. He had already been downtown and bought two toothbrushes and toothpaste. To our big surprise, Helmut Kocar, the crew chief of Joschi Starkbaum suddenly shows up with the crew at our breakfast. They had been at Sarajevo, the ATC there had sent them to us. My idea, that if the chase crew of the Austrian competitors are here, their balloon can’t be far away, was wrong. Joschi wins the race with 241 kilometres clear ahead and a landing at Titograd, close to the Albanian border.

I spend the rest of the morning writing post cards and buying all the stamps, they have on stock at Travnik, while Erich goes for the balloon together with the police. Shortly after 1 p.m. our chase crew shows up together with the observer Maximiliane Gogel and a little later, there is also Erich with the balloon. After the equipment is packed on the trailer and we have lunch, our return trip starts 24 hours after the landing.

To sum up. At 17 hours and 44 minutes it is my longest flight. With 611 kilometres it is my furthest balloon flight. It’s the same for Erich. It was the most difficult, but also most interesting flight. The third place pays for all the efforts. Preparations for the 32nd race 1988 have already begun, we are happy to be there again.

One can feel quite a lot of adventure in the report of Thomas. Even in the civilized world of 1987 there are areas without telephone, where the doctor has to use the radio in case of emergency. Even wilder, it happened to the winners of the race. Of this, the observer shall tell now, German Erich Ruckelshausen, living in Austria.

But first, an explanation of the subject “observer”: They are an independent witnesses and reporters to the race organization. They were not known at these long distance competitions until the 1986 race. But it proved well to use them. Before 1986, the competitors sent a landing confirmation with the address of two witnesses living at the landing area to the race organization, who then had to find out the exact landing spot using the available maps. The observers duty is to visit the landing spot, clearly mark it to his maps on the field and to be prepared for requests from the race organization. They may not be of the same nationality as the competitor, so it is assured, that they are neutral.

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