The Gordon Bennett Race 1987 seen from Starkbaums Ground Crew on a Gordon Bennett Chase

On the phone (as often, I have not understood the name of the person calling), I’m asked, if I had time to take part at a Gordon Bennett Race as an observer. Of course and with fun, for until now, I had seen gas balloons only from the distance.

The reception party at Seefeld in Tyrol on Friday evening appears very solemn for somebody, who had only to deal with hot air until then. I am reminded of the difference between motor and glider pilots, but here you meet many well known faces from the hot air group. At a sophisticated dinner I learn, that the Gordon Bennett Races are more important than the gas world championships. I cannot decide if this is so.

Trucks carry the gas, to inflate the round balls, fixed to the ground by nets and sandbags. Strange procedures can be watched. Gert Scholz had become a “master of glue”, with an endless number of tapes he tries to seal the envelope. I have doubts, if this will turn out well. Seeing the result, Gert must have done good work.

The launch field right next to the wonderful chapel of Seefeld has found extraordinary frame with this surrounding. I had known this little church only from the air, when it had to serve as turn point for my glider flights from Turnau.

The observers get announced, to which crew they belong and can make contact with “their” balloon. I find myself at Starkbaum/Scholz, defeaters of the title. At that moment, I don’t get the idea, that this means my membership to the long distance drivers. When I found out, that the crew would leave immediately after the launch of the balloon, I became a little jealous about those comrades, who may sleep some hours or even the whole night, before their crew chases the balloon.

It has been dark for a while, when balloon after balloon is lifted to a platform, illuminated by floodlights. The national anthem sounds, the hands are put off, and the balloon flies away. For a long time, one still can see the flashes of the strobe lights. Where will they fly? Even in this late hour, I would not have dreamed, that one of the balls would land at Regensburg, but others close to the Albanian border in Yugoslavia. With a little baggage I enter the brand new chase vehicle.

At once we leave with a speed like hell. Soon the car is chased up to the Gerlos-pass. The driver takes the bends even sharper, as they are in nature. My effort, to sleep on the back seat, is in vain. I feel sick. The balloon travels with quite a good speed.

At daybreak we are at Spieled on the Austrian/Yugoslavian border. In a poor room, chairs still on the tables, we manage to get a breakfast.

The balloon gains a lead, but this seems to be no problem. Wrong! After we had crossed Put, coming from Marlboro, our driver stops on an open road, because it’s time for radio contact. Like they were grown out of the earth, suddenly two soldiers with levelled machine pistols stand in front and beside of the car! We were quite astonished. Just driving away was impossible. Much later, we learned, that behind a huge corn field, there was a military station.

Who could have known this? We had only seen a little farm, no warning signs or anything else. We only had time to tell the balloon, that we are in trouble and go to be captured Then the use of the radio was prohibited.

We had to wait long, until the police came to guide us back to the police station at Put. Our armed friends of course had no idea of any common foreign language. They also could not show any friendly faces. It takes an eternity, until a whole commission from Marlboro arrives. Good for us: Someone speaks German!

Our offence must be a big one, we have individual interrogation. First aggressive, later a little more friendly. I am very angry. With some sound of excuse, we are finally set free. This bad joke had taken about five hours. The balloon is far away of course.

The organization of the race must be blamed for not supplying the crews with copies of the permissions of the different countries. This should include the remark, that radio contact is permitted.

At 2:15 p.m. we may leave Put. According to a request, the crew does at 3 p.m. at the airport of Zagreb, the balloon shall be at Banja Luka. At 6:30 p.m. we have the first, but also last radio contact with Starkbaum/Scholz. Position of the retrieve Sla Brod, position of the balloon east of Sarajevo. Well, we know at least the direction.

Trying, to do something for our empty stomachs in Sarajevo at 11 p.m. becomes a piece of art. We discover a restaurant, offering pizzas. The poor illumination protects them from a critical inspection. I believe, this was good. The waiter was very quick, not missing at soccer game with the use of two tv sets.

Stefan, our driver, loves his job. With the four wheel transmission, he bumps across unpaved roads through fields and forests to the top of the hills in the middle of the night. From there, he wants to contact the balloon by radio. Of course, it doesn’t work. Helmut sleeps during this shaking, I can’t manage it.

On Monday morning at 6 a.m. we are at the airport of Sarajevo. From AIS we can get the information: Our balloon has landed at the mountain ridge of Vlasic near Travnik. Thanks goodness! But something is wrong. Have they flown back? The spot is about 100 kilometres northwest of Sarajevo! Strange! It takes some time, until we have found the only hotel in Travnik. In the door, we meet Thomas Fink. Our question: “Oh, you are also here?” – the answer: “What do you mean with also, we are the only ones here!”

Our faces don’t look very intelligent at that moment. But soon we’ve got it: AIS at Sarajevo had mixed up our balloons. A good breakfast together makes our disappointment disappear. But, where in hell is our balloon?

After an almost endless time waiting we manage to phone. They are at the Albanian border. We have to hurry up, so that they don’t have to wait too long. So we choose the direct way. Doing this, I learned a lot about road and dam construction in Yugoslavia.

I think, we bumped along these gravel roads for about 100 kilometres. Huge clouds of dust mark our “road”. Finally, there is again a paved road, but soon it will become dark. Then the huge lake comes in sight, enormously wide swampy areas, almost nowhere a house or other roads, the dangerous border close by, and all of this framed by high, steep, totally tree covered mountains. How can a balloon land there? How can we find our friends?

After a long search, we come to the nice village of Vipazar. The owner of a restaurant, who speaks German welcomes us – he knows everything!! The balloon has landed at morning (6:46 a.m.) on a narrow road. The balloon was confiscated and is now at the police station. Joschi was arrested. Scholz could escape to phone out of this region at Bar, about 60 kilometres away. That was the way, how we could get news about the landing. Then Gert Scholz gave himself up to the police, to clear up the case together with Joschi. Short time ago, they have been set free again. At this “German” restaurant, we eat three kinds of fish from the huge fresh water lake, of which three quarters already belongs to Albania. A happy end! Joschi had reserved rooms in a quite noble hotel. We sleep like deaths.

On Tuesday morning we first have a good breakfast. Then Joschi and me drive to the landing site. I don’t know, how one can land with such a huge balloon on such a narrow little road, without destroying anything. We meet an eye witness, who had seen the landing. He writes down his address for me by his own hands. He was impressed, when the balloon climbed down a steep slope to the street to land there. So am I! Still today, I can’t believe, how one can fly balloon in such a terrain, but to know how comes from experience!

Hair stands on end when we heard, how the police handled the balloon at the transport after confiscation. The envelope was just pulled to a very rusty truck. No question, what could have happened, if on this wreck one edge of a tin plate would have been bent up. This situation had only one advantage: We did not have to care for carrying the balloon away from the landing spot.

Quite comfortable we start our way home. All are satisfied: Starkbaum/Scholz have won the cup for the third time. This had happen only once in the past: to somebody from Belgium in the 1920th. An extraordinary performance – with a hired balloon.

After another night at Mostar we finally reach home. The “racing community” is over and we return to where we came from.

We have now seen the flight of rank 3 from the air, the flight of rank one from the ground. Something must be added to the flight of Joschi Starkbaum/Gert Scholz. Their track in a medium altitude (about 8.000 ft) made the balloon drift a little further to the east as did Fink/Märkl. They were faster and stood out of the turbulences in the area of the Grossglockner. In the first night, it looked, as if they could make it to Hungary, but at Sarajevo the wind turned more to the right, which made accurate checks of the position necessary, because of the impassable border to Albania. Turning further right, flying to Greece also had to be given up. Behind Titograd, which they reached at the middle of the night, they had to descent. At poor visibility, Starkbaum discovered a basin shaped valley, which he could illuminate with his lights and in which he could stabilize the balloon hovering until daybreak. Only the bats have been shocked about this unwelcome guest to their home. At sunrise, Joschi Starkbaum dumped a little ballast and flew the balloon across the ridge, cruised for another 2 ½ hours to find an appropriate landing field until he finally decided for the little road due to a lack of other opportunities.

What happened to the others? 10 balloons were ready for take-off at Seefeld. The American crew Jaques Soukup/Mark Sullivan withdrew. Having no experience flying balloon in the mountains, they considered it too risky, to fly at night. This decision earns our respect as safety comes first in any kind of air traffic. From the nine launched balloons, eight choose to fly high across the Alps, only Bradley/Reinhard stood low, flew as forecasted out of the mountains at Mittenwald, but made only 176 kilometres in 18 hours of flight and landed at Saal near Regensburg.

No only Starkbaum/Scholz but also Spenger/Messner flew a second night. Even if they also had to fight hard at the Großglockner right at the beginning of the flight and used up lot of ballast, they took profit from their envelope, about 150 kilograms lighter than the others. They had sufficient ballast on stock. Monday evening at 8 p.m. they were about 100 kilometres south of Banja Luka, when the wind turned and pushed them back slowly. They tried to fly as slow as possible and they were sure, that they could equalize this drift back at higher altitudes the next day. Then they climbed to 5000 meters and flew south-easterly with little ballast to Arilje, where they landed after the longest flight of this Gordon Bennett Race in a remote area at 4:25 p.m.. Before, they had heard a message from the radio, telling them, they would be leading in the race. For Karl Spenger this was a very bad false information, he thinks, he would have had the chance, to make the missing 52 kilometres to Starkbaum. About this fact, and also about the other balloons, Dr. Ernst Iselin has to tell something in his rapport. Ernst Iselin was the president of the international jury.

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