33rd Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett

Lech, Austria, September 16, 1989


1Josef Starkbaum
Gerd Scholz
AUT911.20 km37:33:00Batorliget, Debrecen (HUN)
2Thomas Fink
Erich Märkl
GER894.10 km39:32:00Nyiracsad (HUN)
3Joe Kittinger
Robert Snow
USA809.40 km34:01:00Hejocpapi (HUN)
4Gerold Signer
Silvan Osterwalder
SUI748.40 km25:52:00Tisovec (F_CHE)
5Karl Spenger
Martin Messner
SUI731.90 km42:47:00Namestovo (F_CHE)
6Alfred Nater
Otto Anderegg
SUI691.20 km22:07:00Ferriego (HUN)
7Helma Sjuts
Alfred Derks
GER669.90 km31:59:00Sed-Liste (F_CHE)
8Randy Woods
Gordon Boring
USA576.10 km22:01:00Piesti-any (F_CHE)
9Waldemar Ozga
Piotr Szary
POL510.60 km20:53:00Loimersdorf (AUT)
10Lawrence Hyde
Charles Dewey Reinhard
USA496.70 km20:27:00Sopron (HUN)
11Stefan Makne
Grzegorz Antkowiak
POL486.40 km22:56:00Himberg (AUT)
12Volker Kuinke
Gustav Vormbäumen
GER272.20 km20:19:00Igelbach (GER)

Book Article

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

Start: Lech am Arlberg, Austria September 16.

How quickly changing situations are considered to be normal can be seen from the reports written shortly after the flight. Two month before the peaceful revolution happened in the German Democratic Republic and all the changes which came to the whole communist block, things, that appear normal today, were a sensation. Will anybody remember in a few years, how completely the "Iron Curtain" separated the people? How a sport, crossing borders was put into chains?

One situation in this race makes us laughing, looking back. The Swiss crew Spenger/Messner had already crossed former Czechoslovakia, when they decided to land behind the border at Poland. By radio, they ordered their chase crew, to drive to Poland. The Austrian observer, travelling with them in the car, had no visa for Poland. The ground crew thought, they might be back immediately after recovering the balloon, so they left back the Austrian on the Czechoslovakian side of the border, to wait. It is not important, that the wind turned, the pilot had made a mistake in navigation, or the borderline had a corner at this place because they landed unfortunately not in Poland, but in Czechoslovakia. The crew was now split, pilots and observer (without knowing about each other) in one, the chase-crew in another country. When the chase crew wanted to travel back to Czechoslovakia, the entry was not permitted, because their transit visa had already been used up. To return to Czechoslovakia, they had to request a new visa from the Czech consulate.

It took two days, until they got a new visa from Krakau. Then they could pick up the observer and went for the pilots and the balloon.

On September 6th, 1989, the Austrian Aero Club received a telex message from the Department of Traffic of the German Democratic Republic, Head Office Civil Aviation:

Dear ladies and gentlemen,

Concerning your request of June 29th, 1989, I would like to advise you, that the entry of the airspace and the landing on the territory of the German Democratic Republic is permitted for the competitors of the 33rd Gordon Bennett Balloon Race between September 15th and 17th 1989, if it is required by the meteorological conditions.

This was followed by some sanctions, but they were quite normal and could be performed easily. Doing this, the German Democratic Republic had reacted positively on a request for the first time. All the years before, the entry was never permitted, due to "overcrowded airspace", if they answered at all. About one year later, the German Democratic Republic did not exist anymore.

The cheering about this good news came to a quick end, when the headquarter of the US army withdrew their permission from 1988, to enter the ADIZ, the day before launch. (The ADIZ, Air Defence and Identification Zone, was a strip, 40 kilometres wide, along the borders to the communist block, in which ballooning was not permitted). No begging by telephone from the race officials could change this decision of the mighty ones. It finally was American competitor Joe Kittinger, retired colonel of the US forces, who convinced his former comrades to change their minds. A short time before launch, permission for entry was received.

On the other side, now somebody of the Yugoslavian administration felt ignored or otherwise treated bad, on the day of the launch, they sent the prohibition to enter or land. Rumania also could not decide, to open its borders, the Soviet Union was not even asked as the organizers of the race considered it as improbable to fly into their territories. So entry permission was given for the following countries of the communist block: German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. And that was exactly the direction, to which the meteorologist promised, the voyage would go.

When meteorologist Dr. Pümpel gave his prognosis on the day before launch, only very optimistic people believed him, because it was raining cats and dogs. Many began to get used to the idea that the race would be cancelled or postponed for meteorological conditions for the first time. This had happened never before although it may have been appropriate in some years. Also never before was the race launched in the high mountains. Seefeld (1987) was, compared to Lech am Arlberg, as being in a "hilly landscape".

Dr. Pümpel proved to be right. On Saturday the rain stopped, and from noon on, the situation clearly improved. At 6 p.m. the balloons were inflated and almost no cloud could be seen in the sky. It could begin. After some speeches of the Major of Lech, Kommerzienrat Schneider, and the Governor of Vorarlberg, Mister Purtscher, the first balloon carried to the platform was new D-COLUMBUS, finished three days before launch and flown by Americans Joe Kittinger and Bob Snow. On the tops of the surrounding mountains the mountain rescue service illuminated fires. Exactly at 8 p.m. the American national anthem was played, at 8:01 p.m. the balloon lifted off. In a sequence of three minutes the other balloons followed and at 8:40 p.m. the launch was completed. Still for a long time the beacons of the balloons could be seen in the sky over Lech, and many spectators felt sand in their hair on the way home.

The drawn launch sequence at the "Schmelzhofwiese" in Lech on September 16th, 1990:

USA Joe Kittinger/Robert Snow D-COLUMBUS
POL Waldemar Ozga/Piotr Szary SP-BZR POLONIA
SUI Gerold Signer/Silvan Osterwalder HB-BJB SOLVAY
GER Thomas Fink/Erich Märkl D-AUGSBURG
AUT Josef Starkbaum/Gert Scholz OE-PZS POLARSTERN
USA Lawrence "Fred" Hyde/ Dewey Reinhard HB-MOTOR COLUMBUS
POL Stefan Makne/Grzegorz Antkowiak SP-BZO POLONEZ
SUI Karl Spenger/Martin Messner HB-BFC JURA
GER Helma Sjuts/Alfred Derks D-CONTINENTALE
USA Randy Woods/Gordon Boring D-ASPEN
SUI Alfred Nater/Otto Anderegg HB-BGN BAD ZURZACH
GER Volker Kuinke/Gustav Vormbäumen D-EUREGIO

On Sunday morning, hot air balloons woke up the citizens of Lech with the noise of their burners. They should have drawn attention to the event the day before, now they finished it for weather reasons.

At that time, the gas balloons were already flying over Upper Austria heading east. The meteorologist had forecast a wind coming from the southwest in lower layers. Flying to the northeast would mean the most possible distance. But this wind was so slow and it would have taken days to reach the Baltic Sea at Poland. The experienced pilots had realized this soon, and kept away from leaving the high altitudes with the faster winds.

On Sunday evening, the first landing reports were received in the competition center. The two Polish crews had some language problems with ATC at the airport of Vienna and landed not far from there. Germans Kuinke/Vormbäumen had flown the lower altitudes, were pushed too much to the north and realized, that their chance was gone. They landed that evening at Vilshofen in Bavaria. American doctor "Fred" Hyde thought of the health of his patients in American and was afraid that his absence was not good for them. He landed as soon as he saw Hungarian soil underneath him. Randy Woods and Gordon Boring came back to earth in Czechoslovakia northeast of Vienna before nightfall, at the same time Swiss Alfred Nater and Otto Anderegg were over the airport of Budapest and finished their flight there.

Six crews intended to fly the second night, but two of them could not do it Gerold Signer and Silvan Osterwalder from Switzerland had reached the east end of Czechoslovakia in the fast layer. It was 10 p.m. local time when they landed. Another six hours longer our irrepressible Helma Sjuts flew. In January she had become 70 years "young" and her co-pilot, Alfred Derks was 31 years younger. The reason for her landing was not a problem of her age, the controllers of Bratislava airport had ordered her to a low altitude and then sent her up again. This had used up a lot of ballast. Now she had three bags of sand left and was ahead of the Carpathian mountains. Her decision, to land in front of the mountains for safety reasons, was right, even if the landing had to be done in the middle of the night. At Ostrava, former Mährisch-Ostrau, they came back to earth in a field. There was of course no help in the middle of the night, so protected by the basket and covered with the envelope, they slept till sunrise.

Monday morning saw four crews still in the air, three of them already far down in Hungary. Joe Kittinger and Bob Snow gave up after sunrise. They made 809 kilometres and ranked 3. Joschi Starkbaum and Gert Scholz had again (as often) the best sense for the fastest winds. Before noon, they were on the border between Hungary and Romania, flying on was not permitted. 911,2 kilometres in 37 hours, no other balloon in this race could have come farther. The fifth victory in a row was safe. Thomas Fink and Erich Märkl came close up to them, but two hours later. Austrians and Germans went to the same restaurant for lunch, while Karl Spenger and Martin Messner were still in the air.

The result of Swiss Spenger/Messner shows, how much slower the wind closer to the ground was. They flew more than five hours longer than Starkbaum/Scholz, but 180 kilometres shorter. This was only good for rank 5. Their landing adventure was described earlier.

On Wednesday the results were finalized. The organization staff at Lech had done good work, together with the outstanding performance of the observers. On Friday, seven crews and the officials met for the awards ceremony in the hotel "Post". The Americans, who had travelled home and two crews from northern Germany, who considered a second trip to Lech to be too far, missed one of the most solemn ceremonies. For the ballooning in Germany, rank 2 for Fink/Märkl was the best result since 1928, so for the awards dinner even the President of the German balloon-federation, Walter Müller, came from Essen. The party ended after daybreak but nobody felt sorry for the long night with friendly meetings and talking among sportsmen of different nations.

A Gordon Bennett Race, that can be compared with those before the war, was over. It brought new development in material and equipment to our sport. Four completely new balloons with much lighter fabric were put into service. The distances and durations they achieved, prove the quality of the material and the crews. The lightest balloons, POLARSTERN and AUGSBURG, were not at their limit, when they landed. They transported quite a lot of sand from Austria to Hungary and could have flown another day, if Romania would have been open. Starkbaum/Scholz as the faster ones, surely would have won even then, they are absolutely the best. Thomas Fink is the youngest in the leading group, he provides hope for German ballooning in future races. He talks about his flight to the Romanian border:

First we tried, according to the strategy we had chosen before, to fly low, to leave the valley of the river Lech to the north. It worked slowly, but it worked. 2 to 3 kilometres north of the Lech it turned more and more towards a rock face, so we had to dump ballast to stay clear of the mountain. We climbed to 2900 meters ASL, where we sped up. In a quite stable flight we flew to the northeast across southern Bavaria that night. Such a night in a balloon with full moon over the Alps is always an unforgettable experience. After the launch, the sky in the west was still bright, in the east already dark, the mountain rescue service had set up fires on all the mountain tops around. Later we could see the valley of Obersdorf and to the foothills of the Alps. To the east, the mountain Zugspitze was a good point for orientation and we soon realized that we would pass it in the north. The flight passed the town of Oberammergau, north of Gmund on the Tegernsee, between Rosenheim and Bad Aibling and north of the Chiemsee. Over Seebruck, our logbook reads: 3:13 a.m., altitude 2880 meters, 20 bags of ballast, 28 kilometres an hour in direction of 73 degrees, Salzburg and Munich visible.

Crossing the river Salzach, we entered Austria. At sunrise, the heading became exactly east. We were curious, what altitude our balloon would now reach by superheating, because we had already been up to 3100 meters for a short time at night. To our surprise, the maximum was 3380 meters and it seems that a new and well sealed balloon has lot of advantages. We did not see many of the other balloons at that time, but radio contact with balloons from Augsburg and the competitors of the annual "Autumn Balloon Race" at Gendorf offer the opportunity, to send greetings home and to our relay station. As the bee flies, the track was heading straight towards the town of Wiener Neustadt and the atmosphere on board was good.

ATC at Vienna airport made a perfect work of guiding the traffic around the balloons. At 2:20 p.m. we reached Hungarian territory at Drassburg for the first time. Soon it went back to Austria, across the lake of Neusiedel, then again Hungary. Unfortunately, it became slower and turned more and more left towards Czechoslovakia. We had to think about our strategy for the rest of the race. With 17 bags of ballast left at 5:10 p.m. there was no question, to fly the second night. Shall we stay high and fly on over Hungary further to the east, or shall we try to reach Poland by flying over Czechoslovakia, where we would have more space to fly on? We decided for the first option.

Crossing the border from Hungary to Czechoslovakia was quite normal, as usual one controller handed us over to the next one. A surprise, when Bratislava Radar explained, that visual flights at night were not permitted in Czechoslovakia. At once I asked, if instrumental flights with balloons are permitted. No problem, so for the first time in my life, I flew officially IFR with a balloon. When the sunset at 7:25 p.m. near Nova Zamky, we had 11 bags of ballast left and during the next night we needed only three of them.

The track was now heading towards the High Tatra, which Erich did not love so much. Suddenly, in front of us cumuli were rising, obviously created by cold air slipping uphill on the mountains. To stay clear of them, we sacrificed one bag climbing to 3300 meters where we suddenly had a heading of 105 degrees. With this track, we were over Hungary again some hours later. At 10:45 p.m. the cross bearings with the VOR as well as our transponder echoes on the screen of Bratislava Radar indicated, that we had reached the Hungarian border at Balasagyarmat. If the flight continued like this, we would have reached the Hungarian/Romanian border, which we were not allowed to cross, before sunrise. To avoid this, we descended at 2:30 a.m. to fly low and more slowly for a while. This happened close to the Hungarian town of Eger. Close to the ground, it was 20 to 30 degrees warmer than in the altitude, and soon all of our equipment started to fog up and our maps became damp. Slowly we drifted at some hundred meters to the east-north-east. Estimated 15 degrees C, together with the humidity, was felt by us as almost tropical. We believed, that with a track between 110 and 70 degrees as we had the day before, we could easily fly into the best tip of the borderline.

So we climbed back to 2000 meters. After a spectacular sunrise (in a movie it would have been blamed as kitsch), we had to realize that we were pushed more and more to the south and there was no wind at any altitude bringing us more to the north. So a little after 8 a.m. local time we were already close to the border and the chase crew was right underneath!

Having still seven bags left and flying over perfect terrain for landing, I tried to gamble a little. In fact, I managed to bring the balloon a few more kilometres to the north making our total distance a little longer. But we then had to realize, that we would need more than the whole day, to reach our optimal target. It also seemed improbable, that a wind to the north, to be found only in a layer of 200 meters thickness, would keep the whole day. At 11:15 a.m. we decided to land. Our balloon performed flawlessly, as it did the whole flight. One pull on the vent, we descended, the balloon stabilized by its own. Another pull on the vent, and we went down. Even for the landing without using the trail rope, we did not need more than three shovels of sand. To allow our chase crew to see the landing live, we hovered for a few minutes close to the ground. When the Volkswagenbus appeared from behind the forest, we landed at 11:45 a.m., very smooth.

Erich and I shook hands for we had both broken our personal records in distance and duration. A great hello also came from the chase crew, who had surpassed a wearing long voyage. Packing the balloon was routine, then we drove to the next village, where observer Oliver di Giorgo could get a stamp mark for confirmation before we continued to the next larger town, Debrecen.

Soon our observer discovers a nice hotel and we all are happy to have a shower we had missed for so long. It is the same hotel, where Joschi Starkbaum, Gert Scholz and their crew stay. At least at the settlement after the landing, we had levelled up with them. In the evening, we all go by taxi to the Puszta for a typical Hungarian dinner on a horse ranch (also organized by Oliver), followed by ten hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep.

The next morning we went to the police department for immigration together with our observer and a lady from the hotel as interpreter. We were in a country which required visas but we neither had one nor a registration of entry in our passports. After the gentlemen there, having read the permissions of their government, we had got from the competition centre in English and Hungarian, they were convinced of our innocence, congratulated us for our balloon flight and promised to organize the needed documents as soon as possible. The guys there were really very friendly and helpful, but "as soon as possible" is measured with a rubber tape in Hungarian offices. Not before noon could we leave for home. On dead straight roads we quickly passed the Puzsta for Budapast, where I took a Lufthansa flight to get back to work quickly. The crew continued for home via Vienna and Munich.

I am sure, that with this flight we had come close to the limits of our personal abilities. Why does man do this, having a comfortable bed at home? Any kind of sport, performed extremely, is connected with a little madness. To experience the nature at such a flight is a compensation, as well as knowing, to be among the best in the classic discipline of ballooning in long distance flight.

Joschi Starkbaum also wrote a report of his flight. It is shortened in already known details.
We had changed the construction of our balloon to "nettles", therefore another procedure of inflation is required. It is much more simple than the normal one, but the launch masters are not used to it. So I had to supervise the inflation by myself, which is not appropriate before such a long flight, sleeping would be better. But packing after the flight is much more easy then. Before launch I managed to find the time for a short sleep.

We were number five to take off. Looking to the other balloons, we realized, that up to at least 1000 meters above ground there was no determined speed. We were not completely filled and quite light, so we had a quick climb and discovered at 2500 meters a drift heading 60 degrees with a speed of 32 kilometres an hour, an optimal situation.

Slowly the noise from the launch field calmed down and we were surrounded by a wonderful quietness in a mountain world illuminated by the moonlight. For a while we just enjoyed the overwhelming impression and did totally forget, that we were in a competition. We followed the valley of the river Lech. After two hours my friend and co-pilot Gert Scholz took the controls and I laid down to sleep.

When Gert woke me up and told me, that the wind had turned more to the right, we were approaching Rosenheim. On the easterly track it went on over the Chiemsee, Oberndorf, the Attersee and the Traunsee. So the wind was still turning further to the right and a flight to Yugoslavia became probable. Contrary to the years before, we had no permission for entry this year. So we decided, to descend to the valley of the river Krems over Micheldorf, to wait there, until the high pressure area, proceeding to the east, would catch up to us, so we could continue with winds from the west again.

The ground wind pushed us slowly to the north, which met our intentions. After about two hours, at sunrise, a yellow balloon appeared in the west. Our bearings indicated, that it was flying straight to the east. So we climbed again and proceeded. First to the east, but then again turning to the southeast. Over Gusswerk, the wind turned back again, we followed the valley of the river Hall heading directly towards the Schneeberg.

Contacting Vienna approach we had realized that our transponder failed. But with accurate position reports we flew across Vienna airspace and entered Hungary with no problems. Then Thomas Fink, flying a little higher with his new lighter build balloon AUGSBURG, approached our position to within 1 kilometre. Together we flew in the direction of Györ for a while, but did not reach it. At Gabcikova we crossed the Danube and were now in Czechoslovakia. At sunset AUGSBURG, flying a little more to the north, stood back more and more, until it disappeared from sight. Now the wind turned right again and at Balassagyrmatt we were again over Hungary.

A flight above the closed layer of clouds began. The upper surface of the clouds was rough and illuminated by the moon. From time to time bulges did shoot up for 300 to 500 meters and broke down again after 2 or 3 minutes. A phantastic spectacle! After we had seen enough, we slept alternately. Though we had managed it, to spread the position reports, we had originally been ordered to be given every 15 minutes, to one hour by the salami tactic, our rest was not disturbed too much.

Two hours after we had passed Miskolc we could see the earth again. Our chase crew was always within the reach of our radio. While we were flying over Czechoslovakia, they drove parallel on Hungarian main roads, thus preventing two border crossings. At 3 a.m. we were only 30 kilometres away from the Romanian border. We did not want to land at night. So we descended slowly which reduced our speed and improved our heading to the left for a few degrees. Sunrise found us only 10 kilometres away from the border drifting towards the village of Ömböly, where we could have landed. To our great surprise, we found a wind from the west with 10 – 12 kilometres an hour just between 20 and 60 meters above ground. Because we still had sufficient ballast, we used this wind for the next two hours and flew parallel to the border. Then the wind became weaker and turned to southeast. No improvement was possible anymore, so we finally landed at the village of Batorliget, 3 kilometres from the Romanian border. Our computer on board indicates 912 kilometres from the place of launch.

Our excellent ground-crew was at the basket 3 minutes after our landing, the militia 5 minutes later. The paperwork was done quickly, also the packing of the balloon. With no local currency in our pocket, we tried to find a bureau de change, which we discovered 3 hours later in Debrecen, 80 kilometres away. While Gert was changing money, phoning and looking for a good hotel, Thomas Fink and Erich Märkl came along the street and told us, they had already checked in at a good hotel. In this discipline they had beaten us! And what’s about their landing position? After studying the map we determined, that we were ahead. Thomas was disappointed first, but recovered quickly. And the others? – No matter, we couldn’t change anything anymore.

As quick as possible we drove to the hotel to have a shower. Then I wanted to lay down on the bed just for a few minutes, but wake up more than 8 hours later in the middle of the night. Such a balloon flight must be quite strenuous.