Book article about the 35th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett

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

It is now the third race, to which my wife Hanne and me are travelling from Nürnberg to the village of Lech am Arlberg in Vorarlberg. We therefore know the way so we remember the many meetings we had before with our friends, who were all involved in this Gordon Bennett Cup.

Real friendship had developed between the Austrian organizers and competitors and us two volunteers from Germany, since I had met Gert Scholz and Joschi Starkbaum in Vienna, when they lugged the huge statue of the fifth Gordon Bennett Cup to the press conference of the European championships in hot air ballooning in 1986. We had met before, had been to several balloon-meetings and competitions together, but it was only a friendly knowing and respecting each other.

Gert Scholz, outstanding organizer of many balloon competitions, was event director of the European Championships in 1986 and of the World Championships a year later in Schilleithen in Austria. On his side his charming wife Maria Scholz-Fischhuber who manages a public relation agency. The success in organization of these championships convinced the Austrian Aero Club, to charge this group also with the management of the Gordon Bennett Race, after it had been done by different organizations in the years 1986 and 1987. Gert Scholz quickly had his crew together.

There was Helmut Kocar prepared to help as championship director. A lot of organizers wished to have him since he had a charm, only Austrians have, but was uncompromising if necessary. Helmut Prosch, engineer for land surveying from Salzburg was there for the calculation of the results. He also completed the international jury, who had to be selected and confirmed by the CIA of which the delegates normally respect the nomination of the host. The nomination of the two other jury members had been certain from the first moment. Dr. Ernst Iselin the most experienced Swiss gas balloon pilot alive and for decades Swiss delegate to the CIA and his friend and comrade in arms Alfi Feltes from Luxembourg composed a the jury according to the rules. Most important assistant prior to launch was qualified meteorologist Dr. Herbert Pümpel, restless telephoning and telegraphing, to collect data from all possible meteorological offices, to make a reliable prognosis for the competitors. Doris Maglot, Manuela Pikadlo, both employees in the public relation agency of Maria, Gottfried Zach as safety-manager and Heinz G. Scholz, brother of Gert and responsible for the sale of souvenirs, completed the circle that we also entered. My wife Hanne cared for the observers and later received the landing reports, and I entertained the spectators at the inflation and launch ceremonies with lots of explanations about ballooning in general and the Gordon Bennett Races in particular.

How would the 1991 race turn out? Our enthusiasm had been dampened hard before the race. We had all hoped, that the ninth race after the big break from 1938 to 1983 would be like the great races before the war. The separation of the world by the Iron Curtain was over now. 1983 the Polish team met a border, impossible to over fly near Regensburg. In 1984 and 1985 the border was not important as the wind direction was different. We all remembered 1986 as the year of the great disappointment. Hungary did agree with an entry, but a permission would have been necessary from Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately they were unwilling to make any concessions.

We cheered, when in 1987 and 1988 the willingness of Yugoslavia allowed again long flights from Seefeld respectively Bregenz and became enthusiastic, when a year later when even the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia had no objection to entry or over flying. When finally at the end of the year 1989 the walls to the east finally came down, we all thought that we had reached our final target.

What a disappointment in the year 1991! Helmut Kocar had got no reply to his request from the USSR. But who should have answered? Were the centralist structures still in order? The USSR was breaking to pieces so how would the states gaining independence behave if a balloon would land on their territory and presented them a permission of the central government which they hate so much? These states must be given time to organize themselves and even the biggest optimists among the competitors agreed with that. Much worse it looked in the Southeast. Slovenia already was quite independent, the central government in Belgrad seemed to have agreed with it, but Croatia! There was a bitter civil war raging, and no arranged armistice could stop the massacres. Impossible to allow balloons to fly there, but that was exactly the direction, the wind was blowing. So we all were far from the optimism of the year before.

When we arrived at Lech on the afternoon of September 19th, 1991, we were welcomed by our native friends. The tourist office had gained recognition in the previous years by handling the race very well. Its director, Hubert Schwärzler could rely totally on his employees Dietmar Flatz, Cornelia Meusburger, Barbara Braun, Stefan Jochum and Johannes Bischof in this. There was nothing which was forgotten such as the organization of the lodging or the transportation of sand for inflation and equipping the balloons. The fire brigade as well as the local clubs helped, where they were needed. So within three years, the Gordon Bennett Races had become a fixed feature in the schedule of this village, as if they had never happened anywhere else.

The competitors from Poland and America had already arrived. They met a the launch at Lech for some days of vacation, which are also used for acclimatization. We have just enough time to put our baggage into our rooms and then the American cocktail reception waits for us. Mister John M. Wallace has invited and announces, that he will look after the return of the race to America this year. Mister Wallace, lawyer from Springfield with political ambitions, is on a permanent election campaign which he doesn’t forget even in Austria. With his own public relation manager and a local TV team from Springfield Mister Wallace is continually promoting his state for the voters in far away America. That is the context that his statements must be seen and understood.

Friday, September 20th, 1991. The entry of the gladiators and their retinue begins. In the tourist office they generously gave space for the organization, as in the previous years they will be hosting the headquarter until the awards ceremony. And then they start coming, we know almost everybody. Most of them have been in the race for years. Why should the nominating national aero clubs exclude or replace proven teams?

Stefan Makne from Poland appears first. In his entourage the whole Polish team. Stefan, winner of the 1983 race did not take part in 1986, but was all the other races. With his co-pilot since 1987, Grzgory Antkowiak. For him it would be the greatest success if he could take up the glorious Polish victories before 1938. There is almost no other competitor who would not begrudge a victory to the congenial man from Poland. Piotr Szary, the second Polish pilot, is new on the stage but with Waldemar Ozga as co-pilot he has an experienced combatant who had smelled the breeze of Gordon Bennett Races previously in 1984.

Alan Fraenckel is also a well known fellow. As with the Polish team, we already shake hands the previous evening. Alan represents the American Virgin Islands, of course it is not a nation that has made great contributions to ballooning till now. But nobody can fly long distances on these little islands in a balloon. Alan lives most of the time in New York, is a keen competition pilot, making good performances in hot air ballooning. The year before, 1990, John Stuart-Jervis was his co-pilot in the Gordon Bennett Race. Not to blame John, but compared to the charm of the new co-pilot Jackie Robertson, John has no chance.

With the Americans, we miss our good fellows Lawrence “Fred” Hyde, David Levin and Frank Rider this year. Instead there we new faces. John M. Wallace, previously mentioned and his co-pilot Ronald G. Senez from Massachusetts. Randy Woods, Fred Gorell and Gordon Boring are old fellows but the co-pilot of Gordon Boring, Walter Noeske was also new.

With our Swiss friends, there was almost no change, except a new sharing of the duties of pilot and co-pilot. Karl Spenger, the old warhorse and winner in 1984, has obviously found with Christian Stoll an ideal substitute for Martin Messner, who flew with him before. Gerold Signer showed up with Silvan Osterwalder, who was pilot with Rolf Sutter the year before. Rolf instead had chosen Alfred Nater as co-pilot. All were people who knew the Gordon Bennett Race.

Of the Germans and the Austrians, only Rainer Hassold, co-pilot of Thomas Fink was new. Thomas Fink was still on a search for a substitute of outstanding pilot Erich Märkl. But substitute may not be the right word, because somebody equal may not be found. Erich Märkl, with more than 700 gas balloon flights up to his last participation in 1989, knows better than everybody else how to fly and to land a balloon. And the other men and women? Every other kind of sports envies the balloonists for Helma Sjuts, every other nation envies the Germans. Somebody like her exists nowhere else. A woman, aged more than 70, performs top level sport! When she is announced on the launch field there is always a special applause – which she really earns. She does not only fly “with somebody”, lets somebody else fly, or however it may be called, no, she fights herself with burning ambition and accepts all strain. If she’s not nominated as pilot, she flies the race as co-pilot. Woe betide to those, who try to advise her, to calm down and give way to younger pilots!

Of Volker Kuinke and Jürgen Schubert not much has been heard before. Volker Kuinke, in 1985 was for the first time in a Gordon Bennett Race. He is considered to be a good pilot for duration flights, but did not become very evident in competitions. With Jürgen Schubert it seems, he had found the right co-pilot since 1990.

Not many words have to be said about Joschi Starkbaum and Gert Scholz. The success of these outstanding athletes of the last years speaks for them. But, this year, something appeared different. Joschi it is said is not to motivated for a seventh victory. To emphasize that, he pointed to his meager result at the world championships in Canada in August. Some kind of tiredness could be felt. They also did not deny themselves as much as they did the years before. Perhaps, a little feeling of superiority had also come up. However, at the day before the launch, no bookmaker’s would have accepted high odds for another victory of this team.

The second Austrian team is also known from the year before, but they changed responsibilities. Silvia Wagner had insisted in it, and Thomas Lewetz had agreed with a grin (as he said). In 1990, with the balloon MÜNSTERLAND, they had an envelope quite worn out, not very suitable for outstanding competitions and also as big as permitted. But they only wanted to gain experience. This year, they rented the quite new, little flown COLUMBUS as they really wanted to compete.

But now let’s talk about the race itself. The check-in is over. The day of launch comes closer.

Wonderful weather of Indian summer ruled the day before the launch. On Saturday at the briefing, the first rain shower happened. The advantage of this was that the umbrellas with the Gordon Bennett logo, still on stock from the last year were quickly sold out. Dr. Herbert Pümpel, highly regarded meteorologist, promised clear sky for the time of launch in the evening. Would he be right?

For the jubilee race, everything should work extremely well. The 35th race, 85 years after the first one. If one figure is subtracted by the other, 50 comes out, but this number was not worth a celebration, because it demonstrates, that in all these years political or economical situations did not permit the races. Still a jubilee? Of course! Gordon Bennett was born 150 years ago, and the Austrian Aero Club had been founded 90 years ago. So there were enough reasons for jubilee ceremonies.

The Austrian Aero Club had called its executive committee to Lech for a festive meeting, following an old tradition. In the old days, the delegates of the FAI also had their meeting at the same time at places such as the Gordon Bennett races, thus demonstrating the importance of this sportive event. So this year, all board members and the festive guests of the neighbour clubs came to the solemn launch.

The advise of the meteorologist was: “Fly the balloons low, there is a drift to the Northeast. Higher up, the wind turns and pushes you more to the South, closer to the border of Yugoslavia”. Easy to say, difficult to be done in the mountains. All came in danger flying towards Yugoslavia. From rank 10 on they all had to give up at the border, and Swiss crew Signer/Osterwalder even crossed it. They had flown in rain, the water on the vent froze in 3000 meters, making it unusable for quite a long time. First at Ljubliana in relatively peaceful Slovenia they could start the descend.

American lawyer John M. Wallace nearly provoked diplomatic complications. This year he had chosen as co-pilot a major of the National Guard. His public relation manager thought, this man would be more impressive to the television audience at home if he would fly in uniform with all medals and decorations. So he climbed to the basket fully dressed. Imagine, if an American major in uniform had landed between the front lines of the Croatians and Serbians! When Mister Wallace realized which track the balloon flew, he finished (just in time) at Villach in Austria.

The crew from American Virgin Islands tried to be extremely careful. Alan Fraenckel/Jackie Robertson thought they landed right in time. On the ground, the observer asked them, why they had not flown on with 15 bags of ballast and 3 canisters of water? “The frontier”, Alan pointed ahead. “But that’s the border between Austria and Hungary, not the one to Yugoslavia”, explained the observer to him. But it was too late! With this ballast and his light balloon, he could have flown straight across Hungary and made a better rank.

The other teams performed better. Again and again venting, levelling the balloon out. The more they did it the more they came to the North and therefore the longer the distance grew.

The decision came, as at many great Gordon Bennett races in the past, before the second night. The crews with the best physical, psychological power and enough ballast in the basket, fought it out on Monday. Kuinke/Schubert were more to the North, and had enough space to the border of the USSR in Poland, while Starkbaum/Scholz got stuck more South in Hungary. A little luck is also needed to win the race. A nice side effect was a new German record in duration.

In the previous years, always some reports of the flights were written here. We will do the same this year. Of course, the report of the winner will get a special place. Eighty years after Hans Gericke again a German Gordon Bennett winner. The joy about this among the balloonists of this country was enormous. But before, Austrian Silvia Wagner shall tell, a woman had not reported yet. Women never stood aside at the Gordon Bennett races. In 1913 Madame Goldschmidt flew the race with René Rumpelmayer. From 1983 on Helma Sjuts flew in almost every race, and in 1984 there was an exclusive women-team.

Silvia Wagner started aviation in 1976 with parachuting and in 1980 she became an instructor for parachuting. After the birth of her second child, she started with motor flying and today flies all over Europe as professional pilot with 20 seater turboprops. In 1984 she developed her love for balloons and became the first female balloon instructor in Austria in 1990. Today she also makes her money with instructions and commercial passenger flights in her own company. Here is her report:

“Gordon Bennett Race 1990 was my first competition in a balloon race and so my first experience in this discipline. Pilot Thomas Lewetz took me with him as co-pilot. Old and heavy equipment as well as a thunderstorm forced us to end the race quite early. But the ambition was set and right after our landing and it was sure that we’ll try again next year. This time we would change positions as I wanted to take over the command. Thomas agreed laughing to this plan and but let himself be nominated as co-pilot. A balloon fit for competition could be organized in Germany as in Austria unfortunately only Joschi Starkbaum owns a competitive balloon. My experience had shown that I had to optimize our equipment in a way that we did not lack anything but also did not have too much of anything other than ballast.

The dressing for the expected extreme strain was found in the sport equipment McKinley from the Intersport company. Technically we improved our equipment by adding a lighter and more exactly working GPS and more powerful batteries to our proved navigation and communication instruments.

Food was mostly composed of energy providing elements, but I cared for every taste. So from the carrot to chocolate, everything could be found in our pantry. Thermal flasks with hot soup and hot tea should make the cold mornings a little more friendly.

Physical conditions for a long distance flight in high altitudes was given to us by many aircraft flights to more than 4000 meters to drop parachutists. Mentally we were best prepared for at least three nights in a balloon. Our participation at the BP alpine trophy 1991 in Ramsau taught me to calculate better the possible dangers of a balloon flight in the Alps under competition conditions.

Very important for to stand the strain is that at least one member of the crew is always wide awake. A comfortable bed, like a coated plank mounted to the edge of the basket, is a precondition.

Well equipped like this, my crew and I arrived at Lech on Friday. We were afraid of missing the check-in due to a traffic jam caused by the driving of the cattle down from the mountain pastures.

Already the first briefing allowed me to foresee the strategy of our flight. Our met man Dr. Pümpel pronounced a drift to the East close to the ground, turning more and more to South-East with increasing altitudes. That would mean, the higher you fly, the sooner you would meet the borderlines of Yugoslavia, which was like Russia, closed for this competition. So the target was, to fly very low along the valley of the river Lech in the direction of Warth and Reutte. Then to fly as far North as possible to the foothills of the Alps in the area of Füssen. On Saturday, a rain shower at noon lowered the mood of the competitors. But hope may never be given up, and our balloon was inflated despite of the low dark clouds. And soon the sun appeared again and allowed us to do the rest of the preparations in a wonderful scenery.

The night broke in and the time of launch came closer. Also, dark clouds moved again towards the launch field from the South. As first according to the drawn sequence – we took it for a good omen – my balloon D-Columbus with Thomas Lewetz and me on board opened the race.

Very slowly we slipped along the valley of the river Lech, as more and more balloons rose behind us under the sound of their national anthems to the night sky of Lech. The tops of the mountains around the valley were illuminated by fires, indicating the way to the North like lighthouses. It was very calm, only the rush of the creeks, the bells of the cows and the cracking of wood created by animals in the forests was with us in the first hours of our flight.

Everything looks so peaceful until at a narrows the current becomes so strong that it makes us rush close by a church towards a power line. I don’t want to loose too much sand and half a bag saves us from an early touch-down. Thomas, already asleep, wakes up from the wind in the basket caused by the quick fall and climb and takes over command of the balloon for the next two hours. My time to rest begins. The cry of a night bird, reflected from the opposite hill slope, startles me from my sleep. Wide-awake, I fly the balloon again through the Tyrolean valley of the Lech, illuminated by the full moon. Urged to use up as little sand as possible, I let the balloon hover just 10 meters above the tree tops. We are approaching Reutte, soon we will have reached the foothills of the Alps, when suddenly the balloon turns towards a side valley and starts to climb uphill. The decision about what to do is difficult. Shall I really throw my nerves overboard as sand or better hope that the heading will turn again to our fortune?

We drift along the hills very close. Is there a power line? Coming closer, I identify the supposed power line as ski slope, the shadows thrown by the setting moon create optical illusions. How does our way continue here? We already had reached the end of the valley, when the wind turns us to the middle of the valley and we fly down the valley again meter by meter. A little before we enter the main valley of the river Lech again, it starts to become bright. At the town of Füssen, two lee waves make me sacrifice another bag of ballast, which means, that we have used only two bags of the valuable ballast that night. For sure, no other competitor was more economical on his way than we were.

The sun rises and a new day with new adventures waits for us. But first, we have to care for our physical wellness. A rich breakfast in the sunny basket over the famous castle of Neuschwanstein make us forget the strain of the passed night very quickly. The flight continues, still very low over the mountain ridges. Ballast must be saved, because my plan is a flight to the third night. But flying low, makes the lee waves more violent. Once we are pulled down so quickly that I almost had to face a landing in the trees but just in time the balloon levels out and carries us up the next hill at high speed. On the information frequency the first warnings from thunderstorms are broadcasted. But who can believe such weather reports with this blue sky and sunshine? To our feet Lake Chiemsee spreads hundreds of sailing-boats on it with no wind. They look like toys but are rapidly growing. The cold surface of the water sucks us, quicker and quicker it goes down. Only the dump of much ballast saves us from a splash down and nearly creates a new sand bank in the lake.

The Austrian border is not far away and Salzburg radar requests us to keep a constant altitude which becomes more and more difficult in the moment. Cold water surfaces and forests change with heated field and push our ball up and down. The forecasted thunderstorms can’t be seen where we are, the drone we hear is caused by the airplanes from and to the airport of Salzburg. We are quite close to the radio beacon of the airport. The controller makes our motorized colleagues fly around us. They are not angry about the detour, because we are a nice view. The wind turns now more and more to the north-east. We fly across the area of the Hausruck, along the river Salzach to the river Inn and further on to the Danube river. The broadcasted weather reports talk more and more about an approaching cold front with includes thunderstorms. And in the Northwest, the clouds are already coming up. Also above us, it becomes hazy. Dropping more sand keeps us at an altitude of about 2000 meters.

The wind speeds up and drives us faster and faster. The weather reports about the approaching front are broadcasted in shorter and shorter periods, the bad weather starts to catch up to us with a short but heavy rain-shower near the town of Linz. Calculation starts. When and where will the first thunderstorms meet us? The decision is made. When the first thunderstorms will be in the area of Linz, we will begin the landing, because then, the thunderstorms will be about one hour behind of us. The wind speeds up more and turns north. The flight passes the town of Freistadt, then the Waldviertel area to the Czech town of Znojmo. Brno radar tells us, that a landing under VFR at night is not permitted on Czech territory. We don’t want to do this voluntarily, but we inform the controller about the approaching thunderstorms, and that in this situation a landing must be declared as an emergency. He supported us until we touched down.

Shortly behind Znaim we got messages about the first thunderstorms in the area of Linz, which activated our decision to land. Many signs show, that the thunderstorms would reach us in a short time. So the wind became stronger. At an altitude of about 50 meters it was still 30 knots, which means more than 50 kilometres an hour. Our landing beam helped no longer, the rising fog from the ground broke the light. What is underneath of us, a lake or one of the huge Czech fields? I decide, to speed up the fall of the balloon. The ground fog increases rapidly and makes everything look like through a milk glass. From time to time, the moon shines through the quick moving wisps of clouds, this light makes see the outlines of the trees. Where are power lines? A very busy road appears below. Then a huge, black plain, surely no lake, spreads. Shall I stop the fall? The rate of sinking is about the same as with a round parachute. Thomas as well as me have had about a hundred landings with such a tool.

Wind speed is still at 25 knots, I allow the balloon to continue it’s descend. It is heading towards the big darkness. Near the ground, the wind calms down a little. A road intersection, the direct road from Brno to Vienna, with a huge field of beets behind, will become our landing place. Six minutes after touch down, our ground crew is with us. We pack the balloon, waiting for the weather front. When we store away the last parts, a heavy rainfall starts, but no thunderstorms appear. But I still think, my decision was right, even if my heart was bleeding, to empty all the saved sand bags on the side of the field. Another year will come with a new Gordon Bennett Cup. Our team will not change.’

The 35th race, 85 years after the first launch, 150 years after the birth of Gordon Bennett, the third German victory! From the flight 1907, Oscar Erbslöh had reported, 1911 Hans Gericke. So it’s logical, that in 1991, Volker Kuinke shall tell about his impressions.

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