Book article about the 36th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett

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

Following the victory of Volker Kuinke and Jürgen Schubert in the 1991 race, Germany got it’s first chance since 1912 to host a Gordon Bennett Race again. This honour found the ballooning commission of the German Aero-club quite unprepared. In the past years, the dominance of other countries in this race had been too strong, the Austrian team of Starkbaum/Scholz seemed to be unbeatable, so nobody reflected seriously about what may happen if this series of victories would be interrupted one day. Suddenly, this victory happened and now it was time to act.

A launch location was found quickly and the reasons for it were very plausible. Tradition played a minor role, but using the same place as 80 years ago could offer some more advantages. In 1912, it was a highly productive gas factory, which was the deciding factor for the Cannstatter Wasen, but also the long distance to the sea, which would allow long flights to natural boundaries. This also counted in 1992, but the main reason was the active balloon club of Stuttgart, strongly supporting the idea, where everybody fulfilled their duties carefully and accurate. Where else can you find something like this? 70 club members not only worked hard for several months before launch, but also were on duty at the day of the launch. This was aided by the open-minded attitude about sports by the city of Stuttgart, which provided many kinds of assistance. THW (emergency services), Red Cross, Fire brigade, all were present with help. The “Deutsche Freiballon-Sportverband”, hosted the race but was obliged to thank the balloon club of Stuttgart, the sports office of the city council and all the other institutions.

The date of the launch, September 19th, created some discussions and was a little mysterious. Most of the previous races had been launched in the fall close to a night of full moon. These nights have advantages; they make navigation easier and a landing at night safer. But in the age of GPS and other electronic equipment, the full moon does no longer play such an important role for navigation. For night landings, to be performed only in extreme emergency, strong beams are on board, to light the landing field. These are also helpful if clouds cover the moon.

In 1992 full moon was on September 12th. Why then the launch a week later? This date came from external forces. The rules of the Gordon Bennett Race only permit the short period of 12 month for the organizing national aero-club. This means, that the dates for other competitions are already fixed. On September 12th, the European hot air balloon championships in Belfort, France had not finished, and when the date had to be fixed in September 1991, nobody could tell, how many pilots would like to compete in both events. For the next night with full moon, October 2nd, the world championships in gas ballooning had already been scheduled.

Looking back, the selection of place and time weren’t bad. The weather and the wind direction were good, but the wind was a little slow. You can’t always request the best.

The press conference on September 10th was very good. Local press were present, but also the TV station of southern Germany and the specialist journals. The “Adler” (eagle), monthly journal of the air sports community of the state of Baden-Württemberg published a picture of the Gordon Bennett Race of 1912 on its front page on that day and the official bulletin of the city of Stuttgart printed an excellent article with picture about the race. However the highlight was 88 year old Stuttgart citizen Eugen Raisch, coming to the press conference to tell his eyewitness experience 80 years ago, when he was on the launch field in his fathers hands and saw the balloons rising towards the sky with a farewell from King Wilhelm II. Of Württemberg.

The day of the launch came closer. Until the Friday before the launch, it was Indian summer; pure sun without a single cloud in the sky. Meteorologist Dr. Hafner of the German Meteorological Service at Offenbach announced the passing of a small front on Saturday morning. Behind that front, good conditions would return. Nobody would believe that on Saturday morning, because of a thunderstorm and heavy rainfall. But the meteorologists were right, as at noon on the sky started to clear up. The time lost created by this tricky weather could be made up due to a generous time schedule. At 6 p.m. all 17 balloons stood on the field inflated. Lewetz/Wagner from Austria were present with a brand new balloon as was Makne/Antkowiak from Poland. Both balloons were nettles, the same construction as the “Polarstern” of Starkbaum/Scholz. Levin/Herschend from the USA also had used the same model for the previous two years.

Aged mister Eugen Raisch also had found his way to the Cannstatter Wasen on the day of the launch. Tears of emotion came to his eyes, when one balloon after the other lifted off from the launch platform to the sounds of their national anthems. It was a moving atmosphere no balloonist or spectator could resist when the music corps of the Baden-Württemberg police played farewell to the balloons.

The low wind speed over the field prevented a quick launch sequence. Several extra minutes had to be made between the balloon launches, to avoid collision. Although these breaks had an advantage, as they increased the solemnly of the whole ceremony.

It became a long flight. First landing reports did not come in before Sunday evening by French Hennequet/Leys and British Harris/Wilkinson. A little later, Heinz Brachtendorf and Helma Sjuts also had finished their flight. All three balloons had landed in the Czech Republic before nightfall of the second night.

The wind now turned a little more south, but slowed down considerably. Nevertheless Poland could be reached. Volker Kuinke/Jürgen Schubert landed there on Monday around 1 p.m. They were the furthest north of all balloons as obviously they wanted to repeat their strategy from the year before, but it didn’t work out so well this year. Usually, 808 kilometres in more than 43 hours was often enough for victory as in previous races. Now, this distance was just good for a 5th place rank. Swiss Karl Spenger/Christian Stoll had finished flying on Monday morning; their fellow citizens Rolf Sutter/Kurt Frieden and Jaques Soukop/Alan Fraenckel from the American Virgin Islands did the same during the next few hours. All of them had used the more northerly drift, comparing times and distances of Kunike, Sutter and Soukop shows that significant progress was no longer possible.

Obviously, it worked a little better for those balloons, which had used a more southerly track. Swiss Signer/Osterwalder stayed in the air just one hour longer than Kuinke/Schubert, but made 43 kilometres more. On the other hand, this trend could not be carried too far as Americans Wallace/Senez struggled in 47 hours to get past the new airport of Munich to Senice in the Czech Republic, with a final distance of “only” 592 kilometres.

On Monday evening the landing reports of six balloons were still missing. Officials still waited for phone calls from the two Austrian teams, the two teams from the USA, the Polish crew and Willi Eimers/Bernd Landsmann. Nobody could draw any conclusions from this. Just to phone out of Poland is a great achievement. Interesting however was the fact, that all missing balloons were of the nettles or lightweight type. Willi Eimers still dreamed of reaching the Baltic Sea near Gdansk, but soon realized that this had become impossible, when his balloon made just two kilometres in one hour.

As it later turned out, all balloons except one had landed. And this was good, because now the wind continued turning and speeded up, but the direction was wrong. Any continuation of the flight would shorten the distances already achieved.

Makne/Antkowiak were the luckless individuals who were blown back. Short before sunset on Monday they were just a few kilometres behind the eventual winner. When the wind turned during the night, they could not land without danger. So they flew to the Northwest, and their distance decreased every minute.

On Tuesday morning they landed at Ogrodnica in the area of Wroklaw, former Breslau, 584 km from Stuttgart as the bird flies and ranked 11. But their misfortune wasn’t over. The new envelope on its second flight was almost 80 to 90 percent empty, when an explosion tore it to thousands of pieces. Obviously, the conductivity of the new fabric was still too poor. And to add to that, on their way back, the chase car went into a skid and ended up on its roof as a write-off. It was good fortune, that none of the passengers were seriously hurt. For the awards ceremony on Saturday, 26th, they were back in Stuttgart. A special performance after such an adventure.

Traditionally, the competitors should report by themselves now at this place, first the report of the winner, David Levin, published in BALLOONING, winter 1992:

See the article by David Levin (USA) about the 1992 Race

So far the pleasantly short and non-pathetic report of the winner. Almost unnoticed a crew pushed to the second place in this race, which would become quite famous within the next few years: German Willi Eimers and Bernd Landsmann. Considering Willi wasn’t a nobody in the German ballooning scene as he had already drawn attention with some spectacular and not always undisputed long distance flights. He also had been the guy, who ranked last with just 68 kilometres but with the longest time (44 h 20 min.) in the air at the Gordon Bennett Race in 1985. The mockers of 1985 had not realized, that this was a sign of stamina and persistence in supposedly hopelessness situations, which now started to bear rich fruit. But let Willi tell by himself, he gave an extensive report of this flight.

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