Article by Erwin A. Sautter
In America Gordon Bennett Race Gordon Bennett Races are always different to those in good old Europe. When the last Gordon Bennett Race in the USA was launched 60 years ago, it was embedded in the world exhibition at Chicago. Now it was a dinosaur in a hot-air event. It was clear, everything was focussed on the more than 600 hot air balloons. Twenty gas balloon were just an additional to the program.
In fact, 20 balloons at a Gordon Bennett Race is almost a record. Only in 1908 at Berlin, 23 balloons were in the field. At Stuttgart 1912, 20 balloons were enrolled, but the balloon of an American team already burst before launch so John Watts and Arthur Atherholt flew out of competition with borrowed Düsseldorf II. Now, 1993, 21 balloons were registered, but the British team did not show up and the Canadians did not take off, because their balloon was leaking. So on October 4th, 1993 between 7:45 and 9:03 p.m. 19 balloons raised to the sky to the sounds of their national anthems. Well, these national anthems also should not be taken too serious in the United States. Already in 1927, as Ferdinand Eimermacher reports, the farewell for the German balloon was: “Es braust ein Ruf wie Donnerhall”, in 1993 a Swiss balloon was honoured with “God save the Queen” when they were sent to the sky.
Already at the briefings some competitors had a sense of foreboding. Albuquerque lies on not less than 1600 meters above sea level; temperature at this time of the year is still like summer and helium weights more that hydrogen. Bob Rice, responsible for the weather, informed the pilots about the expected vagaries of the weather for the coming days. According to him, hardly a cloud should cross the Rio Grande. Tropical storm “Norma” became apparent only over California. After sunset, further decrease of the south-westerly winds could be expected. Not before 2 a.m. they would increase again. Freezing level was announced at 14.000 feet, thunderstorms were not expected in the next days, but “Thermal Cumulus” and wind-speeds around 15 to 25 knots. Those forecasts, valid for Wednesday morning, showed a clear track out of Albuquerque, crossing the US states of Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa into Minnesota and the lake region between Wisconsin, Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario.
Those fears came true. Crews that could lift off with more than 20 bags of sand and 60 litres of water on the evening of October 4th were lucky. In fact, the balloons had more bags on board, but they had been filled with the light desert sands from the area and did not weight more than at least 7 or 8 kilograms. Wind was not more than 5 to 7 knots, reaching 3000 meters or more meant a sacrifice of valuable ballast. Those, who came into these “Thermal Cumulus” in the area of Santa Fee had to fight with up and downdrafts of 4 meters per second and had very soon used up this little amount of ballast.
On Tuesday morning (October 5th) several balloons were still within sight of Albuquerque and for some of them, this would not change for the whole day. The balloon from the American Virgin Islands piloted by Soukoup/Stuart-Jervis gave up first. With the rest of their ballast they did not manage to cross the mountains and to leave the “box”. After 11 hours and 7 minutes of flight they landed at 7:35 a.m. only 10.5 kilometres from the launch field. To comfort the two Virgin Island men: This was not the shortest distance of somebody in last place of a Gordon Bennett Race. In 1922 Magdalena/La Llave from Spain made only 4.3 kilometres and in the race 1908 any distance for the Americans Forbes/Holland is missing in the lists, they landed their burst balloon 5 minutes after launch on a roof top just a few blocks away from the launch-field.
13 from the remaining 18 did not perform much better. They wore themselves out during the day in the strong thermals, did not leave the state of New Mexico and made between 79.6 and 234.8 kilometres – not much for a long distance race with balloons. But here it becomes interesting, to compare times and distances. 100 kilometres were reached after approximately 19 hours, those who flew just two or three hours more, could already write more than 200 kilometres to their flight report.
But don’t believe, that the balloons had hurried to their landing positions on a direct way. This becomes apparent in the story of the German balloon with Volker Kuinke and Jörg Schellhove, who managed somehow to make the second night and finally ended up ranked 5th. In 32 hours and 50 minutes they made more than 300 kilometres as the bee flies, but their total track should have been more than 500 kilometres. Circle and zigzag flying between the foothills of the Rocky Mountains was hard work for all who still remained in the air. Also other experienced old hands spoke of the most turbulent flight of their life. About Volker and Jörg rumours already spoken that they were lost, a sigh of relief when their landing report finally came in.
Four balloons really went for distance. Obviously, they had integrated the meteorological data to their strategy and were able, to navigate aside from the thermals. But they had a huge difference in their speed. You can see this, comparing the co-ordinates of the landing places. The landing places of the balloons on rank 2 (Eimers/Landsmann) and rank 4 (Lewetz/Wagner) are each 2° more North than those of rank 1 and 3, but they needed another six hours more to get there. Let’s compare for example Starkbaum/Röhsler with Eimers/Landsmann: Assuming that both teams had covered 300 kilometres from the launch-field after 33 hours, for Starkbaum/Röhsler another 1530 kilometres had to be covered in 26 ½ hours, which means an average speed of 58 kilometres an hour. At Eimers/Landsmann 1250 kilometres in 33 hours remain, meaning an average speed of 38 kilometres an hour. Comparing the figures of rank 3 and 4 leads to similar results. This shows: the more South the track, the higher the speed was. Did the pilots realize that in advance?
This thesis is backed up by the fact, that both Joschi Starkbaum and Alan Fraenckel are airliner captains, so for sure they have a better knowledge of meteorology from their profession and know, how to use this. Joschi Starkbaum also had his own meteorologist brought with him. Dr. Pümpel, best known to all GBR competitors from Lech am Arlberg, provided the latest information to Joschi prior to launch. This doesn’t reduce the performance of the winner at all, quite the reverse. At a Gordon Bennett Race, almost every help is allowed, you only have to know, how to use it. Here, this help contributed its part to the outstanding victory.
The duration and distances of those on rank 1 to 4 assure, that the 37th Gordon Bennett Race will become one of the most remarkable in its history. 1832 kilometres for the winner, that’s rank three in the eternal list of distances in a Gordon Bennett Race. Only in 1912 Bienaimé/Rumpelmeyer with 2191 kilometres and in 1910 Hawley/Post with 1887.6 kilometres had flown further. 66 hours 2 minutes shine even brighter: Only Schaeck/Messner in 1908 had stood longer in the basket with 73 hours 1 minute.
The landing place of the winner, Campbellsport in Wisconsin, is only 50 kilometres away from the shore of Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is number three in width of the five Great Lakes on the border between the USA and Canada and is the grave of famous American balloon pioneers like Washington Donaldson and John Wise, who did never return from flights across this lake in the years 1875 and 1879. When the Austrians approached this eerie lake, did voices from far away warn them, not to cross and encouraged them to land at Campbellsport? Perhaps we should look for a patron saint for balloonists some time.
Something else special: With Jackie Robertson a woman was on the winners’ rostrum for the first time in a Gordon Bennett Race, which will also go down in the annals of the race. Second female pilot in the field, Austrian Silvia Wagner, reached unrewarding fourth place. A medal rank for her also, everybody would have been very pleased for.
Joschi Starkbaum had proved by his victory, that he is “the best pilot of the world”, as James Gordon Bennett had stated this in the rules of 1905. No other pilot had achieved seven victories in this race. Winning in Albuquerque, Joschi Starkbaum had surpassed Belgium Ernest Demuyter, who won six times between 1920 and 1937. Third in this ranking is American Ward T. van Orman with three golden medals.
Already before the official awards ceremony took place, Joschi Starkbaum made the first request from Albuquerque to Lech am Arlberg: “Is the municipality prepared, to host the Gordon Bennett Race in 1994 for the fourth time?” – The answer came spontaneously and with no restrictions: “Yes, of course!” With September 17th, 1994, the date was also already fixed. It was found quick, for September 19th, 1994 is full moon. Next full moon would be on October 22nd, but then, at night in the mountains, it’s already pretty cold.
Except a sprained ankle of Polish Waldemar Ozga, co-pilot of irrepressible daredevil Stefan Makne, the 37th Gordon Bennett Race ended without accidents. Though none of the three teams from the US had a good placing (the balloons from the American Virgin Islands flew under their own flag) and no record in distance or time was broken, American media exercised distinguished restraint in reporting about this event. The fact, that Joschi Starkbaum had performed a personal best with seven victories offered little reason for US media for an adequate honouring. A report of 60 lines from Associated Press in the local pages of the Sunday Journal (“New Mexico’s leading newspaper”) the day after the awards ceremony in the Southwest Ballroom of the Hilton hotel on October 9th did not offer a list of results. But at least one learned the names of the three pilots – but not the co-pilots – who had become medallists and something about the early disappearance of the American pilots before they had reached the boundary between New Mexico and Colorado.