Original report of Oberst Schaek about his flight to victory

(printed in “Wir Luftschiffer”)

When I got the plan, to take part at the Gordon Bennett Race of the Air with the balloon HELVETIA, I knew, what a decision full of serious consequences this was. My experience in such kind of duration flights was not very great, for in Switzerland you can’t go far because of the mountains. Anyhow, I entered the competition as well prepared as possible. A special value I put in the conditions of a large basket, 1.60 meters long and 1.10 meters wide, allowing a comfortable rest in the night. Also the trail-rope, first lieutenant Messner and I carried with us, was extremely long, to create the balance easily.

Inflation in Schmargendorf was fast thanks to the aid of well-trained officers and units, so we had a quick launch at 4 p.m. Prior to our launch, we saw how the balloon CONQUEROR split and fell, but we still got the news, that the crew has landed safe in Friedenau.

First, orientation caught our attention. We detected, that we were flying to the southeast and got familiarized with the idea, to land on Russian territory. But it went out different, completely different. Our speed wasn’t high, just about 40 kilometres an hour. It was difficult, to keep the balloon in its balance. Therefore, we had to drop, then rise, then again drop and so on. We flew over Saxony, then we found out, that the heading had turned. For some time, the wind blew us south, then to the west. So we were carried to an area, where almost nothing was to be seen. The many forests and the few villages brought me to the idea, it could be the area of Lübben, where I had the honour, to take part in some military exercises 17 years ago. And indeed, my suspicion proved to be right.

For the first day of the flight, we had shared the work in the way, that until 10 p.m. both of us made our watch. Then I slept until 2 a.m. and then relieved my companion. Visibility in the morning was impeded very much by fog. Nevertheless, the image of the landscape was unexplainable charming. The fog was temporarily so thick, that we really did not know, where we were. Undoubtedly, we flew to the northwest. We had passed a big stream, that must have been the river Elbe. About 11 a.m. it cleared up and the fog opened. Below us, we saw a big stream, a smaller river flowing into it, a railroad-bridge and a big town: Magdeburg. We stood still over this town for a long time, then we crossed the swampy Drömling. Here we descended so quick, that we had to drop much ballast. At 5 p.m. we were over the Lüneburger Heide, crossing it riding on the trail-rope.

Further on went the flight, crossing Bremerhaven, the Jadebusen – to the sea. Could we risk it, to fly across the sea, we asked ourselves and had a long discussion. Finally we agreed: We could risk it, if the conditions are very well. When we came close to the North Sea, first lieutenant Messner had decided, to cross it. I myself had been up the whole day and was asleep, when I woke up and asked: “Where are we?”, my comrade replied: “Two hours out on the North Sea.” He did totally right and knew, that I would agree. Almost totally balanced, we drifted in an altitude of about 700 meters, once a little lower, once a little higher. Determination of the direction was easy, first northwest, then north. The swell of the waves, we could clearly see and hear below us, did not help us to determine the direction. We went down to the surface on the trail-rope and then, with the aid of the track our rope showed in the water, we could determine exactly our heading by using the compass. We had a high speed during this sea-journey. We did not come out of the fog the whole night.

At the break of the second day, we saw a piece of sky and gained clear visibility. In the east and the west, big bunches of clouds indicated land, to the north, visibility was clear. We did not suffer from cold, as the sun had warmed us, after it had broken through the fog. Not before 1 p.m. it cooled down and we started to descend.

We used this opportunity, to throw some unnecessary items overboard. We aimed for saving our remaining sand. This sand was most valuable, because it could be dropped in small and very small portions. We had a tarpaulin of 30 kilograms weight on board to pack the balloon in it after landing, it flew overboard and we climbed up to an altitude of 3700 meters. Now we were heading straight north. Since I had no exact instruments and tabulates with me, I was forced to determine the height of the sun at noon by simple means, which showed up a latitude of 67 degrees. The method, I had used for this calculation, was checked by me in Bern later when I detected, that I was wrong for only one to one and a half degrees.

In the following, third night, we frequently changed the guard above the constantly roaring waves. Between around 1 to 2 a.m. I was on the guard. Then, for some time, while the balloon had started to rise again, we made our watch together, then we both rested, because nothing could happen now. We had to rest, because we did not know, which demands for power and perseverance might approach us. We had to be prepared for almost everything. We could fall to the sea or land at a place, where we would have to face long and straining walks. So I also cared, that we ate enough from our plentiful food supply, and indeed, neither of us felt any tiredness. But nevertheless it happened, that we thought about many things, you normally don’t care for, like the sense of life and the future, that seemed a little bit dangerous for us – –

In the evening we approached again a layer of fog, approximately 600 to 700 meters thick. We allowed the balloon to drop, until the trail-rope was in the water for a length of about 30 to 40 m. Slowly the balloon closed up to the waves. The basket may not touch the water, and we could prevent this. The fog connected the clouds like valleys and mountains and once we came to the edge of such a mountain. There we saw the shadow of our balloon, clearly and with all details, circled by the fresh colours of the spectrum. The warmth from the sea, streaming up from below, warmed the gas in our balloon, so we came up high again and out of the fog and could finally see the stars in the sky. This again soon caused a cooling, the balloon dropped again and once more we floated, well balanced, but in the fog, until the break of the new, the fourth day, when the sun appeared again. Then it went up again and soon we reached 4000 m. Our situation still had not changed. We saw the sky and the fog and heard the waves. It was 10 a.m. when we discovered something in the distance, very interesting to us: land! We had been wrong for several times before. Once we had thought, we had heard church-bells ringing, then to recognize a coastal mountain, but it always had turned out to be shapes of the fog. Now we watched together and realized, it was really land! Of course, it was far away, at least 50 km, and we were driven parallel to it, but it soon became clearly visible and we shook hands with no words…..

We did not know exactly, where we were, if it was the Norwegian coast or the coast of Scotland. 5300 m was indicated by our instruments. We tried to reach a lower level and suddenly we saw a ship. It came from the coast and had a course parallel to us. We shouted down. No answer. Now we let drop the balloon more, until a part of the trail-rope again laid on the water. So we realized, that this rope was not tracked behind us, but driven aside of our course by the streaming. So we came closer to the ship. We asked the crew, to accompany us for a while. They did not listen to our calls, we gave them in different languages. They got the rope and – fixed it.

Actually, this was the end of our flight. Also to our question, where we were, we uncommonly got no reply. The crew had thought, we had risen the emergency flag. This was wrong, for we did not even have one. Probably they had taken the Swiss flag for an emergency flag, which would not be strange, because Switzerland had not yet shown its flag on the North Sea. Our trail-rope sucked an enormous amount of water. Five weeks after the flight I took its weight and it still had 95 kilogram instead of its normal 60 kilograms. The water sprayed into the basket, so I jumped over to the ship. After two hours of trailing, we were brought to land in Bergset near Molde, the rip-out panel was pulled and the balloon deflated. We had been in the air for 73 hours, many hours longer than any balloon before. It was a world-record flight for duration and we had won the Gordon Bennett Cup for our country.

We stood in Bergset for the night. The following day, we travelled via Christiansund and Drontheim to Kopenhagen, where we everywhere got a very warm welcome by the German consuls. Then we travelled back to Berlin, our take-off place.

So far the report of Oberst Schaeck. When he wrote at the end of the penultimate chapter: “we won the Gordon Bennett Cup”, he was a little ahead of the time. The last meeting of the FAI on May 27th, 1908 actually had decided: “In case a balloon comes down on the sea and is recovered by a ship, the balloon will be taken out of competition, but without any penalizing for the pilot”. So it was not easy for the jury. They pulled themselves out of this problem, by announcing on October 31st: “The decisions of the international conference in London from May 27th do not affect this years Gordon Bennett Race, because they had been made after the closing date of this race (February 1st, 1908)”. So far in general, now in special: “The time of arrival of the balloon HELVETIA is recorded in its log-book by 3 p.m. on October 14th 1908 and confirmed by two witnesses. At this time the balloon was tethered by its trail rope to the steamer CIMRA 12 km out of the coast near the village of Bergset near Bud in the Romsdalsamt (Norway) and towed to land, where it was deflated and packed. The covered distance to the village of Bergset is 1212 km; if this distance is reduced by the distance, covered during the two hours tow by the steamer, which may be estimated with 22 km, there will be a distance to the launch field of 1190 km. As proved by a photography, reproduced in the Norwegian newspaper “Aftenposten” on Monday, October 19th 1908 Nr. 593, the balloon HELVETIA stayed hovered during the tow. Due to these realizations, the jury awards the Gordon Bennet Cup to the balloon HELVETIA, pilot Oberst Schaeck, 2nd pilot Oberleutnant Messner. Signed Busley, Hildebrandt, Moedebeck, Riedinger (Jury).

Thinking, that was it, is an error! The Aero-Club of the United Kingdom filed a protest against this decision (protesting in sports therefore is not an invention of present times!). The Federation Aéronautique International (F.A.I.), called for an extraordinary conference to handle this protest to the Ritz-Hotel in London on January 11th and 12th1909. The record of this conference contains 15 pages, narrow-printed, and would be boring here. Summarizing, it should be fixed:

It was protested, because Schaeck/Messner landed in the sea at Norway and therefore had to be disqualified. For one reason, there was the decision of the F.A.I from May 1908, for another reason Oberstleutnant Moedebeck as launch-master had told the balloons, to prevent water-landings. Interesting arguments finally led to the rejection of the protest:

  • The nomination for the Gordon Bennett Race 1908 was done before February 1st, creating a final contract, which could not be affected by later decisions in may.
  • Oberstleutnant Moedebeck indeed was an official representative of the German Luftschiffer-Verband, but not an official of this race. Only the officials were permitted, to announce changes in the rules, therefore they carry an armband with a golden border (which Moedebeck did not have). Also Mister Victor de Beauclair and other competitors had at once raised objection against the order of Moedebeck.
  • The HELVETIA was tethered to the fishing boat by its trail-rope against the will of Mister Schaeck and Mister Messner. So they had been kept from completing their flight with a landing on hard surface. Besides this, also a ship has to be considered as part of the country, whose flag it is carrying, so the HELVETIA had landed on a part of the kingdom of Norway”.

Three crews had fallen to the sea and had been set to the places 20 to 22 without figuring any distances. This decision was explained by the jury as follows:

“From the pilots fallen to the sea, we only had the log book of our Spanish comrade Montojo, which, still soaked with salt water, proved to us well the dangerous hours, he and his companion Don Jose Romero de Vejade had stood in a heroic way. But the determination of his position in the sea was only estimated by a skipper with a scope of one nautical mile. We think, that this landing in the sea could not be compared with others, most accurately documented landings.

Mr. Harry Hewat had lost his log book and reconstructed it by his memory. We recognize this difficult work very much, but the jury could not possibly acknowledge it as a document. Dr. Niemeyer, our proven pilot, also had lost his log book and was therefore put out of the race.

So you see, gentlemen, that we did not put these pilots out of classification because they had fallen to the sea, but because their landing spots could not have been confirmed by documents in a way, to compare them to other pilots without performing injustice.”

This argumentation convinced the majority of the present delegates. The result of the ballot was:

36 votes for a rejection of the protest,
13 votes for a recognition,
6 delegates performed abstention.

So close together are triumph and failure!

Also the co-pilot of the winning balloon gave a report from his point of view. It is of a pleasant sobriety, without any emotion. Let him tell.

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