Founded by publisher James Gordon Bennett in 1906, this international gas balloon race is decided by which balloon flies the greatest distance. Pilots have been known to stretch the limits in order to achieve the best result.
As the race progressed, Jacques Soukup, president of the International Ballooning Committee, was giving lively updates on Internet. A number teams had stayed in the air two nights. And then three nights. As reports of the team’s progress filtered in one could sense the excitement. This year’s event was going to be a true test of which team could fly the longest.
By Wednesday morning, September 13, four teams were reported to be still in the air. Then the magic of this event was shattered by an AP wire story from Minsk, Belarus. Two Americans flying a balloon had been shot down and killed by a Belarussian military helicopter near the Polish border.
The shooting occurred on Tuesday, September 12. The Belarus government waited 24 hours to inform the U.S. Embassy that the two pilots, who were carrying American passports, had been killed.
Alan Fraenckel, 55, and John Stuart-Jervis, 68, representing the Virgin Islands, had been shot down after crossing into Belarus airspace from Poland and, according to an official statement from Belarus, failed to respond to radio calls and warning shots. Their balloon was reported to be near the Osovtsy military base and an adjoining missile base.
Both pilots were reported to have died from injuries suffered when their deflated balloon fell to the forest floor near Beryoza, about 60 miles from the Polish border.
Alan Fraenckel, a professional airline pilot for TWA, resided in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, and Ballston Lake, NY. John Stuart-Jervis, a retired Royal Navy pilot and business man, also resided in St. Croix, Virgin Islands.
Just a few short weeks since the tragedy, there are many unanswered questions. The information below is taken from official press releases of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, Belarus government, and the U.S. State Department.
The Belarus government, which did not notify the United States of the shooting for 24 hours, reiterated its regret in an official statement issued late Wednesday, September 13, and published in Thursday’s newspapers. But it stopped short of an apology, saying the balloon was warned repeatedly after it approached strategic military facilities.
"The government of the Republic of Belarus expresses its regret over the air accident, which entailed fatalities," the statement said.
"All steps taken by Air Defense troops to establish contact with the flying object- including activation of additional radar, repeated attempts to establish radio contact, a flyover by military helicopter to spot the pilots and firing of warning shots-did not bring any results," the statement continued.
Nicholas Burns, a State Department spokesman in Washington, said the delay by Belarus in informing Washington was unacceptable.
"We are making very strong diplomatic protests. In this day and age, in the post- Cold War era, for this type of thing to happen is deeply regrettable," he said. Burns called the incident, "Outrageous."
Embassy officials went to the site to recover the bodies and investigate the downing.
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko set up a government commission to investigate.
"Should they shoot it down instead of forcing the balloon to land in a civilized manner?" the parliament daily, Narodnaya Gazeta, asked in a commentary September 14. "It brings immediate parallels to the Soviet-era shoot down of a South Korean passenger jet..
A Belarussian Interior Ministry official who declined to be named said the government was notified in May about the race. The official did not know whether the information had been passed on to the military.
According to a Belarussian story, Major-General V. Kostenko, Commander of the Byelorussian Air Defense Troops, ordered the balloon shot down. The statement said, "On Tuesday the two US citizens in [the balloon] could have been unconscious and therefore did not respond to radio calls and warnings," according to Yuri Sivakov, Deputy Chairman of the Government Commission investigating the tragdey. He told a press conference that, "From a legal point of view not a single letter of the law has been violated. As the unidentified flying craft intruded into the National Airspace and did not respond to radio calls. Everything was done in strict compliance with instructions."
Sivakov added, "The moral side of it is another thing, there are many questions about it. That was an outrageous incident."
Sivakov said the helicopter which shot down the balloon was piloted by a young Captain who took the cabin for a cargo compartment and fired 20 bullets from a large caliber 12.7 mm machine gun at it. The government statement went on to say that members of the government commission believe the pilots of the downed balloon were unconscious and therefore did not respond to radio calls, did not show up and even did not react to the warning machine gun fire from the MI-4 helicopter. They could have lost conscience because of a decompression sickness originating after a sharp climb to the altitude of 8,000 meters and a consequent sharp fall to 2,300 meters. It was further reported that the remains of the balloon were checked and that it had no identification markings and was painted in monotonous grey.
Although the Belarus authorities admitted receiving information about the race in May they maintained that proper flight plans had not been filed at the time of the event.
The FAI in a press release on September, 15 refuted what the Belarus government said.
"The race organizers had obtained clearance from the Belarussian authorities for the Gordon Bennett balloon race competitors to enter the air space of Belarus.
"Specific flight plans had been filed, in accordance with standard International Civil Aviation Organization procedures, for each balloon intending to enter Belarus air space.
"The balloon which was shot down was equipped with multi-channel radio and transponder for radio and radar contact with air traffic control. In addition to conventional battery power, the balloon had a solar panel power generation system as back up.
"The competition organizers in Switzerland spoke on the telephone with Minsk air traffic control on the morning of Tuesday, 12 September at 11 a.m., Belarus time. Minsk gave position reports for the participating balloons, without indicating anything was amiss. The Minsk authorities were therefore clearly aware of the origins of the balloons in Belarus airspace.
"According to the Belarus government statement, the shooting down occurred (in broad daylight) at 11:54 a.m., local time. The balloon was large, white in color, displaying a Virgin Islands flag and prominently marked with the German registration ‘D-CARIBBEAN’.
"The pilot of the balloon, Mr. Alan Fraenckel, was a highly experienced professional airline pilot, fully conversant with international air traffic control and communication procedures. He would have been trained to recognize and to respond to standard international warnings issued by intercepting aircraft.
"The Belarus air defense forces detected the balloon at 9:41 a.m., local time, as it entered Belarus air space. They therefore monitored it for 2 hours and 13 minutes before shooting it down.
"Two other, US registered, balloons participating in the Gordon Bennett air race also entered the air space of Belarus on 12 September. The pilot of one, Mr. David Levin, reports that he contacted Minsk Radar air traffic control two hours before reaching the Belarus border. His call was acknowledged, but only in Russian. He continued to give position reports to Minsk Radar every 30 minutes, but never received any acknowledgement in English, which is the ICAO language for Air Traffic Control communications. He subsequently landed safely in Belarus (because of deteriorating weather) at 14:15, local time, over two hours after the Virgin Islands balloon had been shot down.
"The other balloon, piloted by Mike Wallace, was intercepted by a Belarussian helicopter gun-ship and instructed to land. Mr. Wallace immediately complied with the instructions, and landed safely."
J. Michael Wallace of Longmeadow, MA, and Kevin Brielmann of Cheshire, CT, were fined $30 each by the Belarus border guards for not having a visa to be in Belarus when they crossed the border back into Poland.
``This is a farce,’’ U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told reporters. ``We expected an apology from the Belarussian government and instead we got a bill.’’
In a subsequent press release the FAI reported that Mike Wallace confirmed that he spoke by radio to Alan Fraenckel shortly before the Belarussian government reports that it shot down the balloon. The release said that Wallace had constant visual contact with Alan Fraenckel’s balloon from dawn onwards. This refutes the Belarussian position that Fraenckel had risen to a height of 8,000 meters.
Wallace reported that he was instructed to descend by a military helicopter which circled his balloon several times and pointed a cannon and machine gun at the envelope. He immediately initiated a maximum rate descent and landed as soon as he had cleared a swamp area. During the landing maneuver his progress was monitored by military aircraft.
The FAI said in a statement said, "We are concerned that this incident will damage international relations. This is the exact opposite of what the sport of ballooning and FAI seek to achieve, which is to bring together the peoples of the world.
"We are therefore determined not to let this incident affect future Coupe Gordon Bennett races and other air sport events. We intend to continue conducting races across international borders, whilst respecting the legal requirements of each sovereign state regarding airspace penetration. The 1996 Coupe Gordon Bennett Race will be held in the country of this year’s winner."
The U.S. State Department rejected suggestions by Belarus that organizers were partly responsible for the deaths of two American balloonists. "There can be no excuses, no rationale, no way of explaining the totally unjustifiable behavior last week, shooting down two Americans in a balloon that posed no threat to them at a time when the Cold War is over," said spokesman Nick Burns.