As it should be, the 40th edition of the International Coupe de Gordon Bennett gas balloon race was a memorial to the memory of last year’s tragic shooting, and death, of the U.S.-Virgin Island team of Alan Fraenckel and John Stuart-Jervis (Tragedy in Belarus, Balloon Life October 1995).
The mood of the entire gathering (pilots, crews, organizers, officials, and VIPs) was light, jovial and anticipatory of the upcoming event. Opening statements by the president of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale’s Ballooning Commission, Jacques W. Soukup, reminded us all of last year’s horrid action of the Belarus military and the spirit of this year’s race.
The most exasperating job of all of the selected officials, undoubtedly went to Mr. Narbert Schumacher, head of the German air traffic control. A 29-year veteran, his task was to get clearance for the balloons to fly through the various countries where their track might take them. Most countries who join the I.C.A.O. worked with Schumacher in a quick and expedient manner—but dealing with the former Soviet Union countries proved to be a trying and futile experience yielding no results.
An example of this frustration was well demonstrated when dealing with the three countries near the Baltic Sea, north of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. After months of constant contract by phone and letters, Schumacher received his only reply (in perfect German), “the Russian bear (meaning the government) is big and slow.”
Naturally, Belarus was considered a “NO FLY” zone and Schumacher made no effort to contact them.
The most common topic among all at Thursday night’s reception was the weather. Reportedly, three weather experts had been recruited to prognosticate the event’s direction, and naturally, three opinions surfaced as to the possible track, changing almost on the hour. Early Friday morning was breezy, overcast, drizzly and gloomy as the entourage moved from Lippstadt, Germany, where the reception was held, 60 km to the south to the host town of Warstein, Germany.
Warsteiner Beer, at Warstein, Germany, was the official sponsor of this year’s event. With approximately a 60-balloon air force, Warsteiner Beer is the most prominent and obvious supporter of ballooning in Europe and, most likely, the world.
In conjunction with the Gordon Bennett, a 100-plus, hot air balloon event was scheduled in the vast Warsteiner Brewery complex. But as the weather gods deemed… the weather was not conducive to hot air ballooning.
Trying to beat the impending rain, pilots and crews frantically but methodically began filling the 90 to 100 sand bags each balloon would need to hold down the balloon as the inflation process began. The mixture of the older style “net” balloons with wood top vents and the newer “netless” ones with parachute type vents was about half and half.
At the first (Friday afternoon) full briefing, all the normal items were covered—rules, weather. All went as expected until the announcement of which countries were considered “NO FLY” or “out of bounds” areas.
Naturally, some of the countries not mentioned as “no fly” zones in the area of Central and South Yugoslavia, upset the U.S. pilots.
In a heated and obviously emotional exchange with Event Director Markus Haggeney, Mike Wallace, of the U.S., argued that it is possible we had not learned anything from last year and needed to reconsider the no fly countries.
As Wallace so aptly and succinctly put it, “You as organizers should or could fly with me… or better yet, ride in my chase vehicle.” The obvious meaning being because of the politics involved in an international event, and not to offend other countries and organization, the officials had assumed the risk on behalf of the pilots without due consideration to the absolute risk involved, especially with the current attitude toward Americans in such countries as Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Herzegovina.
With the point being well taken, the entire room of pilots and crew applauded Wallace’s comments, as the committee agreed to come back with an answer at the next briefing, to be held at 5:00 p.m.
The feeling among U.S. pilots was consistent.
Richard Abruzzo, when asked how he felt about his wife possibly chasing him through Bosnia said, “…NO! I would not let her go.”
Mike Wallace personally felt the committee would not change their stance due to the politics involved, but everyone was ;eased when the committee came through with an agreeable and acceptable list of countries considered as “NO FLY” zones, which included such countries as Belarus, Ireland, Turkey, and the Ukraine, along with the war-torn area of the former Yugoslavia.
By now, weather had forced a delay of the 8:00 p.m. launch to 1:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. The question on the pilots and co-pilots mind now was, will we launch in this kind of weather? What direction will we go? Will the weather improve or deteriorate? For those of you who have no experience with gas balloons, weather limits are at higher thresholds and conditions experienced can, and most often are, more trying and severe than a casual one hour local hot air balloon flight.
While rain came and went, the wind persisted, the clouds came and went and the balloons began the inflation process. Of the three U.S. teams (Wallace/Brielman, Abruzzo/Melton, and Bradley/Bradley) only one encountered a problem on inflation. Abruzzo, flying a new self designed balloon, encountered a few problems, which were overcome before launch.
Seven time Gordon Bennett winner Josef Starkbaum, Austria, was noticeably hampered by an air-splint on his leg, the result of a broken ankle, sustained during the World Gas Balloon Championships, when a battery jarred loose during a hard landing and injured his leg.
When asked of his feeling of this year’s event, reflecting on last year, his attitude was prudent and circumspect. His feeling is that we all take the “calculated risk” when we fly and should be willing to accept the consequences.
Much of the risk involved with flying in hostile territories is eliminated with good maps, navigational equipment, and radios. While having won a record number of Gordon Bennett’s, Starkbaum said, “It’s not essential for me to win—but I always want to win!”
By midnight, clouds were parting, the wind had subsided, and glimpses of the moon and stars were obvious. The balloons bobbed silently in the wind as the crews and pilots made their final preparations. Many of the pilots had tried to catch some sleep, aware of what could be a very cold, wet and sleepless night.
The stage was ready, the balloons were inflated, the pilots and co-pilots were anxious and ready to launch. Having drawn their respective order of launch times, at the reception, the German team of Höhl and Schubert were first.
For those who have never seen a night launch of the Gordon Bennett, the pomp and circumstance is emotional and awe-inspiring with each balloon launched from the same center stage, spotlight on full focus, while the balloons respective country’s national anthem is blared over the speaker system. The spotlight follows the balloon’s launch until the next balloon is positioned in place on stage.
The launch was uneventful except for one almost basket to envelope contact, which can be quite serious considering the balloons are all filled with hydrogen.
Bad weather for some of the teams forced early landings, with only five teams flying over 1,000 kilometers.
A first hand account from the team of Höhl and Schubert described heavy rain and snow, temperatures in the 30’s to 50’s and water saturated envelopes, sand and radio equipment, a scary descent in the range of 2,000 to 2,400 feet per minute and rain soaked sandwiches. After dumping all but three bags of ballast (considered the fuel) a forced landing seemed inevitable. But darkness showed few open fields in the northern Czech Republic. So typing off in very tall trees to await the morning light seemed the logical thing to do. By morning, the sun expanding the hydrogen, drying out the rain soaked team, a gentle landing was made in the trees, which resulted in a six meter tear in the balloon envelope. Pilot Bep Höhl made a two hour hike to a small village while co-pilot Alex Schubert secured the equipment and strategized a procedure to get the balloon out of the woods.
Out to best his record setting flight of 92 hours, in the air, and 1,628 kilometers, Wihilm Eimers and co-pilot Bemd Landsmann, of Germany, flew on to victory, landing in west Central Romania, with the U.S. team of Wallace and Brielman taking a close second, landing in northeast Hungary.
Guess we can look forward to Germany again hosting the Coupe Gordon Bennett race next year.