6th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett - Kansas-City (USA) 1911

Start: Kansas-City, October 5th, 5 p.m.         

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

America had to put something right after the after the organizational hitches the year before and it was for a big goal! America had won the race twice in a sequence, a victory this year would give them final possession of the cup. All efforts for this purpose were taken. The utmost best balloon-pilots should be sent to the race, so the Americans held a kind of a national championship for the first time, in which the three pilots had to qualify. Also, the national aero club laid down that the American competitors had to fly with new balloons, made of fabric coated with rubber. Harry E. Honeywell could not organize such an envelope and was put out of the race. The Americans believed that the chances for a third sequential victory were good without him as well. Frank P. Lahm, winner of 1906, was to start again. John W. Berry and William Assmann had proved their skill in the national championship.

Only six balloons were entered, the three Americans had to face two Germans and one French. Harry E. Honeywell flew out of competition and covered about 30 miles more than the winner. The regulation with the new envelopes proved to become a boomerang, but could not be changed subsequently. But would there have been a seventh race, if the cup had already found its final owner after such a short period? –Doubts are allowed.

Preparations in Kansas City were perfect. The gas works, like in 1907, had delivered a special light weight coal gas, so the six balloons of 2200 m³ were filled quick. This size of the envelopes had proved perfect for coal gas and were considered as adequate for Gordon Bennett Races from then on.

Even if the race launched on a Thursday, a lot of spectators had shown up, all hoping for the victory of an American. It did not work. Hans Gericke, second in the previous year, flew 757 kilometres in a rainy night and so collected the second victory for Germany.

Hans Gericke was an engineer and reserve first lieutenant. So it is written in the pilots list of his home club, the Berliner Verein für Luftschiffahrt. He was born in Potsdam on December 8th, 1871, and still lived there in the Schloßstraße in 1911. First he worked at the Schuckert-factory (later Siemens), then changed to the main office of the Royal Railway in Berlin. Later he was an engineer in large industrial plants in Canada and Denver, Colorado, USA.

He joined ballooning in 1908. In August 1909 he became pilot. Besides the second place in the race 1910 he won prizes in several other international competitions. Seven days before the launch of the next race, on October 20th 1912, he and his companion, first Lieutenant Wilhelm Stieler, fell to death from 700m with the balloon REICHSFLUGVEREIN I near Riesa (Saxony).

Original Report from Gericke about his Flight to Victory

On October 5th, the launch for this years Gordon Bennett Air flight took place in Kansas-City. The competition, was of a special interest this time, because besides America, only Germany and France took part. It was the duty to fight against the victory of the Americans who had won the races in 1909 and 1910 to prevent final loss of the cup to America. I would have been delighted, if the Frenchmen, without success in all races till now, had won.

In those first days of October, Kansas City was under the rule of the balloons. Already on the evening of October 3rd there was a splendid procession to honour the aeronauts. There was an almost endless string of cars moving through the main streets of the town. On the cars light-bulbs had been clever arranged, picturing the different children of flora. Between the cars, on which nice and elegant ladies of the society of Kansas City had taken seat, bands were marching. Enthusiasm of the population was great and reached its peak when a car loaded with three respectable balloons, electrically illuminated and adorned with the national colours of America, Germany and France moved along the main-street.

Morning of October 4th was spent with visitation and inspection of the arrived balloons. The chances of the different balloons were considered and my thoughts were, that the French would carry home the victory from this race, for their equipment was in an excellent condition. At noon a lunch was given for us at the house of the aero-club, followed by an excursion to the boulevards of the town by automobile. To prevent traffic jams in the streets, we were accompanied by four constables on motorbikes, one ahead, two as leaders of the train and the fourth followed our cars.

At 5 p.m. a briefing for the flight took place at the Baltimore Hotel, where we stayed. The log books and instruments were handed over and then the sequence of the launch was decided by a draw.

In the evening there was a big show for about 2000 people in the Convention Hall.

Next morning at 6:30 a.m. the balloons were carried to the launch field. This year I had preferred, not to take an American co-pilot, but a German, Mister Duncker from Bremen, member of the Berliner Verein für Luftschiffahrt. He cared for our food, which we had to calculate very generous. Inflation of the balloons started at 3 p.m. and finished at 5 p.m. The first balloon lifted into the air, every 15 minutes followed by the next one. When BERLIN II was prepared at about 6 p.m., I recognized with a shock, that the valve-line had not fallen through the appendix. Fortunately I had attached the rope-ladder, I had brought with me from Germany, to the appendix before raising the balloon, but even with a lot of effort, I did not manage to reach the vent line inside of the balloon. When I was ordered to depart within five minutes, in a short decision I cut a hole to the appendix large enough to crawl inside the balloon. After some longer efforts, I managed, standing on the rope ladder, to grap the vent line. There was no time left to sew or glue this hole above the closing device. Soon when I had reached the basket from the rope ladder, signal for depart was given.

Short after launch, we crossed the Missouri twice, having 50 meters of our dropped trail rope in the water. After giving some ballast, we climbed to an altitude of 300 meters and flew off in 10 degrees north to east. Our heading turned further north, so we sailed along the sea of air with five degrees west and 40 kilometres an hour. With this wind of constant speed it would not take long to reach Canada at Winnipeg and Duluth, for 1200 kilometres are covered quick. Until 9 p.m. under a sky full of stars the moon spread his magic light over the fields below and let the waters we crossed gloom in a pale silver glow.

Then thick swathes of mist rose, banks of clouds loomed ominously above and below us and took away the sight to the earth. A few heavy raindrops fell and then a cloudburst beat down as I had never seen before. At once we dumped ballast, but the rain increased and pressed us down again and again.

Considering the mentioned right turning of the heading and the higher wind speeds in higher altitudes as well as the masses of water beating down with horrible force, climbing higher could only be of an advantage. But we then had to face the danger of a total loss of control of the balloons speed and to be driven to the Canadian wilderness. Anyway, we had to try to climb above the rain clouds. From 10 to 11 p.m. I reached up for altitudes of about 1600 meters, at 11 p.m. I climbed even higher. The downpours that clattered on the balloon sounded to our ears like volleys from a machine gun. I was urged to search for higher altitudes and climbed to 2000 and 3000 meters.

All ballast for this purpose, except the last reserve for landing, had been dropped, so with sad hearts, we had to decide, to sacrifice parts of the food supply, we had carried along with us. But even this showed no success. The water still pushed the balloon down and poured over us in a way, that we thought, to have flow into the Niagara Falls. Luckly, the water, breaking in from above, did not stay in the basket, as much as came in, naturally flowed away again. Slowly, we gained a stoic calm: We could not get more wet, than down to our skin. The water streamed down on our clothing like wild mountain creeks. From time to time we took a good gulp of Cognac, to keep the spirits of life alert and to warm at least the inner part of our human being. Again and again we tried to reach above the rain clouds, one part of our food after the other went overboard. Finally, only a small part of the solid food, the vacuum flasks with coffee and chocolate and the liquors were left in the basket.

For ten hours totally, we had to stay in the basket, standing the icy showers of rain mixed with snow, pouring over us. About 3 a.m. the air cooled down extremely. By wringing out the empty sand bags as well as our jackets and caps, we both kept continually moving. Beside the liquors, also the vacuum-flasks, which contents only had stayed warm, served very well in these difficult hours. As time went by, we felt an urging hunger and swallowed the corn, that was spread on the floor of the basket, because we were not in the mood, to open the baskets with food fixed in the ropes high above our heads with our freezing fingers.

We drifted around in the air without any chance, to even roughly determine our position, when we tried to detect our wind speed and altitude, it came out, that our instruments, spoiled by the moisture, had quit their service. Orientation by eyes was impossible due to the thick fog and the bunch of clouds. We saw nothing, not even the balloon above us, only the radium coated figures of the watch and the compass went through the darkness.

The race last year wasn‘t as hard as the efforts this year. Last year hunger and cold in the Canadian bush, this year ten hours of uninterrupted rainfall in the balloon!

Due to the weather conditions at launch, we should have met the best wind speed and –direction at the altitude, we had mostly stayed at. We had flown at this altitude above the clouds for 12 hours now and so, relying on the speed, we believed ourselves deep in Canada. So at day break, 6 a.m., we decided to descent for safety reasons. The rest of ballast had to do the duty now. After a pull on the vent the balloon sank down through the grey sea of clouds from an altitude of 3000 m.

When we broke through the clouds, we recognized, that the balloon was driven to the south-south-east, a completely different heading. I decided to land at once, for a continuing in this direction would have brought us closer to the point where we began our flight, reducing our chances every minute.

As far as the eye could see through the layers of fog, we discovered wooden area below us. The strong surface wind threw us around between wild trees for minutes, making several branches of the trees break with a loud noise, and now, for a change, not water but wood of every size rained down on us. Freezing we looked at the area; we found ourselves in a real jungle, as it couldn‘t be more wild in Brazil. And this in a thunderstorm like that! I explained to Mr. Duncker: "If we run out of food and don‘t meet any game here, we will starve without any mercy. We are deep in the Canadian back forests, miles away from any human settlement, we must have flow with an incredible speed." The balloon struggled a heavy fight with the rotten bush and hundred years old tree-trunks, surrounded by swamp, while the basket, rising, falling, was tossed about like a scallop on foamy waves. The basket still hovered some meters above the ground, exactly below us covered with feet high water, while the load ring and the appendix were fixed and caught by branches and tree tops.

The cracking in the rotten branches above us made us afraid, that the fabric of the balloon started to tear. But right now, we can‘t see a hole from the basket. If the envelope stays unhurt, recovery of the balloon will be possible. So I felt the silent hope, to leave the forest with the inflated balloon the next day. We could not leave the basket at this storm and rain.

More than one hour we had spent in this little envied situation, when suddenly voices sounded from below and two men, obviously farmers, appeared out of thick bush in some distance. I put my hands to the mouth like a funnel and shouted down with all power of my lungs: "Hello , hello, which state is that? Is that Canada?" - "No, Wisconsin" was the answer. So we were not in Canada, but had stranded in the wilderness of the state of Wisconsin and found ourselves, as we soon learned, near the little town Holcombe, 12 miles southeast of Ladysmith, while the farmers lived only about 3 miles away from our landing place. We asked them, to tie the balloon. This wild monster was anchored with guide lines and the trail rope to the trees. The helpers in our hour of need then started to set up a warming fire for us, chattering teeth of cold and hissing like the balloon from being over taxed. Even in this wet weather they managed it after some unsuccessful efforts. Meanwhile we had left the basket and reached a tree by the trail rope, on which we could climb down to earth and approach to the fire to warm our stiffening and soaked limbs at least a little. Diagonal above us the silver gleaming giant still raged between the tree-tops, thrown around in wild movements by the storm.

Now we had to think of his recovery, but more help was needed. This was promised, and the two brave farmers left us and returned back after 3 hours with some farmhands. We had saved one box of food and ravenously we swallowed some eggs and sandwiches with sausages. We still had to wait for the liquors in the basket, for the basket hung too high to reach it without help in this swampy area. After the meal I took several photos and calculated our covered distance on the map with about 800 kilometres. Finally, after a long waiting, our people came back equipped with axes, saws and other tools.

With big efforts in a quite short time, almost thirty old trees were cut. After several hours of work we managed to undo the now deflated envelope and the net from the jungle of branches and tree tops. A car drawn by two horses was taken to the spot as close as possible and at about 7 p.m. the net and the envelope were finally loaded on the car. We had to leave the basket back this time, because no more load could be drawn by the horses on this heavy ground. First after 24 hours the basket and the other equipment could be secured. Everything that was brought back in the bags, had been completely soaked and spoiled by the indescribable rainfall, even protected by a coating with the mark "waterproof". Also my instruments and my camera with 200 plates had been destroyed.

At nightfall, having finished our work, we were guided to a farm by its owner, marching on mostly swampy ground, covered with burned tree trunks. This hike, on which we often had to walk in water up to our knees, once again demanded big efforts from us, being almost unable from exhaustion, to keep up any longer. But these strains were overcome as well and at 9 p.m. we finally reached the destination we had longed for so fervently: the home of the farmer. We felt only one need: to lay down, close our red and inflamed eyes and to sleep, sleep, sleep.

The farm on which we got our lodging carried the name "Devil's Nest" and was run by four brothers, doing poor farming and bee keeping.

Next morning I drove with the carriage through the highly romantic jungle along the river Jump to the town of Holcombe, five miles away. From there I told about our landing to the aero-club of Kansas City by telegraph. Little later, the reply telegram from Geo M. Meyers, president of the club arrived. The good news, it brought to me was: "With best congratulations. You are the winner!"

So the victory was ours, and we had not stood the ten hours of icy showers in the balloon for nothing! Our covered distance was 757 kilometres as the birds fly.

The year before, when I had landed deep in the Canadian jungle 30 kilometres east of I village of Kiskisink, my covered distance was 1814,5 kilometres, which became a German record for distance-flights. So I could be satisfied with the result in 1910 as well as in 1911, when I was declared to be the winner.

I hope, that the flourishing sport of ballooning will develop on as it did in the past and close with the wish for Germany, that this cup would not only remain for one year in our possession, but will be won also in future.

This last wish of dear Hans Gericke was not fulfilled for a long time. It took 80 years after his victory, until sport ballooning in Germany was able to celebrate the third success of a German crew.

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Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett

The Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett is the most prestigious event in aviation and the ultimate challenge for the balloon pilots and their equipment.