21st Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett - Chicago (USA) 1933

Start: Chicago, September 2nd at 6 p.m.        

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

1933, the year in which in Germany the evil began. The governments had changed in shorter and shorter periods in the year 1932, the National Socialist Party promised calmness, development and welfare. We know today, where these promises lead. The economy had not yet overcome its crisis, but it went upwards slowly. On March 8th, 1933, still 6.002.000 unemployed were counted in Germany (in the USA, this number was estimated at about 15 millions), on August 15th; this number had dropped to 4.334.000. But on July 31st, the secretary of the interior had reported 26789 persons in "protective prison camps". Since April a boycott of Jewish shops was ordered, artists and scientists were prohibited to act on stage or to teach, those who recognised the signs of time left the country.

Let’s turn to more pleasant things. On June 1st, 1933 the world exhibition was opened in Chicago. The Gordon Bennett Race was a part of this event. But even before, this world exhibition attracted the breathtaking sensations of aviation. On July 15th, 24 flying boats under the command of the Italian general Balbo landed there, after a 15 days group flight across the Atlantic from Orbetello via Amsterdam, Reykjavik, Cartwright (Labrador), Shediac (Canada) and Montreal. In Europe, on July 21st, the new passenger plane HE 70, reached the never before covered average speed of 333 kilometres per hour on a test flight from Berlin to Copenhagen. The JU 60 was put into service; it made 245 kilometres an hour. A new long distance world record was announced on August 21st. French Codos and Rossi covered the route New York - Beirut = 9.062 kilometres in 56 1/2 hours. In America J. Wedell set a new world record for speed in a racing plane of 880 h.p. Speed was most interesting in those days. Italy was cheering, when their passenger steamer REX won the Blue Ribbon for the quickest Atlantic crossing from Geneva via Gibraltar to New York in 4 days, 13 hours and 58 minutes on September 3rd. And so it becomes also understandable, why the Americans requested autographs from the German competitor at the Gordon Bennett Race, Fritz von Opel on the shreds of his burst balloon: Fritz von Opel was a well known racing car driver, who also had drawn much attention by first experiments with a rocket motor in a plane.

And the balloon? Was it finally pushed out into the cold? No, it was still unbeatable, if it was for gaining altitude. There was almost a race for the world record in altitude. Piccard had improved his record of 15.946 m from the year 1931 to 16.940 m with a flight from Zurich on August 18th, 1932. Russian Georgij Prokofiew, Ernst Birnbaum and Konstantin Godunow managed 18.500 meters from Moscow on February 28th, 1933. This race went on and caused five deaths in the following year 1934. To this fits, that two days before the launch of the Gordon Bennett Race in Chicago, in Essen balloon BARTSCH VON SIGSFELD flown by Alexander Dahl for the meteorological observatory of this town, reached an altitude of 11.300 meters thus setting up a new German record for altitude.

Richard Schütze gives report from the 21st Gordon Bennett Race from Bitterfeld. His report contains everything that happened before and during the race, here are his words:

Pilot Richard Schütze (GER) Tells

For the second time I was ordered by the German Air sport Association to represent German colours in the international Gordon Bennett Race for balloons. For the race in the previous year in Switzerland, three German balloons had been nominated after a qualification race, pilot Leimkugel from Essen and me had been selected, to fly the new balloon DEUTSCHLAND, build for this race. This balloon DEUTSCHLAND was a new net less construction, to reduce the weight of the balloon by leaving out the net and to become equal to the balloons from other nations. Experiences from previous year in Switzerland however showed, that the Americans with their silk balloons, especially constructed for the Gordon Bennett Race, were still superior to us. So the difference in weight between the American balloons and our DEUTSCHLAND was still 150 kilograms, 10 bags of 15 kilograms of ballast each, quite a lot. Considering the fact, that Gordon Bennett pilots are the best of their countries, all experienced pilots, who get all out of themselves and their balloons, which means half of the victory.

By the winning of American Settle in the previous year, North America became host for the race 1933. Because of the very high costs for an expedition to America, the European nations took only part with one balloon each. Represented were Germany, France, Belgium and Poland. In the last minute however, Germany nominated a second team, balloon WILHELM VON OPEL with pilot Deku from Darmstadt and co-pilot Fritz von Opel.

For participation with balloon DEUTSCHLAND eight pilots had been pre-selected, who had to qualify in a race? The winner of this race should become the final representative of Germany.

This qualification race was held from Wuppertal at the end of June and I was lucky to come in first with quite a good lead.

So my wishes, to see the United States once, fulfilled quicker than I had ever dreamed. But only because of the generous sponsoring by the management of the I.G. Farbenindustrie Bitterfeld, it became possible for me, to go on the journey to North America.

As co-pilot I choose Dr. Körner from Gera, who is also the leader of the Bitterfeld group and with whom I had flown several competitions together.

Launch was scheduled for September 2nd, 6 p.m. as part of a four day air show on the airfield of Glenview near Chicago during the world exhibition. On August 10th, we began our journey with the steamer HAMBURG to New York.

We were quite happy, when time had proceeded to the first pilots briefing on the morning of August 31st. The information we got, however was not something, to raise a good mood in us. So we were told, that already on September 1st, 8 a.m. we had to begin with the preparation and inflation of the balloons, otherwise the filling of the balloons could not be guaranteed until September 2nd, 6 p.m. The factory in Chicago furnished the coal gas and the pressure at Glenview, one hour by car from Chicago, was so low, that a quicker inflation was impossible. So there was no competent help to our disposal, we had to accept to stay with the inflation of our balloons on the airfield for two days in burning heat.

Next morning at exactly 8 a.m. we began with the laying out of our balloon. This was our first opportunity, to see the balloons of our competitors, and what we saw made our hopes for success shrink quite a lot. The Polish pilot brought a balloon to launch, which was sponsored by the government and was totally adapted to the American material due to the experiences from Switzerland last year. Also multiple Gordon Bennett winner van Orman had got a new balloon, while last year’s winner Settle was there with his balloon NAVY. Compared to these three balloons we, but also the Belgium and the French were in a disadvantage, about 150 kilograms, about 10 bags of ballast, as I could read from the weight list of the Polish balloon. Seeing these balloons, French Blanchet, an old Gordon Bennett racer, only shook his head and then told me: "We will be the last."

A major of the airship troops from St. Louis, helped by a captain, did the supervising during the inflation. Also each balloon got two men from the airship troops as an aid. After we had laid out the balloon, we got the message, that inflation could not begin before 5 p.m. Mood was not good among the foreign pilots at this message, nobody could leave his balloon alone now and had to stay on the field the whole day. This time could really have been used better for other purpose, as rest for example.

We had been able to witness a perfect organisation in Basel the year before; here in Chicago a lot was missing. After the balloons had been inflated to one third at the evening, inflation should continue at morning of September 2nd. Wind was very gusty on that day, which created a lot of difficulties especially for us inflating our nettles balloon. We had to protest several times, before the 20 people necessary for inflation were provided. This were been unemployed people, full of ignorance and lack of interest, who made life as hard as possible for me during inflation.

The mishap of balloon WILHELM VON OPEL, build nettles like ours, happened, when pilot Deco allowed it to stand too high after completed inflation, so the distance between the ground and the balloon was too big, the gusty wind could enter under the balloon and move it around. So the belt around the equator, to which the flying wires are fixed, got loose and then tore the balloon. This ended with the American spectators jumping on the envelope, cutting strips out of it as souvenir, and then asking Fritz von Opel for autographs on it.

Launch of the balloons happened like planned from 6 p.m. on. At first, American Van Orman started, second was the Belgium, American Settle third, we fourth, the Polish fifth and the French finished. Each balloon was carried to the platform and sent out to his journey under the sound of his national anthem. The number of spectators reached about 80.000 on this day.

During the whole week, the wind had come from the North, and so we had been happy, not to be forced to fly across the Great Lakes, but probably could fly cross country down to the Gulf of Mexico. But as always, our hopes were in vain. One day before launch, wind turned to south southwest slowly and we got a heading towards Lake Michigan and Canada. We had got 42 bags of ballast, but each not heavier than 15 kilograms. With a speed of 20 kilometres an hour our flight went directly towards Lake Michigan, which we reached after approximately half an hour.

Peaceful with little waves Lake Michigan laid below us. Soon night broke in, only a few lighthouse fires told us the coast was nearby. Not much later, even those went out of sight. Once again we met a steamer on the service between Chicago and Milwaukee. The moon illuminated our track; clouds were only visible as dust on the horizon far away and the stars stood clear and bright. The murmur of the lake slowly turned into a rush, quite similar to the rush of a weir.

At about midnight, we had reached the bank of clouds, crossed some Cumuli first and then finally floated above a closed layer of clouds. With wonderful pride the sun rose at morning above this closed layer. We did not know, if we were still over the lake or if there was already earth beneath us. We did not hear the rush anymore, but also nothing else. Flying in America is so much different than at home. While at home there is always the noise from the busy ground reaching up to the balloon, in America you fly long distances over unsettled or poorly settled areas. It is all very quiet. No sound reaches up to the balloon. Once, at about 10 a.m. the clouds broke up for a little moment, and we saw below us an endless white desert of sand, scattered by an uncountable number of lakes, here and there the house of a farmer, but no people. Up to that moment we had only heard the horns of steamers, a sign, that we had been permanent over water.

It wasn’t before noon that the clouds were broken up slowly by the influence of the sunbeams. Mighty Cumuli were left, but we had at least some sight, which made us breathe a sight of relief after more than ten hours flight above of the clouds. We had already detected, that speed was very low and we were heading north east. To dive down and gain orientation, which might not even have worked, could not be taken into consideration, for the cooling by the shadows of the clouds would have cost too much loss of ballast. At 3 p.m. in the afternoon, we were lucky to read the name of a village on a rooftop from 2000 meters of altitude. It was Edmore in Michigan. Now we knew, where we were and now we were able, to act more determined. So the Cumuli clouds rose slowly, we had to follow them in the same amount. Once, a cloud shadow caught us, we were forced to overthrow, thus climbing to 5000 meters. Here we got a direction to the east and also some more speed. Also, continuing in this direction, Lake Huron had to be crossed only in its smallest wide in the south, and so we were lucky about this little success. Continuing in this direction, we would not have to fly to Canada, but had the opportunity to reach the American East coast. Also, we followed a railroad track from Edmore to the east, so navigation was not too difficult and we were in best mood. But then, at 7 p.m., with the sunset, the cooling began and we were no longer able to keep the balloon in the altitude of 5000 meters. Slowly we had to let it slip down under a permanent loss of ballast. This sacrifice of ballast was more than we had expected, and when we reached 2000 meters with eight bags left and could still not stop the descent, we decided to dump everything not fixed to the basket, to save our valuable sand. But even this did not help a lot. When we could finally stop the fall at about 300 meters, we had only three bags left. We were about 30 kilometres in front of Lake Huron and the wind here turned again toward NNE. Also, wind became calm, the speed decreased down to about 3 to 4 kilometres an hour. So we had to face the fact, to be forced to cross Lake Huron in its longest extension of about 300 kilometres at night, low wind speed and three bags left. We thought long, if we should take this risk, but then sensibility won and we decided to land.

Night had already come in, we stood in front of a large swampy area ahead of Lake Huron, so preparation for landing was done quick. We had seen large forest fires before and now dropped towards a forest, out of which a big heat streamed in our direction when we approached. In a first shock we believed, that this forest was also burning, so we dumped our last ballast and landed on an open swampy area exactly in a ditch, we realised in the darkness not before we were standing in the water up to our knees. As we later learned, the forest was not burning. The enormous thermal radiation can be explained by the big insulation during the day. Cooling at evening is then quite big and the amount of thermal radiation is felt bigger than normal.

After we had crossed the last village about an hour ago, we did not expect to meet people here very quick. So we were quite astonished, to hear human voices after a short time. It was farmers from a farm nearby, who had watched us and then made their way towards us equipped with flashlights. We were told then, that we had landed near the town of Klingstone. The balloon was then packed with the help of the farmers, put to a car that had come, and brought to the farm where we stood overnight.

If one searches for an explanation for the huge differences in the covered distances, one first has to separate the balloons into two groups. The first group consisted of three lightweight balloons, two American and the Polish one, while the second group was the French, Belgium and German balloon. The French balloon was the most heavy, and obviously he did not manage to reach Lake Huron with the ballast, he was able to take with him. For the Belgian and us, Lake Huron was the big obstacle; we could not fly over with the little ballast left. If this lake had been ahead of us in the evening, we would of course have flown through the night and could probably have stood in the air for a part of the following day by using the superheating at the next morning. If this would not have worked, we could have landed on hard ground during the night.

The three lightweight balloons indeed had, to my estimation, at least 15 bags left at this evening in front of Lake Huron. With this amount, it was natural, that the lake had to be crossed. As I also realised in the following night, wind speeded up after some thunderstorms and kept this speed the following day, so the three balloons that kept flying that night, could cover quite a big distance until the next evening.

It is clear, that the intense efforts of the Polish, who did not fear any costs to keep up with the Americans was crowned with success. Anyhow, it is proved, that the success of the Americans was not only achieved by the quality of their pilots, but first of all by the superiority of the material, they had for years. If one also considers, that the American pilots know their country very well and that they are equipped with the most modern radio transmitters, (American Settle is navigation officer on an American airship), the performance of the Polish can’t be acknowledged high enough. If we don’t take our lessons out of the past races and don’t construct a balloon for the next international races, which is at least equal to the material that was in Chicago we will not be able to come out of these races as winners.

So for the report from Richard Schütze. It was written immediately after the end of the race. Something he could not know at that moment: The victory of Polish pilot Francyzek Hynek started a series of victories for this country, with only one interruption until the break for 45 years from 1938 on, and still continued later.


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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.