28th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett - Zurich (SUI) 1984

Start: Zurich, October 13th    

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

Gordon Bennett Races had lost nothing of their fascination. It had become more difficult than in the old days, to stay within the set borders, but as we had seen, long flights were still possible. According to the rules, Poland was in charge to host the race of 1984, but renounced. This was, beside financial problems, also for political and geographical reasons. Right in the middle of nations that did not love ballooning very much, the balloons would soon have reached their limits. Poland gave back the honour of hosting the race to the F.A.I. and Switzerland stepped in and helped out. This country, rich in ballooning tradition, already had hosted the race in 1932 as a substitute, when the USA had not been able to host it. The race was invited to Zurich and the date was put to fall, because then the tendency for thunderstorms is less, as the statistics of the past 15 years, contributed by the Swiss meteorological institution, showed. The day of the launch was decided by the moon, for at full moon navigation is much easier for the pilots. The time for the launch was set by the air traffic control of the airport Zürich-Kloten which was close to the launch field. The controllers did not want to have balloons in the sky as long as there was the evening airplane air traffic, so the first balloon could not launch before 11 p.m. Short after midnight, all were on their journey. But before this happened, the organizers of the race had to solve a lot of other problems.

First of all, there was a problem with the transportation of the hydrogen. The balloons were no longer, like until 1938, filled with coal gas, which had been available in every larger town. Hydrogen had to be brought from a chemical factory to the launch field by a special transportation truck. Seven of these trucks were necessary. They had to be back to their factories in the evening. Originally, the launch was set for Sunday evening, October 14th. But for Sunday, no permission for driving these trucks could be obtained from the authorities for road traffic. What could be done? Inflating the balloons on Saturday and leaving them on the launch field for 24 hours. This would increase the risks. Hydrogen is easy inflammable (it becomes only if mixed with oxygen). Condensed in the special tanks of the trucks little could happen, but a whole night and a whole day on the launch field with the gas in the balloons, an accident might occur. So the organization put the date for launch to Saturday, the night before full moon.

This new date had to be discussed again with air traffic control at Zürich-Kloten. Permission for the flight of the balloons was given with a limitation of the maximum altitude, above the plains of northern Switzerland, only fight-level 80 (2700 meters) were permitted, over the Alps they were allowed to climb up to flight level 140 (4700 meters). At first in other countries the maximum altitude was put up to flight-level 190 (6300 meters). This was a big reduction to the tactical calculations of the competitors. An Ernest Demuyter (and several others) had gained their victories by climbing to high altitudes short after launch, to use the higher wind speeds up there. This was no longer possible due to the much heavier air traffic.

Also prior to the race were the Swiss organizers efforts to drill at least a little hole to the "Iron Curtain". If something like this was tried by a neutral country like Switzerland, the chances for success might be better as if done by a nation, bound to a block. Dr. Ernst Iselin, in charge for the organization of the race, tried it on two different levels: On one side, he approached the eastern countries by the Swiss foreign office, on the other side via the national aero clubs. After lots of applications and requests, may telephone calls and fax messages, the answers came in. German Democratic Republic, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria rejected any fly in and fly across because of "full airspace". Hungary and Romania opened their borders. If the wind would come from the northwest, a runway down to the Black Sea would have been open. Even if there was only a little success in the year 1984, our Swiss friends had put out their feelers, cleared the terrain and set an important foundation for a change of mind in several countries of the eastern block. Balloonists of the whole western world owe them gratitude for this.

The pilots were not involved in the difficult and long discussions prior to the race. They discussed the successful Atlantic crossing of 56-years old American Joe Kittinger one month before (September 18th), who had landed with his balloon ROSIE O'GRADY BALLOON OF PEACE after a flight of 5600 kilometres near Savona in Italy. For the first time, a pilot flying solo had managed the crossing, after flying 84 hours.

Not much attention was paid to the first ladies crew at a Gordon-Bennett-Race. Women’s liberation had never been necessary in ballooning. Already in 1913 Madame Goldschmidt flew the race together with René Rumpelmayer, in the race 1983 Helma Sjuts from Germany and Nini Boesman from the Netherlands were among the pilots. Nikki Caplan and Jane Buckless from the USA were considered as competitors like all the others.

On the day of the launch, Saturday, October 13th, 1984, weather forecast reported a high-pressure situation typical for fall, with high clouds and winds from 80 degrees, it could not have come better. The flight went to west south west and the pilots could decide to fly around the Swiss Jura mountains in the south or in the north. At daybreak they arrived in the area of Lake Neuchatel and drifted to Burgundy, passing the control zone of Geneva airport in the north. At about noon, the Americans Ben Abruzzo and Dewey Reinhard had to solve a dangerous situation. On their new, nettles Raven balloon DOUBLE EAGLE IX the rip panel opened and the balloon started to fall at 5 meters per second. 400 kilograms of ballast, the heavy batteries and the oxygen-bottles went overboard, to stop the fall. They managed a safe landing at Gland on Lake Geneva. At late afternoon, the three Germans, the two Americans still in the race, the French and one Swiss finished the race and landed in the area of Macon - Roanne - Lyon, Swedish Hans Akerstedt landed before nightfall near Clermont Ferrant. The two Polish balloons, two Swiss and the Austrian flew into the second night.

Short after dawn on Monday morning, the Polish balloon flown by Ireneusz Cieslak/Waldemar Ozga had reached the Atlantic coast at La Rochelle. Almost the same spot was the landing field of Swiss Peter Peterka/Rolf Gross six hours later. With 749 kilometres both crews were ranked fourth. Winner of the year before, Stefan Makne and his new co-pilot Jerzy Czerniawski had flown lower in the last hours, getting a heading more to the left, southwards. Northwest of the little town of Royan he reached the sea, 21 kilometres more than his fellow citizen Cieslak and the Swiss Peterka/Gross. It was only good for 3rd rank, the cup, they had hoped for, was missed. The strategy, to fly low and left, was much more consistently performed by the Austrians Josef Starkbaum/Gert Scholz. With their rented, heavy balloon BASEL they could not have flow higher. They crossed the Gironde, then the narrow peninsula Medoc and landed directly on its west beach. 10 kilometres more than Makne/Czerniawski, good for rank 2. For the first time since 1932 an Austrian team was in the race again, and with such a good result.

Winner of the race became Swiss Karl Spenger with co-pilot Martin Messner. Flying 793 kilometres in 43 hours they gained the third victory for their country after 1908 and 1921. The distance they had covered would have been enough for winning also in earlier days in 1924 or 1928. The name of the co-pilot sounds familiar, in the year 1908 it was Emil Messner, grandfather of Martin, who made the dramatic flight across the North Sea as co-pilot of Theo Schaeck. It is unique in the history of these races till today, that two men from one family appear in the list of winners.

Martin Messner reported about this race from the beginning to the end. No view to the preparations and the situation in the basket can be more authentically. Here follows his report.

1. Preparations

On Tuesday, October 9th, we were invited to demonstrate our new balloon, having just got its registration by the civil aviation authority at a press conference. This presentation attracted a lot of interest by the representatives of the media, they were quite astonished by the huge equipment of the basket, the electronic tools for navigation as well as the warm meals in the thermos flasks.

On Friday, October 12th, at 10 a.m., there was the first pilots briefing on the arsenal field in Kloten. Here we met the other competitors for the first time. Most astonishing was the preparation of the Americans Ben Abruzzo and Dewey Reinhard, who had constructed a super light basket from aluminium. In the pilot briefing we mostly got information about the schedule of the race. We discussed the different rules, air-traffic limitations and of course with much interest the meteorological situation. Weather forecast was excellent, a high pressure area was approaching, promising a flight to France or Spain. So in the afternoon, we could concentrate our preparations on a flight in this direction, but perhaps also to Italy, before we went to the welcome dinner at Mövenpick on the airport. We could not enjoy this solemn party, visited by a lot of prominent people from earlier ballooning days, very much, because our thoughts were already on a flight to far away countries.

On Saturday, October 13th, at 10 a.m. we were once again called to another pilot briefing. Most interesting was the weather situation, which was still perfect. During the morning, our inflation team started with the laying out and filling of the balloon. The good preparation and the very reliable inflation team from Bronschhofen guaranteed smooth work, so that we as pilots could concentrate on the equipment in the basket. During the afternoon, quite a lot of spectators could be seen, approaching the launch field behind the Kloten airport. Many questions of interest were asked, and it was quite nice, to feel the sympathy of the population for ballooning. A dinner, at which we instructed our chase crew, finished the preparations before the final briefing at 9 p.m. Then we had to wait until 10:48 p.m., when the last plane of Swissair landed at Kloten. But we came through this break well with the knowledgeable information given by speaker Planzer.

2. The start

As first balloon the mail balloon with pilot Regula Hug-Messner and Walter Pfenniger launched at about 11 p.m. under the heavy applause of 10000 spectators. (Remark: Regula Hug-Messner is the aunt of Martin and the daughter of Gordon-Bennett winner 1908, Emil Messner).

We had drawn to launch as number 6, directly before the Americans with their super light DOUBLE EAGLE IX, which were considered to be a favourite. Short before 11:30 p.m. our balloon was carried to the centre of the bright illuminated launch field. The balloon was already levelled out, a last check and at 11:32 p.m. we lifted off to the dark sky to the sound of the Swiss national anthem and a frenetic applause from the spectators.

3. The flight

To spent less ballast and to use the wind in the direction of Geneva better, we decided to fly quite low. Although the speed was quite high, we learned at daybreak, that no other balloon were in sight. At sunrise, our balloon climbed higher and higher, and at about 8 a.m. we passed Balsthal, where we got the first information about the positions of our competitors, who already moved in the direction of France. The radio station on Mount Chasseral, especially set up for this race, worked perfect, so during the morning, we learned almost all the positions of the other balloons, and when we finally passed Mount Chasseral we had to face the comment: "Oh, now you are also coming".

So we flew to France in an altitude of about 2000 meters and in wonderful sunshine and ordered our chase crew, who had rested the night in Zurich, to drive there. Shortly after the Swiss border, in the area of Macon in France, we flew above the clouds, which made navigation quite difficult. Radar tracks from Lyon and Clermond-Ferrant, the biggest civil airfield of that region, helped for an accurate determination of our position at any time. Now we needed patience, we had to wait and could enjoy a wonderful flight at a speed of about 30 – 40 kilometres an hour with little use of ballast.

With a warm meal in our stomach, we went for the second night, when we could already hear some landing reports of other crews. We had decided, to fly high the second night, to cover more kilometres. We slept alternately, the tent shaped curtain around the basket allowed us to continue the flight without suffering from the outside temperatures, which were quite low,

Early Monday morning, we were in the area of Limoges, when the superheating made the balloon climb slowly to almost 3000 meters. We had no more information about the other competitors, especially from the Americans. No message, where they were, could be received at that time.

In different radio calls, we learned to our great surprise, that at this time, four other balloons were still in the air. Far ahead the balloon from Austria with pilot Josef Starkbaum and Gert Scholz, a little higher than we, one of the Polish balloons, and short behind us the balloon flown by Peter Peterka and Rolf Gross (SWITZERLAND II).

Now the race became exciting. The winds slowly turned from northeast to south/southeast, so that Jo Starkbaum, who was already in the region of Bordeaux had to land at the Gironde so as not to be pushed out to sea. His landing position was important for us, for we now knew, to where we had to fly to gain a chance for victory. At an altitude of 3500 meters we went along the beach in the direction of Nantes, when the balloon SWITZERLAND II, flying a little lower, drifted away in the direction of La Rochelle.

In the early afternoon we could witness, how the balloon SWITZERLAND II and the two Polish balloons had to land, to avoid being pushed out to the sea by a strong ground wind. Now it was important, to keep our nerves and patience. With very low speed we flew along the coast. We passed La Rochelle, crossed a bay, and came closer to the sea more and more besides of La Roche. Our goal was to reach Les Sables d’Olonnes, without being pushed out to the sea, which was not easy with this ground wind. We were happy when we crossed Les Sables d’Olonnes, because now we knew, that we had made more distance than the balloon from Austria. From 3000 meters we went for the landing, which worked out very well, even with the strong ground wind towards the sea. We landed only 150 – 200 meters from a swamp area on the shore. Soon after our landing, our chase-crew was there, they had made 1300 kilometres in the car, and welcomed us with a big hello and congratulations, for they knew first, that the American balloon, we had feared so much, had already landed close Lake Geneva, so we could prepare for a possible victory.

Never before in this region, a balloon had landed so close to the sea. So a lot of spectators came. From all directions the people came, police, county authorities, newspaper reporters, a.s.o. So it was quite easy, to gain all landing confirmations from officials right on the field.

4. If the final is good, everything is fine

In the beginning, we could not realize all that we had achieved with this extremely strenuous flight. It had been simply beautiful, overwhelming beautiful and impressing, to see the sympathy for ballooning. Our best congratulations went to our competitors, who had nearly taken the victory from us by their tremendous flying performance, especially to Austrians Joschi Starkbaum and Gert Scholz, as well as the balloons SWITZERLAND II with Peterka/Gross and the two Polish balloons.

Our warm thanks also to the excellent organization by the "Ballongruppe Zurich", the authorities, who made such a race possible, the weather men, who presented this wonderful weather to us, our crews, who supported us so much, as well as to all the visitors on the launch field and all our friends, who worked with us these two days.

So far the report of Martin Messner. As an explanation, it must be added, that Karl Spenger builds his balloons by himself, and, as mentioned by Martin Messner at the beginning, went to the race with a brand new light weight balloon. This was the reason for a lot of discussions about the result of the race among balloonists; these discussions have not ended until today. The different opinions however are not limited to ballooning alone, basically they meet the changing views about high performance sports in general. Even if the value of this kind of sports may be questionable, its existence and influence on our daily life cannot be negotiated. Considering ballooning and the results becoming evident in 1984, one can summarize:

  • A modern (light weight) balloon is not alone responsible for success. Starkbaum/Scholz and Peterka/Gross flew the second night using normal, heavy club balloons
  • Even if Spenger/Messner took profit from their light balloon, their first place is based mainly on their long and excellent preparations, their engagement and their training.
  • This race is not won just by the two pilots in their basket up there, their crew and counsellors on the ground contribute a lot. A good team cares for the material, the weather information, the inflation, the collecting of all necessary information and keeps the pilots away from all other influences prior to the launch, so that they can enter the race wide awake.
  • The physical constitution of the pilots is as important as the material. An overweight pilot or co-pilot needs more ballast that a light weight balloon could save.

The five crews, who had reached the Atlantic coast had realized this. The Polish were highly motivated by their victories in 1938 and 1983. Of course, in those days, it was also important for them, that they would get another permission to travel and financial support from their government for the next year only if they had performed well. Peter Peterka had become world champion in gas ballooning in Bern only two weeks before the Gordon Bennett race, (with Jean-Paul Küenzi as Co-pilot); he wanted to make the "double". Josef (Joschi) Starkbaum had talked often about. That in ballooning, he is not only interested in a peaceful flight enjoying the landscape below but in researching the sporting limits of a balloon. (He was an airliner captain of the AUSTRIAN AIRLINES). Martin Messner, a grandson of victorious first lieutenant Emil Messner in 1908, has something in common with Joschi Starkbaum: Both mainly fly hot air balloons and are some of the bests of the world in this kind of sport. The hot air balloon offers an excellent possibility for training, not in the endurance of a flight, but in using the different streaming of the winds and in realizing every change of weather. So with a hot air balloon many more flights can be made than with a gas balloon. It is a good tool for training for a difficult gas balloon race.

Many balloon pilots feel suspicious about this professional attitudes towards the sport. They see their competition in a Gordon Bennett race as a welcome break away of their normal club flying. This is of course their own decision, but it is rare, that they may win with this attitude. The Americans had entered the race with light weight balloons and much ballast. No one found an explanation, why they finished the race on the afternoon of the first day. (Except the accident of DOUBLE EAGLE IX).

The race also brought some new technology. For the first time, the balloons had to be equipped with a VOR-radio (very high frequency omni directional range) and Transponder (Secondary-Radar). These are tools, helping the pilot to navigate, but they also show the exact position of the balloon on the radar screen of the air-traffic controller. The experience gained was valuable. Since then, one cannot imagine a Gordon Bennett race without these tools. And also another pre-condition found its way to the future rules at this race: At least one member of the crew in the basket should know English language, to handle the radio contact with ATC with no problems.

The race had ended on natural, not political boundaries. This was a good result and made hope for good races in the following years.

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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.