37th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett - Albuquerque (USA) 1993

Start: Albuquerque/New Mexico, October 4th 1993   

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

After 60 years absence the race has returned to the United States of America. A country, in which so much Gordon Bennett history had been written. Let’s remember the victories of Oscar Erbslöh (1907) and Hans Gehricke (1911), or the American winners Frank Lahm (1906), Edgar W. Mix (1909), Alan Hawley (1910), Ralph Upson (1913), Edward Hill (1927), William Kepner (1928) or T.G.W. Settle (1932). Of course, legendary Ward T. van Orman, winner in 1926, 1929 and 1930 must not be missing. Outstanding pilots and superior technology have made those victories possible in those days. Now Gordon Bennett Race Gordon Bennett Races have existed again for 10 years, but outstanding performance or even victories of American teams could not have been achieved until 1992. Why? Gas ballooning in the USA never really awoke from its long sleep after World War II. The use of hydrogen was forbidden after the catastrophe of the "Hindenburg" at Lakehurst on May 6th, 1937. Helium was very expensive, as long as it was not produced commercially in a large scale Coal gas never played the same role as in Europe since the USA had large deposits of natural gas. Also, in the 1960's, researched at the Pentagon and NASA resulted in the modern hot air balloon which soon became a new sport. The hot air balloon had more flexibility than the placid and easy going gas balloon, so somehow it fit better to the fast moving mentality of the "American way of life". So it took until the 1980's for some people to remember a nostalgic mood, that flying balloons could mean more than hanging under (at that time still very) loud burners for a maximum of two hours. But, the advantage in technology and experience, once possessed by American pilots was gone. It was the toughness of a David Levin, Mike Wallace and others, to catch up again. They were not discouraged by setbacks and competed in Europe years after years despite the high expenses. Now their efforts would bear fruit. Erwin A. Sautter, tireless "Swiss correspondent" of German balloon magazines, writes:

In America Gordon Bennett Race Gordon Bennett Races are always different to those in good old Europe. When the last Gordon Bennett Race in the USA was launched 60 years ago, it was embedded in the world exhibition at Chicago. Now it was a dinosaur in a hot-air event. It was clear, everything was focussed on the more than 600 hot air balloons. Twenty gas balloon were just an additional to the program.

In fact, 20 balloons at a Gordon Bennett Race is almost a record. Only in 1908 at Berlin, 23 balloons were in the field. At Stuttgart 1912, 20 balloons were enrolled, but the balloon of an American team already burst before launch so John Watts and Arthur Atherholt flew out of competition with borrowed Düsseldorf II. Now, 1993, 21 balloons were registered, but the British team did not show up and the Canadians did not take off, because their balloon was leaking. So on October 4th, 1993 between 7:45 and 9:03 p.m. 19 balloons raised to the sky to the sounds of their national anthems. Well, these national anthems also should not be taken too serious in the United States. Already in 1927, as Ferdinand Eimermacher reports, the farewell for the German balloon was: "Es braust ein Ruf wie Donnerhall", in 1993 a Swiss balloon was honoured with "God save the Queen" when they were sent to the sky.

Already at the briefings some competitors had a sense of foreboding. Albuquerque lies on not less than 1600 meters above sea level; temperature at this time of the year is still like summer and helium weights more that hydrogen. Bob Rice, responsible for the weather, informed the pilots about the expected vagaries of the weather for the coming days. According to him, hardly a cloud should cross the Rio Grande. Tropical storm "Norma" became apparent only over California. After sunset, further decrease of the south-westerly winds could be expected. Not before 2 a.m. they would increase again. Freezing level was announced at 14.000 feet, thunderstorms were not expected in the next days, but "Thermal Cumulus" and wind-speeds around 15 to 25 knots. Those forecasts, valid for Wednesday morning, showed a clear track out of Albuquerque, crossing the US states of Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa into Minnesota and the lake region between Wisconsin, Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario.

Those fears came true. Crews that could lift off with more than 20 bags of sand and 60 litres of water on the evening of October 4th were lucky. In fact, the balloons had more bags on board, but they had been filled with the light desert sands from the area and did not weight more than at least 7 or 8 kilograms. Wind was not more than 5 to 7 knots, reaching 3000 meters or more meant a sacrifice of valuable ballast. Those, who came into these "Thermal Cumulus" in the area of Santa Fee had to fight with up and downdrafts of 4 meters per second and had very soon used up this little amount of ballast.

On Tuesday morning (October 5th) several balloons were still within sight of Albuquerque and for some of them, this would not change for the whole day. The balloon from the American Virgin Islands piloted by Soukoup/Stuart-Jervis gave up first. With the rest of their ballast they did not manage to cross the mountains and to leave the "box". After 11 hours and 7 minutes of flight they landed at 7:35 a.m. only 10.5 kilometres from the launch field. To comfort the two Virgin Island men: This was not the shortest distance of somebody in last place of a Gordon Bennett Race. In 1922 Magdalena/La Llave from Spain made only 4.3 kilometres and in the race 1908 any distance for the Americans Forbes/Holland is missing in the lists, they landed their burst balloon 5 minutes after launch on a roof top just a few blocks away from the launch-field.

13 from the remaining 18 did not perform much better. They wore themselves out during the day in the strong thermals, did not leave the state of New Mexico and made between 79.6 and 234.8 kilometres – not much for a long distance race with balloons. But here it becomes interesting, to compare times and distances. 100 kilometres were reached after approximately 19 hours, those who flew just two or three hours more, could already write more than 200 kilometres to their flight report.

But don’t believe, that the balloons had hurried to their landing positions on a direct way. This becomes apparent in the story of the German balloon with Volker Kuinke and Jörg Schellhove, who managed somehow to make the second night and finally ended up ranked 5th. In 32 hours and 50 minutes they made more than 300 kilometres as the bee flies, but their total track should have been more than 500 kilometres. Circle and zigzag flying between the foothills of the Rocky Mountains was hard work for all who still remained in the air. Also other experienced old hands spoke of the most turbulent flight of their life. About Volker and Jörg rumours already spoken that they were lost, a sigh of relief when their landing report finally came in.

Four balloons really went for distance. Obviously, they had integrated the meteorological data to their strategy and were able, to navigate aside from the thermals. But they had a huge difference in their speed. You can see this, comparing the co-ordinates of the landing places. The landing places of the balloons on rank 2 (Eimers/Landsmann) and rank 4 (Lewetz/Wagner) are each 2° more North than those of rank 1 and 3, but they needed another six hours more to get there. Let’s compare for example Starkbaum/Röhsler with Eimers/Landsmann: Assuming that both teams had covered 300 kilometres from the launch-field after 33 hours, for Starkbaum/Röhsler another 1530 kilometres had to be covered in 26 ½ hours, which means an average speed of 58 kilometres an hour. At Eimers/Landsmann 1250 kilometres in 33 hours remain, meaning an average speed of 38 kilometres an hour. Comparing the figures of rank 3 and 4 leads to similar results. This shows: the more South the track, the higher the speed was. Did the pilots realize that in advance?

This thesis is backed up by the fact, that both Joschi Starkbaum and Alan Fraenckel are airliner captains, so for sure they have a better knowledge of meteorology from their profession and know, how to use this. Joschi Starkbaum also had his own meteorologist brought with him. Dr. Pümpel, best known to all GBR competitors from Lech am Arlberg, provided the latest information to Joschi prior to launch. This doesn’t reduce the performance of the winner at all, quite the reverse. At a Gordon Bennett Race, almost every help is allowed, you only have to know, how to use it. Here, this help contributed its part to the outstanding victory.

The duration and distances of those on rank 1 to 4 assure, that the 37th Gordon Bennett Race will become one of the most remarkable in its history. 1832 kilometres for the winner, that’s rank three in the eternal list of distances in a Gordon Bennett Race. Only in 1912 Bienaimé/Rumpelmeyer with 2191 kilometres and in 1910 Hawley/Post with 1887.6 kilometres had flown further. 66 hours 2 minutes shine even brighter: Only Schaeck/Messner in 1908 had stood longer in the basket with 73 hours 1 minute.

The landing place of the winner, Campbellsport in Wisconsin, is only 50 kilometres away from the shore of Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is number three in width of the five Great Lakes on the border between the USA and Canada and is the grave of famous American balloon pioneers like Washington Donaldson and John Wise, who did never return from flights across this lake in the years 1875 and 1879. When the Austrians approached this eerie lake, did voices from far away warn them, not to cross and encouraged them to land at Campbellsport? Perhaps we should look for a patron saint for balloonists some time.

Something else special: With Jackie Robertson a woman was on the winners’ rostrum for the first time in a Gordon Bennett Race, which will also go down in the annals of the race. Second female pilot in the field, Austrian Silvia Wagner, reached unrewarding fourth place. A medal rank for her also, everybody would have been very pleased for.

Joschi Starkbaum had proved by his victory, that he is "the best pilot of the world", as James Gordon Bennett had stated this in the rules of 1905. No other pilot had achieved seven victories in this race. Winning in Albuquerque, Joschi Starkbaum had surpassed Belgium Ernest Demuyter, who won six times between 1920 and 1937. Third in this ranking is American Ward T. van Orman with three golden medals.

Already before the official awards ceremony took place, Joschi Starkbaum made the first request from Albuquerque to Lech am Arlberg: "Is the municipality prepared, to host the Gordon Bennett Race in 1994 for the fourth time?" – The answer came spontaneously and with no restrictions: "Yes, of course!" With September 17th, 1994, the date was also already fixed. It was found quick, for September 19th, 1994 is full moon. Next full moon would be on October 22nd, but then, at night in the mountains, it’s already pretty cold.

Except a sprained ankle of Polish Waldemar Ozga, co-pilot of irrepressible daredevil Stefan Makne, the 37th Gordon Bennett Race ended without accidents. Though none of the three teams from the US had a good placing (the balloons from the American Virgin Islands flew under their own flag) and no record in distance or time was broken, American media exercised distinguished restraint in reporting about this event. The fact, that Joschi Starkbaum had performed a personal best with seven victories offered little reason for US media for an adequate honouring. A report of 60 lines from Associated Press in the local pages of the Sunday Journal ("New Mexico’s leading newspaper") the day after the awards ceremony in the Southwest Ballroom of the Hilton hotel on October 9th did not offer a list of results. But at least one learned the names of the three pilots – but not the co-pilots – who had become medallists and something about the early disappearance of the American pilots before they had reached the boundary between New Mexico and Colorado.

The winners of the race, Joschi Starkbaum and Rainer Röhsler, had both written about their impressions during the flight, here is Joschi Starkbaum first:

"Because American David Levin and James Herschend had won the Gordon Bennett Race the previous year, the race this year was to be launched from Albuquerque, New Mexico, embedded in the annual hot-air balloon fiesta.

Our team consisted of Dr. Herbert Pümpel, Hansruedi and Christine Walther as ground crew and Rainer Röhsler and me as pilots.

Albuquerque is not frequented by wide-body aircraft, so the journey there with our special basket was a bit difficult. We flew to Los Angeles and then drove about 1400 kilometres to Albuquerque with a rented chase car.

The Albuquerque Fiesta is a mass meeting with more than 600 hot-air balloons. The balloons take off in three waves, while thousands of spectators walk free on the launch field between the balloons. For an uninvolved spectator, it was fascinating, but at 5 – 8 knots, for a pilot keen on safety, it was hair rising.

For the launch of the Gordon Bennett Race, the place was closed from noon and not reopened for the spectators before the balloons were inflated and the gas transports had driven off. Despite the distant travel to Albuquerque, 20 balloons were there to compete, among them for the first time three from Austria. Besides us flew the teams Johann Fürstner/Sepp Huber and Thomas Lewetz/Silvia Wagner.

The weather situation: Albuquerque was near to the axis of a high pressure wedge running northeast. In the Northwest was a low pressure area, guiding a dragging front system in a north-easterly direction. East of the Rockies, "low level jet" to the Northeast was forecast, which should later be broken up by the frontal system.

My strategy, was the same as of most of the other pilots, which follows: By flying low we wanted to try to come closer to the low pressure area, to reach the faster winds to enter the "low level let" later.

At the drawing of the launch sequence we had got number 13. Did this mean something? On October 4th 1993 at 8:34 p.m. we lifted off in calm winds under the sound of our national anthem in a solemn mood.

Because Albuquerque is on a sea level of about 5000 ft. and the balloons were filled with helium, we had got only 22 bags of ballast. Already at 300 ft. above ground we flew with 10 – 12 kilometres an hour to the North, running parallel to the Sandia Mountain ridge, so we did not have to cross it. At the north end of the Sandia Mountains we turned to the Northeast and the flight speeded up a little. Everything seemed to be working like planned. But not for long, because the direction turned further to the right. We had a wonderful, calm flight at moonlight, sometimes just 5 meters above ground. Unfortunately, we flew a big circle to the right and then a half circle to the left, so a 5 o’ clock in the morning we were just 10 kilometres north of the launch field, but had flown about 100 kilometres above ground. This was not very encouraging; nevertheless our position relatively to the low pressure area had improved a little, because the system had moved east. By climbing to 2000 ft. above ground we entered a drift to the Northwest flying directly towards the centre of the low pressure area. Short before sunrise we saw the first hot air balloons of the fiesta taking off, later the entire field. At noon we were above the high plateau of the Santa Fe National Forest.

Until then, the flight had been very calm. Suddenly, without warning, the balloon started to climb with 5 meters per second. At 15,000 ft. the climbing stopped and the balloon started a violent swinging up to an angle of 45° out of the vertical axle. This enduring swinging made the nerves in my stomach rebel. With the same suddenness the climbing had started, 10 minutes later the falling began. Our variometer only reads up to 5 meters per second. The pointer was at the stop. Impossible, to empty the sand bags, there wasn’t enough time for it. I just cut them away bag by bag. We were above a wilderness, so there was no danger doing that. Also the bags went empty automatically before impact, because they were of an open design. Five meters above the forest, the balloon stabilised for a few minutes.

Then this up and down started again, but not as severe as at the first time. During this heavy thermal activity cumulus clouds have formed, either turning to rain showers or spreading as alto-cumulus, shading the insulation thus ending this horrific episode. Anyhow, this episode had lasted 25 minutes and had reduced our ballast down to ten bags.

Our distance to the launch field was now about 100 kilometres and close to the ground we slowly drifted back to Albuquerque. When we were approaching a terrain with a road where we could land, for a short time the idea to finish the flight came up. But as a matter of principle, I never break off a competition when I have 10 bags of ballast left, so I decided, to climb again slowly. And really, at about 2000 ft. above ground we found a layer that made us move to the Northeast from 3 p.m. on. This direction seemed to maintain, so we ordered our chase crew, still at the hotel, to start. And really, this drift to the Northeast kept on until sunset. Caused by the cooling in the evening, we sank towards the town of Taos, from where we flew north close to the ground. About two hours after sunset we approached cone shaped Ute Peak in the middle of a valley.

I had hoped, that this cone shaped mountain would guide the airflow a little to the left, allowing us to continue flying low, thus approaching the low pressure area and the faster winds. But none of this happened as we had to fly straight across the peak in 11,000 ft. At this altitude we continued from 9 p.m. to the Northeast with 25 – 30 kilometres an hour. After having crossed the Sangre de Christo Mountains, we had nothing but the boundless plains of the Middle West in front of us.

Sleeping alternately we flew the whole night without dumping any ballast. At morning, the balloon started to fall slowly and the speed increased to 60 kilometres an hour. The ‘low level jet’, we had waited for so long, was reached. The superheating made us climb again, but speed did not become less than 50 kilometres an hour. From 9 p.m. the evening before till 2:30 p.m. the next day, 17.5 hours, no ballast was used.

After the evening cooling had come to an end, there was enough ballast for a third night over Grand Island. Considering a ground wind of 15 – 20 knots at the airfield of Grand Island, the desire to land was not big. We still had enough distance to the front system; it should catch us up not before noon the next day. So I decided to fly the night. The direction close to the ground was 40° with 60 – 70 kilometres an hour, above that 70° with 40 – 50 kilometres an hour. So the goal was, to fly as fast as possible without coming too close to the front system. A glance at the map and a rough calculation showed, that we would reach Lake Michigan before noon. This lake is 100 – 150 kilometres wide and 500 kilometres long, thus having an enormous influence on the air stream. Crossing the Lake under this situation was impossible.

With the cooling at night, the ground wind decreased, so on one hand, we had to land before the warming up at daytime makes the upper wind influence the wind speeds on the ground, on the other hand, the landing should happen as close as possible to the Lake, to enlarge the distance to the place of launch.

As compromise, we landed at Campbellsport, approximately 30 kilometres ahead of the lake, with gusty wind between 5 and 15 knots. Our chase crew was on the field 45 minutes later for they had to drive round a huge swamp area shortly before we touched down.

With duration of 59 hours and 29 minutes and a great-circle distance of 1832 kilometres this was my longest flight. Compared to the previous Gordon Bennett Race Gordon Bennett Races, when we did not fly a third night, this race was less straining, means, we were less exhausted. I see three reasons for that:

  1. We never became wet; but it had rained close to us the first day.
  2. We never felt cold. Even at night in 10,000 – 12,000 ft. temperature was not below the freezing level, so we did not use the sleeping bag at all.
  3. There had been no political boundaries or restricted areas of prohibited entry at all.

Very pleasing from the Austrian point of view are also the results of the two other teams. Lewetz/Wagner made the 4th and Fürstner/Huber the 9th rank. In a ranking of nations, several times discussed, Austria had also won.

Looking back, this trip to America was a great experience. But in spite of that, we will make efforts to host the next races in Europe again.

Joschi Starkbaum

 So far the report of Joschi Starkbaum, plain as usual for an airliner captain. The co-pilot in the winning balloon, Rainer Röhsler, tape recorded his impressions during the flight. Probably, they are not complete, but they express the situation on board at this flight quite well.

" In the background you can hear our national anthem, it’s ten to eight on Monday evening – Thomas just took off as second – quite a farce over there – I’m lucky if we get out of here soon. We are quite well organized; despite the hectic everything looks quite nice. Now again our national anthem, it’s our turn – we will soon lift off – it’s 20:31 o’clock.

Monday, 21:10

In the moment, we leave Albuquerque in about 1500 feet above ground to the North – passing the Sandia Mountains. Above the Sandia Mountains now the moon is rising. Finally it becomes calm – below of us only a few dogs are barking.

Monday, 23:00

We now fly in the direction of Santa Fe, have circled the Sandia Peak, the moon is full up, and the shadow of our balloon on the ground looks beautiful. Joschi is phoning with Herbert Pümpel at the Hilton, we send the crew sleeping. It is amazingly bright, very fine clouds in the sky, our drift is now 11 kilometres an hour to 82 degrees.

Tuesday morning, 02:00

Quite warm, we are on the east slope of the Sandia Mountain, there’s not much progress. I must have had a sleep for an hour or two; one may be closer to the truth. Warm and dry, the warm jacket is enough; you don’t need the down-filled jacket. Strictly speaking we fly zigzag, what we flew to the southeast before we now fly again to the northwest.

Tuesday, 05:00

With the valley wind we have completed the half circle back in the direction of Albuquerque and then climbed a little. Now we are at about 7000 ft. and slowly commenced speeding up again, towards Santa Fe.

Tuesday, 06:00

We still trundle at 7000 ft. between Albuquerque and Santa Fee. In the east is morning twilight, Joschi tries in vain to sleep a little bit, and over Albuquerque you can already see the hot air balloons that took off at night to make 'Dawn Patrol’. In an hour we will see the first big wave of the hot air balloons.

Tuesday, 07:00

Now we fly to 330 degrees with 14 kilometres an hour in 7300 feet – somehow different than expected before. We just flew above an Indian reservation – below it looks like chief Big Foot would ride round the corner any moment. Supposed we have to cancel Santa Fe, we now fly in the direction of Taos. Unbelievable, how far away a highway may be and you still hear the noise.

Tuesday, 09:45

We have just reported our position to Albuquerque, fly in 335 degrees towards Colorado, the area is already quite high here, but still looks quite harmless, like the foothills of the Alps with some rocks in it or like the Swiss Jura – the leaves of the trees start to change their colours, very much coniferous forest – almost totally wooded it looks beautiful. Sun – our solar panel works and we climb steadily. The others fly 90 degrees to another direction. We’ll see, how this ends up.

Tuesday, 10:35

We approach the reservation or the National Park. It’s an extreme beautiful landscape, pastures, and the leaves of the trees in all possible colours, lot of conifers, absolute silence. From time to time you can hear an aeroplane passing by – and our direction is now towards the boundary to Colorado. In a minute we will cross 36° latitude.

Tuesday, 12:30

Conditions are quite thermally, we are still above the National Park, rush up there to 10.000 ft and again almost to the ground – costs quite a lot of ballast, but the direction has turned to 130 – now it just turned to 74 – would be good, but it’s doubtful if it stays like this.

Now it’s a situation like in a roller coaster. He had shot up to 13.000 ft within 3 to 4 minutes without being involved, it’s full thermally and we fly around swaying. We are just underneath a cumulus – but it’s a harmless one. I will take the oxygen now again.

The stupid thing is, that me make no progress, just sway around. Thanks goodness I’ve got rid of my cold in time; otherwise I would have a real problem now with this up and down.

Joschi becomes a little green in his face – he has a problem with this swaying, because he gets sick. But his sickness can be levelled out quite well with the oxygen. Now he just cares to stop the fall in time – we have 4.5 meters per second.

Tuesday, 12:45

We went up and down for some times and have used up an enormous amount of ballast, we have reported our position to Albuquerque – so they know exactly, where we are. Joschi thinks about landing – because we fly back again – and he thinks, everything may worsen, because the whole system is turning round.

It is very, very thermal and the situation isn’t easy. We are still above the National Forest and have to reach a road there. It’s not a dangerous area, more uncomfortable to be picked up. Now waypoint 10 becomes visible.

Tuesday, 13:40

We have 9 bags of ballast left and until a short time ago, we had thought about landing. Already wanted to get the chase crew and the observer here, which we are going to try now in any case, they just did not respond to the phone, even if the phone works well.

We are now beneath the cloud-cover of a cumulus, looking medium venomously; tragically our direction is absolutely unusable. We almost fly back to Albuquerque – our heading to Albuquerque would be 163°, range 96 kilometres, we fly to 123° with many changes.

Joschi has stopped wearing this green colour of his face and already looks like after a week on the Bahamas and can’t keep quiet again – that’s a good sign at him.

Tuesday, 14:00

This swaying has calmed down. To understand this a while ago right, I have to tell, that the plateau, where all of this had played, has an altitude between 8000 and 9000 ft., so everything was on a quite high level in the words real meaning.

Now it’s a little calm again, we had coffee and fly in nearly 12.000 ft heading 52° with 16 kilometres an hour. Looks quite well, and the area ahead appear to be quite uncomplicated – a little mountain, but we’ll pass it somehow on the left or on the right.

On the horizon is quite a huge forest fire, giving us a giant wind indicator, also a mountain that looks like the Table Mountain of Cape Town and behind it a valley with a small lake, looking a little more like desert – except the lake – and the area below us is still a part of this high plateau, with nice coloured birch trees among the conifers.

From time to time we suck on the oxygen and Joschi already finds time to pee, that’s also a good sign.

The guy in the competition centre at Albuquerque is very friendly, although not being very competent in ballooning, he had helped us well and always recorded our position and realized that he could make a relay – a little irksome was, that he has set a newspaper reporter on us on another frequency – we did not realize before we responded – well, we tried to be as polite as possible.

If I would play music now, I would probably play the one from "Dancing with wolves", because in this movie it looked like underneath of us. Chatting we found out, that a while ago, it was the longest duration of a turbulence we had ever seen. 27 minutes isn’t bad. And we have always seen our envelope from its side.

Tuesday, 14:30

We just had contact with our chase-crew on the phone; they are still at the Hilton and did now set off to follow us. Our information about the weather is, that this stuff from the North enters faster, at least faster as expected, also the instability was higher because of the humidity that had interfered – that’s what we had to fight with – Herbert thinks, if these Cumuli round of us would break up until 5 p.m., it should work trough the night.

We have a nice flight now in 12500 ft. with 46° and 20 kilometres an hour, by the way, the spot we are approaching now is named Ghost Ranch.

Tuesday, 15:08

Radio: 'Say something nice, Sepperl’ - ????? – 'Because we’ve lost so much ballast unnecessarily’ – 'The same has happened to us’ – 'Sepperl, we’ve been tossed, very impressive, between ground and 15.000 feet and Joschi had said, this was the longest turbulence he’d ever been in, and we did not throw them out, but just cut them away one by one, the baggies’ – 'to our basket, every kind of dust was blown inside’ – 'yes, yes, sounds familiar to me’ – 'over where you are, it might have been even a little harder’ – 'we had been over a high plateau, there was not much run out to come down, basic was at 8 to 9.000 feet and you had to pay much attention, not to hit the ground, have a good flight, and there’s another information from Herbert Pümpel’.

All around it starts to become blue again, only aside of us the smoke of the forest fire climbs up to our altitude 12.500 feet.

Tuesday, 15:30

Joschi discovers his play instinct at the GPS, he falls in love with the electronic, must have to do something with the altitude. Below, we can see now Santa Fe and Taos. We have seen a lot of Santa Fe within the last 24 hours – well, 24 is a little exaggerated – and round about it’s all Indian territory: Navajos, Comanches – all of that we have in sight, somewhere they will then probably dub in this John Wayne.

Tuesday, 17:00

We are at 13.300 ft and fly to 34° with 21 kilometres an hour and just had contact with the case crew, they wait for us between Santa Fe and Taos. Now it is quite stable and the sun is already low.

I had just cleaned up the basket, removing the quarry on the ground, when dumping ballast in the thermals; we always overtook the sand in the fall, so a lot re-collected in the basket.

In the background we see Taos. From our altitude, the mountains look quite flat. I will lie down for a while now.

Joschi has had a deep slumber, but when the situation changed – we went into a fall – he could not be stopped to take over by himself again.

Tuesday in the evening, it’s now 20:00

We have cooked a proper dinner. It works quite well now, heading between 20° and 30° with a nice speed, close to the ground. We had been high first, then close to the ground with 20 to 25 kilometres an hour, now it has slowed down. The problem is now, that the moon has not risen and down there it’s ultra pale black and we fly quite low, because we want to cross the mountains there a little later.

We now fly in the direction of Los Alamos VOR and have just helped as a relay for Huber Sepp. He has landed and we have explained to an aircraft, where Taos is and how his chase crew can find him. We don’t have good radio contact with our own chase crew right now, but they’ll find their way.

It’s less than 1/8 of clouds and a very clear starry sky, underneath something like desert with some animals from time to time.

Tuesday, 21:00

Unfortunately, the moon still has not risen and it’s still pale black. We have smuggled ourselves quite close over a "hill" of 10.000 feet and by that we climbed so high, that we also over flew the main ridge, that was between us and the plains. We are again on 11.300 ft and Joschi just takes the first mouthful of oxygen.

Tuesday, 23:00

We just cross the last ridge of the huge Sangre de Christo Mountains before this turns in those Central Plains, at the multiple states corner of Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. There is snow on those ridges, which we race across quite close. It’s a very low population area, there are almost no lights, but the moon helps us now very much, it is already considerably high above the horizon.

Wednesday morning, a little after midnight

We now fly in 10.500 ft with 33 kilometres an hour, track 50°. I had just slept for an hour, wonderful and deep, woke up to weather information from Herbert, that Joschi discussed with him on the radio. – Now Joschi lies down a little.

It works quite well, I just had some coffee, and the way that we cook water proves well.

The problem with the ground wind today will be, that it perhaps becomes a little too fast. We’ll see.

Wednesday morning, 04:14

We fly on in 7.300 ft with 31 to 35 kilometres an hour, it varies a little. We fly in 49° in the direction to the VOR Lamar.

It has become severe cold. I’m on guard since midnight, it works quite well and I feel good. Joschi just got up for a peeing break. We believed we see another balloon down in the dark, which was very impressive. I’ve already seen three shooting stars – but real nice, big ones.

The area below is absolutely uninhabited, nothing within 100 kilometres.

Wednesday, 04:30

We are now above a place called Lamar, direction and altitude unchanged. Now Joschi takes over and I’ll try, to sleep again a little.

Wednesday morning, 06:30

Since midnight we had to dump no ballast. We just fly at 2.000 ft above ground over huge fields, it’s warm and now the sun rises. I had a sleep for about 1½ hours and woke up by the warmth.

Wednesday, 07:00

Mood is perfect, I’ve just phoned home and we make a good speed.

Wednesday noon

There’s not much to tell, except, that since yesterday evening we dumped nothing but the sh.. of Joschi. We fly on in 13.500 ft, heading 39° with about 30 kilometres an hour, it’s all well, we feel good, but the area is boring.

Wednesday evening 19:45

The area looks like it always did, very flat, those famous fields of one square mile. But slowly, it becomes more populated, we now aim at Fort Dodge, still 241 kilometres away, but we fly with 58 kilometres an hour in 7.500 ft.

I hope that Joschi will sleep the first turn; we wait for the meteorological front expected for the morning. We had been told, that ground wind is too fast for landing, but we wanted to continue the whole night anyway.

Today was quite uneventful. When descending – we were up to at least 14.000 ft – we caught this 'Southern Jet Stream’ between 7 and 8.000 ft and ride it now.

Thursday, midnight

In the evening we’ve passed Omaha, Nebraska, where we reported to an incredibly nice air-traffic controller.

We now rack our brains about how this will work out with the Great Lakes with our speed and direction. Ground wind is still quite fast, up here we make about 60 kilometres an hour in 6.000 ft and the track is 73°.

We fly in the direction of Milwaukee – had contact to the chase crew a minute ago. I’m on the night shift and allow Joschi to sleep as long as somehow possible, so that he has power for the landing.

Thursday morning, 04:00

We rush on at 5.000 ft with 70 to 75 kilometres per hour in the direction of Milwaukee, a little right from it; I just gave away an interesting part of ballast. Joschi has got up – that means, I woke him up, because I believed, to see a significant hill ahead, but it proved to be a fake.

The light isn’t any longer as good as it was in the past two days, but the area becomes more populated, there are more single lights.

Thursday, about 06:30

At 6:10 we had radio contact with our chase crew for the last time. We are now approaching our expected landing area – Fond du Lac – it’s still very fast, we make about 70 kilometres per hour, but allegedly it is calmer on the ground, 6 to 7 knots – believe it or not – we’ll see.

Thursday, 07:10

We used the vent for the first time and it worked at once. On the ground it’s still calm and we hope, it stays like this.

Also radio contact to the chase crew is there again, they are already in the target area – they are really good. They also gave us wind information, the whole profile.

Thursday, 07:27

Joschi is invisibly slapping his thigh, for the GPS shows a distance of 1.800 kilometres from Albuquerque. We have to send the chase crew round a swampy area, quite huge, but we want them to be present in the moment of the landing.

Below it’s a little calmer – allegedly – and perhaps we can fly a little north in the ground layer to be then caught by the chase crew.

Thursday morning, 08:08

We just hit the ground, terribly fast. We also got caught in a little tree. Joschi can’t remember, if he took his clothes off or if they were ripped off. To our luck there was a small, red maple tree.

Now it’s 8:12 and this happened about 6 minutes ago. At 8:12 the sheriff is already at the basket.

Thursday, 08:22

The only arguing between Joschi and me was about the time to land. My idea was, it would have been clever to land, as long as it was calm on the ground. Joschi even had drawn my attention to smoke that rose vertically from a thermal power plant.

Joschi thinks, the landing was at 08:03 Albuquerque time. He has just returned from the field to the basket to bring me my lost GPS. From the first impact to the little red maple tree 137 steps, from there to the final rest of the basket 70 steps.

Sunday afternoon

I’m sitting on the plane to Los Angeles, to fly back to Vienna from there. With a little distance to what happened, a summary:

Our chase crew was there quick, only in the last moments; they had lost us out of sight. The sheriff and the guys at the landing field had been incredibly nice. Almost as quick as the sheriff a television team was there, to do an interview with us. I explained to them, that if they want to hear from us, what has happened, they must organize a flight to Chicago and a shuttle to the next airport for us. As we found out, the next airport was Oshkosh.

Typical Americans, they agreed at once, to the pleasure of Herbert, who so was able to reach his AUA flight to Vienna.

The whole situation then relaxed very much; also Joschi might have reflected a little about what had happened. We still thought, that we did not perform well.

Changing planes at Chicago was also a bit difficult, because we had no reservation and no tickets – but that could be organized. Via Denver, we then flew ‘home’, i.e. to the Hilton, and arrived at Albuquerque at 11 p.m. From the airport, I phoned to the hotel, that someone would pick us up. Thomas Hora came to the phone and his first words were: ‘You already know, that you have won!?’

I then returned to Joschi, who wasn’t anything more but radio controlled at that time, but this news made him a partner in talks again. Back at the hotel, I was so wound up, that I couldn’t go to sleep but to my pleasure I met Jackie Robertson, girl friend and co-pilot of Alan Fraenckel. We then went to the bar and had a bottle of wine together.

If you believe, that flying for 60 hours gives you a real good sleep, you are wrong, because in the middle of the night I woke up by an air condition unit that had switched on and I believed, I’m somewhere over Kansas and a train passes underneath. I also believed, that I will have to care for the balloon again in a moment. By the way, the same happened to me once again the next night. To our great pleasure we learned, that all of those in the front rows belonged to our circle of friends, we shared our joy especially with Alan and Jackie and with Thomas and Silvia. I was a little sad, that David Levin had been so unlucky and that weather strokes him so much the first day. But one has to pay him a lot of respect, for the courage to end a flight, if the weather doesn’t fit any longer counts at least as much as to fly on playing the hero.

The awards ceremony was as usual, like always with a little too much emphasis on nations.

Now I’m on my way home, the last day at the pool was still quite comfortable. I had some discussions with Sepp and was grateful, how friendly all our German comrades had been with me, inviting me for training flights.

Thomas Fink even remarked, it would be a special honour for him, to train a Gordon Bennett winner.

Summarizing I must say, that I leave with very good feelings and somehow think about my future in gas ballooning. That’s almost a little worrying, for it means another activity more.

Now the plane speeds up, in a few seconds we will lift off from Albuquerque and that’s the end of the story."

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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.