Start: Brussels, Belgium June 20th
From the Book: Die Gordon Bennett Ballon Rennen
(The Gordon Bennett Races) by Ulrich Hohmann Sr
Ernest Demuyter still knew how to win. Since his victory in 1924 he had some excellent placing, (twice second, twice third), but another victory, his fifth, first happened a year ago. Now, in 1937, he competes in a Gordon Bennett Race for the 17th time. Aged 44 (born March 28th 1893) he was the most experienced and favourite pilot. He was a star for the Belgians, like they celebrated 40 years later with Eddy Merckx, the most successful bicycle racer of all times.
Seen from today, the year after the Olympic Games in Berlin appears as peaceful and full of harmony among the nations. The headlines of the newspapers tell of Edward VIII, King of England, renouncing the throne and marrying Wally Simpson in June 1937. Also the marriage of former Dutch Crown Princess Juliane with German prince Bernhard von Lippe-Biesterfeld in January attracts lot of attention and celebration. Also on page one of the papers is the news, that French passenger steamer NORMANDIE had crossed the Atlantic from Brest to New York with an average speed of nearly 31 knots, winning the famous "Blue Ribbon". Not in the headlines, but interesting for today’s hot air balloonists, is a patent application of American chemical factory Du Pont on February 16th, 1937, for the new artificial fabric called "Nylon".
In air sports and air traffic there are successes and tragic incidents as well. The good news mostly came from the sport: Heinz Hoffmann from Hamburg manages a flight over 427 meters in his home built, an aircraft powered by human force on November 22nd, 1936. In glider flying, women drew attention: Four world-records were announced:
Also a big success is the landing of three pilots from the USSR, flying from Moscow to Vancouver in 37 hours and 11 minutes exactly on the day of the launch of the Gordon Bennett Race, finishing successful the first cross polar flight.
The bad news happen in the chapter of "lighter than air". Within a short period two balloons burn. The first balloon CHEMNITZ VIII by touching a power-line, then brand new racing balloon DEUTSCHLAND II, probably ignited by the cigar or pipe of a spectator after the landing. Fortunately, no human losses or damages happened, but Goetze and Lohmann now had no balloon for the Gordon Bennett race. The worst news however comes on May 6th, 1937: Landing in Lakehurst, the pride of German aviation, airship HINDENBURG explodes. 11 of 36 passengers and 22 of 60 crew members die in the flames. This was the end of the one year old passenger air traffic of the Zeppelins.
The clouds of political thunderstorms, becoming darker and darker, are seen different in the press of the world. In Germany and Italy, the success of the "Legion Condor" in an endless and brutal Spanish civil war are pointed out. Russia and France support the Popular Front and denounce the cruelty of the bombing of the civil population. Southeast of the "German Reich" the conflict with the government of Austria and the "Question of Sudetia" is increasing, leading to the occupation of both countries by German troops a year later, another step on the way to World War II. The Americans kept away from the race under these circumstances, and one had to count on unfriendly reactions when crossing borders.
Twelve balloons from five nations were inflated, this time not on the plain of Solbosch, but in the Heysel stadium in the middle of the town. It is the same arena, where in May 1985, 38 soccer-fans from Italy were killed in a panic at a cup-final.
June 20th, 1937 was a rainy day, and many years later, Werner Lohmann still remembers:
Our launch in the Gordon Bennett Race from Brussels was not under a lucky star. Beautiful light racing balloon DEUTSCHLAND II had turned into flames a few days before the trip to Belgium. DEUTSCHLAND I was somewhere in the Russian back forest, torn to pieces and rotten. DEUTSCHLAND II, a handful of ashes near Brilon, already blown in all directions by the normally helpful wind. ... But DEUTSCHLAND III did not exist yet. And so no silk racing balloon. But times of misfortune are touchstones of true friendship. Like a present from heaven the offer of a friendly regional group came, to use their much heavier ALFRED HILDEBRANDT in Brussels. We knew about the difficulties, to withstand the lighter Polish and Belgium envelopes with our balloon, 170 kilograms heavier, but hoping for our knowledge and a little luck we accepted the offer.
Some days later, we arrived at Brussels with our crew, boxes, baskets and the packed balloon. Calm but careful, we prepare for the race. We had worked up some novelties. To keep the heavy sand bags away from the basket, there are four struts to force the load to the outside. Inside the basket rubber webs are installed – all possibilities that may occur during such a flight are considered.
Saturday morning the boxes are opened, the envelope is unpacked and spread on the green grass of the Heysel stadium. Our inflation manager has got soldiers from the Belgium Aero-Club as helpers, more or less skilful they try to fulfil his orders. It is not very easy, because communication is difficult and even if the soldiers are keen to help, they make mistakes in their lack of knowledge which could end up in a disaster if the inflation manager did not have his eyes everywhere, supervising the inflation like a commander. With a whistle the gas is filled to the balloon. The light smell of gas is in the stadium and can’t be pushed away by the wind. With some sorrows we look to the black thunderstorm clouds. We hope for the best.
For ten, fifteen, twenty hours now supervisor Scheurer works on ALFRED HILDEBRANDT, then he wants to rest a few hours, but after 60 minutes he is back on his legs. Duty forces him on. At 3 p.m. the balloon must be ready. Nothing must be missing then. A little concern is on everyone's face. The soldiers are sent here and there, pull the ropes, carry sandbags and are very devoted. Still the gas whistles to the now round balloon. To the right of ALFRED HILDEBRANDT are the two other German balloons, CHEMNITZ X and SACHSEN, to the left L.O.P.P. (Poland) and BELGICA (Belgium), in front of them the Swiss and a French one, in between the other balls – altogether twelve.
For entertainment and freshen up of the particularly tired helpers and soldiers, jazz music plays from the loud speakers over the field originally created for a sport with much smaller balls than balloons. The clock-hands slowly approach 3 p.m.. The wide round stadium fills with masses of spectators. Thousands are carried by trams, busses and other vehicles. Fuller and fuller the ranks become, closer and closer the spectators are standing. Traders make their way through the rows, offer something to eat or try to persuade the spectators, to buy a toy balloon. Connected to the race is a competition for the spectators, for one Franc they can buy a pink toy balloon and write their address on a post card tied to it. The finder of the balloon is requested, to mail this postcard back to Brussels. The balloon covering the biggest distance then wins the first price – a Gordon Bennett Race in miniature. Hundreds of these little balloons fly away.
We, Götze and me, are still sitting in our hotel "Atlanta" and are studying the meteorological maps. We don’t have to be concerned about the preparation of our balloon. We know, we can absolutely trust supervisor Scheurer. He prepares the basket in a way, that we could not do better. The other pilots are in their baskets nervous with tension, checking the instruments, changing something here or there, using up nerves, they will later urgently need. Right in time Scheurer reports ALFRED HILDEBRANDT ready for take-off. Instruments, oxygen bottles, sandbags, water and food is stored cleverly and can be reached quickly. A masterpiece of organization and supervision of Scheurer.
Prince Charles, brother of the Belgium king, says farewell to us, shakes our hands, then "Good luck" and with 60 bags of ballast we lift off, followed by the cheers of thousands of spectators. Right into the dark front of thunderstorm clouds, towards an unknown faith....
The flight goes to the southeast. In about 2000 meters we discover an inversion despite the rain, wind and storm. Flashes of lightening pass the balloon, normally one should land in such a storm, but not in a Gordon Bennett Race. The weather improves and looses its horror. We had come well through the first night and are preparing for the second one. After 24 hours we are above Josephstadt (today's Josefov north of Königsgrätz in the Sudetian mountains). An airplane shows up, comes closer, circles the balloon, pilot and crew wave their hands for greeting, then the plane dives down.
After an hour we hear the sound of a motor again. Searching, we look out of the basket. There, it comes, the plane, at high speed, seems as if it wants to hit the balloon, then climbs a little and rushes by the top of the balloon, forcing the envelope down. We are indignant, think this kind of welcome is a little overdone. But what’s that? The same manoeuvre again? Indeed, again the Czech plane flies over the balloon, presses the envelope to the basket, so that we have to duck away so not to be mashed. And again the sound of the motor is heading for us, again the gusts press the envelope down, forcing a lot of gas out of the appendix. For fifty minutes the plane repeats its attacks – then we decide to make a false landing.
Still hundred, then eighty, fifty meters. The balloon sinks and sinks. The trail-rope is dumped, the handling lines are thrown overboard. The Czech seems to be satisfied, he turns away. At once we pull back handling lines and trail rope, close the valve, drop ballast and start climbing again, slowly but safely. Everything would have worked well, if not one of these damned power lines would have appeared, and behind it the ridge of a mountain. Grain by grain we dump the sand, not to get too high. But then the balloon is seen by the plane again. The Czech police plane rushes by again, full of anger and restarts its attacks. We can only make a final landing. The dream of a triumph in a Gordon Bennett Race is over.
In the magazine "Der Freiballon", in those days subtitled as "Monthly paper for all questions of ballooning with the announcements and reports of the ballooning division in the national socialistic flying corps (NSFK)", we find the following article:
‘With this race Belgium Demuyter has gained victory in a Gordon Bennett Race for the 6th time. Unfortunately, the 25th Gordon Bennett Race 1937 has lost much of its sportive value, because German balloons D-ALFRED HILDERBRANDT and D-CHEMNITZ X were pushed out of the race by the act of violence of Czech planes. Both balloons still had lots of ballast left, which would have allowed them a better place in the race, if not the victory. The responsible international organizations of sport aviation will have to deal with the incidents during the race’.
It was one of the last articles of this paper. At the end of 1937 it stopped publishing. The editor wrote (or was forced to write):
The new structure of ballooning is tougher than the old one. The determination has grown greater. The private and civil union of balloonists has now, it can’t be changed, been replaced by the storm organizations of the NSFK. Flying and training has now to be done according to new and uniform rules. The job, our paper had to do, therefore is no longer necessary.
Unfortunately, ballooning was soon no longer necessary in Germany. A last look at the paper "Der Freiballon" leads to an order, concerning the race 1938: "As we learned from the leaders of the NSFK, there are still individual applications from single pilots for participation in international events, especially the Gordon Bennett Race. Participants in international events, like the Gordon Bennett Race, are only appointed by the corps leaders in connection and working together with the NSFK groups. Any application of individuals is therefore useless".
At the Gordon Bennett Race in 1938, no German balloons participated anymore.
Werner Lohmann, of whom we’ve read above, died on June 4th, 1991, aged 84. He has read this report, but unfortunately has not seen it published.