Start: Stuttgart, Cannstatter Wasen, September 19th 1992
Article: DOUBLE VICTORY
"THERE ARE TWO OCCASIONS WHEN I LOVE TO HEAR THE NATIONAL ANTHEM. FIRST IS UPON RECEIVING A FIRST PLACE TROPHY, AND SECOND IS DURING AN OTHERWISE SILENT ASCENT INTO THE NIGHT FOR A GORDON BENNETT ADVENTURE."
Article by David Levin
as Published in 1992 BFA Ballooning Magazine
From Collection Don Piccard
D—Aspen prepares to launch from Stuttgart, Germany in the 36th annual Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett. The balloon would carry David Levin to a double victory: winner of the 1992 Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett; and World Gas Balloon Champion in the event flown two weeks later in Obertraun, Austria.
My first Gordon Bennett was with Frank Rider in 1985. We were launched into the night from Geneva for a low level flight down the Rhone river valley to finish fourth. Although the flight was short in both distance and duration for all competitors, it was exciting enough for Frank and me, two very inexperienced gas pilots.
My second Gordon Bennett was again with Frank (my balloon mentor) in 1986 out of Salzburg. Another night time launch to the sound of the Star Spangled Banner covered us with goose bumps as we stared into the darkness looking for power lines and mountains. Political boundaries and slow winds kept this Gordon Bennett flight short in distance and only about 18 hours in duration. Our lack of experience in flying this type of task (distance within a boundary) kept us in third place, but we were learning fast.
Third try at the Gordon Bennett was in 1988 with Jim Schiller. Jim had far more gas experience than Frank or I and I was ready to learn about long distance alpine flying. Our midnight launch from Bregenz, Austria was the most spectacular of all. The flight carried us over the Austrian Alps with a full moon and clear skies, to another third place finish.
Frank and I came back together for a flight from Lech, Austria in 1990. Unfortunately, the weather was not in our favor. The race was launched in less than ideal conditions. Frank moaned about his demise as he was dragged into the basket for a short flight into Italy and a three day retrieve. We were proud to land first and finish last rather than fly into scattered thunderstorms as most competitors had done. Our major accomplishment was to get a photograph of Mike Wallace flying into the top of a cumulo-nimbus (Ballooning, Winter 1990—91, cover).
Driving from Salzburg to Stuttgart for a fifth try at the Gordon Bennett brought back memories of my four previous starts in the famous competition. One by one I analyzed them to come up with a strategy for this year’s event. I was determined to go the distance and make a two-day flight, something I had not yet done.
My co-pilot was Jim Herschend of Ozark, Missouri. He had taken my Red Dog Balloon competition course in Baton Rouge and after hearing a few stories, had been bitten by the gas bug. He was ready for adventure. Our combined weight of 290 pounds would help us take enough ballast to make it through the second night with plenty to spare to climb above the snow-laden clouds on the all important second day. Jim and I arrived in Stuttgart along with our Austrian crew of Jeff Schendli and Gerald Sturzlinger. We were met there by Roif Goldschmidt of Basel, who was our balloonmeister.
Our balloon was D-ASPEN, a Worner balloon with a light-weight net and basket, both specially made for long distance flights.The balloon belonged to Randy Woods of Aspen, Colorado, who lent it to us for the flight. The event began as usual, with registration and a short, simple reception. The information received from Competition Director Markus Haggeney was voluminous, and included information for landing in any country in Europe, with all telephone numbers, ATC procedures and flight limitations in controlled airspace; and weather forecasts covering wind patterns over the next four days at altitudes up to 18,000 feet.
The highlight of the reception was the appointing of observers to teams. After our names were drawn third to last for launch, our spirits were raised when we saw that our observer was not the usual middle-aged somber Austrian male, but a young, energetic,attractive German woman who spoke perfect English and was ready for fun, as we all were. Petra Oberzig fit right in with our wild and crazy crew.
Saturday morning’s briefing brought news of excellent flight conditions to come. Once the rain stopped, we were to begin inflation and prepare for a 6:00 p.m. launch. The winds were predicted to take us anywhere from due north at low levels to southeast at upper levels, towards Yugoslavia. After reviewing the various wind forecasts and maps, it was clear that our goal was northeast Poland. We were not permitted to fly in any part of the former Soviet Union, former Yugoslavia, Rumania and Albania. The winds would turn right with height and there was no significant weather to avoid.
As we left the briefing just before noon, the butterflies in my stomach started fluttering, but not as much as usual. This was it, a green light for a night launch in the big one, the Gordon Bennett, but I was more relaxed than usual. The weather looked great for a slow two or three day flight to Poland with no major mountain ranges to cross and no threat of adverse weather conditions. These were the conditions I had been looking for for years.
We checked out of our hotel, picked up a few last minute munchies and headed for the launch field. The rain had stopped, the ceiling was lifting and breaking up and the inflations were going smoothly. Rolf Goldschmidt expertly prepared D-ASPEN for the launch, and everything was looking good for a long flight. After a late lunch, it was time for final preparations of the balloon and basket. The basket is my job, and it’s mind-boggling how much stuff gets carried aloft when you’re taking only the essentials. In addition to radios, transponder, ELT, GPS, etc., we also had to stock up on cold weather gear, food for up to three days, maps, charts, batteries, etc., etc., etc. Six p.m. approached and the balloons at the top of the launch order went through final preparations. A last minute checklist, turn on the barograph and flying lights, shake hands and kiss the crew good-bye. Then the best part—a slow climb into the night with the sound of your National Anthem fading as you gain altitude. Soon there is only the faint city noise and the occasional chatter with ATC Stuttgart.
We made a slow climb to 8,000 ft, which was the altitude we needed to catch a wind heading east. Two hours after our launch, we found ourselves headed out of the Stuttgart area in a heading of 070º, pretty close to our optimum direction of 060º. The night went smoothly. We stayed between eight and ten thousand feet for the best speed and direction. We also wanted to limit our altitude to conserve ballast and not get too cold. The temperature wasn’t far below freezing, but when you’re sitting still for hours, it feels colder and colder. Down suits and warming packs were in order. There was only one major problem the first night. We had difficulty picking up a strong signal with our Global Positioning System (GPS) and had to play with the antenna to get a signal. Our second GPS did the same. Subsequent talks with other pilots indicated the system just wasn’t working properly that night.
Early morning found us just south of Nuremberg and a beautiful sunrise over eastern Bavaria. We didn’t have to use too much ballast during the night to maintain altitude and things were still looking good for a two-day flight. We crossed the border into Czechoslovakia around midday after climbing to pick up speed. At this point our strategy was revised. At altitudes that took us east northeast, we couldn’t get enough speed to make a boundary after two days. At higher altitudes, we headed due east and with more speed. Our goal was now to get as much speed as possible without going southeast as this would cause a shorter potential due to the border with Romania. We spent the day around 13,000 feet. After making a late afternoon descent south of Tabor, we reorganized and prepared for a second night in the balloon, a first for both of us.
Our crew was almost constantly in radio contact, and at Tabor, they had time to make a few calls to get weather updates. We were advised that the lower levels would slow down and turn left so we kept the balloon high during the night to take advantage of stronger winds.
Morning brought us into Poland and clouds. We needed the sun to warm us up and take us to higher faster winds, but the clouds were too thick, and it started to snow. After lengthy discussions, we decided we would spend our ballast to get above the clouds rather than save it for a possible third night. We climbed to 17,000 ft and picked up the speed we needed to reach the border with Ukraine before sunset. Once speed was not a problem, we came down a few thousand feet to get a slight turn to the left. This kept us north of the mountains and took us to better landing areas.
It also gave us more potential distance, as the border went northeast. The day went smoothly as did the entire flight.
We began our descent for final landing from 15,000 at 4:30 in the afternoon. This gave us thirty minutes to get down at 500 fpm, and one hour to be found before sunset. We needed to get down fast because the lower winds were backing up and we didn’t want to lose any distance. Our crew was in position to watch our descent, but the surface winds were brisk and we had to land and deflate before they could find us.
I told them to go toward the hill with the fire, whereupon they told me every hill had a fire on it, as the Poles burn their weeds. After two hours, they finally reached us with the help of the local police. Two hours later we were on the road to Przemysl to look for a hotel and a hot meal. We found a hotel, but no hot meal. All we were really interested in was a bed. We weren’t thinking about winning at this point. All we knew was that we had just made a truly fantastic flight lasting almost 46 hours and hopefully we would finish in the top three.
The next day we took care of the details, an official stamp from the local police and a measurement for the landing spot. Next we took our balloon mail to the post office and Petra called back to headquarters. We noticed she was having trouble speaking and turning red. I started to get chills as she told me the news. All the balloons had landed, and it looked like we had gone the farthest, but nothing was official.
We celebrated with a hot meal, and even some Romanian champagne to wash it down. It wasn’t until two days later that we called back again, and this time it was official. We celebrated all over again, but this time, we called everyone we knew to share the incredible news. We had won the Gordon Bennett, and our names would be in the history books.
Winning the Gordon Bennett is a double treat. Not only do you get the prestige of winning a major event, you get to share it with your countrymen by hosting the event the following year. I hope many BFA members will get to see this incredible event next year.
Very special thanks to co—pilot James Hersehend, Balloonmeister Rolf Goldschmidt, Balloon owner Randy Woods, Crew Jeff Schendi and Gerald Sturzlinger and Observer Petra Oberzig.