Start: Berlin Gas-factory Schmargendorf, October 11th, 3 p.m
From the Book: Die Gordon Bennett Ballon Rennen
(The Gordon Bennett Races) by Ulrich Hohmann Sr
The past races had provided long-distance flights, the 1908 race put the most adventurous flight into the history of the races. The result and the reports went through all newspapers. Gordon-Bennett-Races became well know and received respect, that only Olympic Games might have today. Someone of our time may not understand this, for there are so many exciting events in the news. Also, in the old days, a journey by air could not be simply booked in the travel agency round the corner. Some comparisons may illustrate this:
The 1908 race created a new world record for flight duration: The two pilots were in the air for 73 hours. The world record for duration of a plane with a pilot and one passenger was put up to 1 hour, 9 minutes and 45,6 seconds by Wilbur Wright just one day before the launch of the Gordon-Bennett-Race. Doing this, he also improved the world record for distance in airplanes to 58 kilometres. One year later, the French Comte de la Vaulx flew 1925 km in a balloon from Paris to Korostychew (Russia). An altitude of 10.800 meters had already been reached by Dr. Süring and Dr. Berson in the balloon PREUSSEN on July 31st, 1901, while Graf Lambert put the world record in altitude for airplanes to 300 meters on October 18th, 1909. In those days, the balloon was the only aircraft, that made sensational performances possible.
Lets go back to the 1908 race. It was, till then, the largest competition ever. With 9 balloons from 4 nations the year before, there were now 23 balloons coming from 8 nations. In addition, the "Berliner Verein für Luftfahrt" called for an international judge-declared-goal race on October 10th, and an international duration flight on October 12th. In these three days, no less than 77 balloons launched. Organization was in an exemplary manner, a huge field for inflation was barred hermetically, 23 connections for inflation of the balloons were available. Every nation got their own lockable shed to store their equipment. For inflation and preparation of the balloons, 47 corporals with 585 other ranks of airmen and infantry were present. The gasworks delivered 22.000 cu m gas per hour, in 2 hours and 20 minutes the whole inflation action was completed.
It was the first time, that Switzerland was represented in a Gordon Bennett Race. The year before, Captain Eduard Spelterini from Zurich had drawn attention on himself and Suisse ballooning with alpine flights and on June 29th this year, the Suisse Victor de Beauclair managed to cross the Alps with 3 passengers on board of the 1500 cu m balloon COGNAC, flying from the Eiger-glacier to Stresa/Italy in 21 hours (in the Gordon Bennett Race he was nominated with H. Biehly as co-pilot). Everybody was interested to see, if these pilots would prove to be matched to the difficulties demanded by this race. They introduced themselves at once, with a sensation.
Punctual at 3 p.m. launch began. The meteorologists had forecast a flight to the southeast, landings were expected in South Russia or Romania. The Consul General of the Russian Czar in Berlin, Wirkl. Staatsrat von Artzimowitzsch, had provided the crews with letters of recommendation in the Russian language. But they were unnecessary. The southeast direction only kept for a few hours, in the night the wind turned 180 degrees and so on the next day, the balloons were up again on the same latitude on which they had launched. Approaching the North-Sea coast, they met with the balloons of the other race, launched one day later. There, for the majority, the race was over.
Soon after launch and also during the 30-hours flight to the coast, some events occurred, that might have created fatal endings. It really was a miracle, that no one was badly hurt. At first, the American balloon CONQUEROR, launching as number 9, hit the barrier of the launch-field, ripped off some boards and lost some bags of ballast. Loosing this weight, the balloon rose up into the air like a rocket. The appendix, too narrow and of a failing construction, could not give way for the quickly expanding gas. In an altitude of several hundred meters, the envelope split. The falling balloon shaped to a parachute inside the net, reducing the falling-speed. On the roof of the house Wilhelmshöherstraße Nr. 7 the basket damaged the tiles, got stuck at the chimney and the two Americans, A. Holland Forbes and Augustus Post, could enter the house by a skylight, but not before they and their balloon had been photographed on the roof.
Another accident struck the Spanish balloon MONTANES near Magdeburg. At an altitude of 2000 meters, the rip-out-panel (designed for a quick deflation of the envelope on landing) opened for unknown reasons. Pilot Herrera y Sotolonga, flying solo in the basket of the 2200 cu m balloon, dropped 40 bags of ballast during the fall, to decrease the force of the impact. He also went out without severe injuries.
All other incidents happened over or in the North-Sea. The American balloon ST.LOUIS crossed the river Weser at 10:15 p.m. and flew into thick fog. At 10:30 p.m. Nason Henry Arnold and Harry J. Hewat saw the sea under them through a hole in the fog. North of the mouth of the Jade, west of the lighthouse, they watered and at about 11:30 p.m. they were taken on board of the pilot boat WANGEROOG. The now empty balloon escaped and was later recovered in Grimsby/England.
Also the Spaniards Juan Montojo and his companion José Romero de Vejade flew out to the sea with their balloon CASTILLA. After about 38 hours, they could not keep the balloon aloft any longer and fell to the water. Fortunately, a fisherman Weiß from Blankenese with his cutter was close by. Here is his report to the competition centre:
"We have been fishing out of Helgoland, seeing in the morning of October 13th, 5 a.m. a balloon crewed with two men, the gondola floating in the water. We headed for it, the crew was waving to us, we put out our boat and took the people with their balloon on board. We had been West to North of Helgoland, 6-7 miles out.
Fishing cutter MARIA S. B. 37, skipper C.Weiß, Blankenese."
The crew of the German balloon BUSLEY (lawyer Dr.Niemeyer as pilot and factory-owner Hans Hiedemann as companion), sent the following telegram from Edinburgh on October, 15th, four days after launch:
"Edinburgh, 3:24 p.m.
Tuesday night 1 a.m. we left coast in balloon BUSLEY about 8 km west of Cuxhaven with 17 bags of ballast and a sharp wind of 50 km an hour heading for the middle of England. Over the sea, the wind suddenly turned north. We seemed lost. At 5 a.m. northwest of Helgoland we managed communication with a coal-steamer to Edinburgh. The balloon was brought down to the water by venting, but was driven away from the ship by strong wind, so we had to rip-out. Extreme dangerous saving. Got fished out by captain Schach almost undressed. Logbook and other properties lost. Balloon recovered. Dr. Niemeyer, Hiedemann."
Also the Suisse Oberst Theodor Schaeck and Oberleutnant Emil Messner left the coast in their balloon HELVETIA. Before Theodor Schaeck report, here is some information on his life: Theodor Schaeck, Colonel to the Suisse General Stuff, born in Genf 1856, died in Bern may, 2nd, 1911. After university in Zurich, Karlsruhe, Dresden and Vienna, he started his career as civil engineer on different enterprises in Switzerland and abroad. Then he turned over exclusively to military-science and was appointed colonel to the Suisse General Stuff in 1899. To study aviation, he was detailed to the French aeronautic department in Chalais-Meudon and to the Austrian aviatic troops in Vienna. In 1900 the Suisse aeronautical department was set-up in Bern under his command and in 1901 on his orders the Suisse Aero-Club was founded, where he became president until his death. After 1908 he competed also in the 1909 and 1910 Gordon Bennett Races. In the middle of March 1911 he had to face a surgical operation, but it could not stop the further progression of a fateful illness. He died in the morning of May, 2nd 1911.
(printed in "Wir Luftschiffer")
When I got the plan, to take part at the Gordon Bennett Race of the Air with the balloon HELVETIA, I knew, what a decision full of serious consequences this was. My experience in such kind of duration flights was not very great, for in Switzerland you can’t go far because of the mountains. Anyhow, I entered the competition as well prepared as possible. A special value I put in the conditions of a large basket, 1.60 meters long and 1.10 meters wide, allowing a comfortable rest in the night. Also the trail-rope, first lieutenant Messner and I carried with us, was extremely long, to create the balance easily.
Inflation in Schmargendorf was fast thanks to the aid of well-trained officers and units, so we had a quick launch at 4 p.m. Prior to our launch, we saw how the balloon CONQUEROR split and fell, but we still got the news, that the crew has landed safe in Friedenau.
First, orientation caught our attention. We detected, that we were flying to the southeast and got familiarized with the idea, to land on Russian territory. But it went out different, completely different. Our speed wasn’t high, just about 40 kilometres an hour. It was difficult, to keep the balloon in its balance. Therefore, we had to drop, then rise, then again drop and so on. We flew over Saxony, then we found out, that the heading had turned. For some time, the wind blew us south, then to the west. So we were carried to an area, where almost nothing was to be seen. The many forests and the few villages brought me to the idea, it could be the area of Lübben, where I had the honour, to take part in some military exercises 17 years ago. And indeed, my suspicion proved to be right.
For the first day of the flight, we had shared the work in the way, that until 10 p.m. both of us made our watch. Then I slept until 2 a.m. and then relieved my companion. Visibility in the morning was impeded very much by fog. Nevertheless, the image of the landscape was unexplainable charming. The fog was temporarily so thick, that we really did not know, where we were. Undoubtedly, we flew to the northwest. We had passed a big stream, that must have been the river Elbe. About 11 a.m. it cleared up and the fog opened. Below us, we saw a big stream, a smaller river flowing into it, a railroad-bridge and a big town: Magdeburg. We stood still over this town for a long time, then we crossed the swampy Drömling. Here we descended so quick, that we had to drop much ballast. At 5 p.m. we were over the Lüneburger Heide, crossing it riding on the trail-rope.
Further on went the flight, crossing Bremerhaven, the Jadebusen – to the sea. Could we risk it, to fly across the sea, we asked ourselves and had a long discussion. Finally we agreed: We could risk it, if the conditions are very well. When we came close to the North Sea, first lieutenant Messner had decided, to cross it. I myself had been up the whole day and was asleep, when I woke up and asked: "Where are we?", my comrade replied: "Two hours out on the North Sea." He did totally right and knew, that I would agree. Almost totally balanced, we drifted in an altitude of about 700 meters, once a little lower, once a little higher. Determination of the direction was easy, first northwest, then north. The swell of the waves, we could clearly see and hear below us, did not help us to determine the direction. We went down to the surface on the trail-rope and then, with the aid of the track our rope showed in the water, we could determine exactly our heading by using the compass. We had a high speed during this sea-journey. We did not come out of the fog the whole night.
At the break of the second day, we saw a piece of sky and gained clear visibility. In the east and the west, big bunches of clouds indicated land, to the north, visibility was clear. We did not suffer from cold, as the sun had warmed us, after it had broken through the fog. Not before 1 p.m. it cooled down and we started to descend.
We used this opportunity, to throw some unnecessary items overboard. We aimed for saving our remaining sand. This sand was most valuable, because it could be dropped in small and very small portions. We had a tarpaulin of 30 kilograms weight on board to pack the balloon in it after landing, it flew overboard and we climbed up to an altitude of 3700 meters. Now we were heading straight north. Since I had no exact instruments and tabulates with me, I was forced to determine the height of the sun at noon by simple means, which showed up a latitude of 67 degrees. The method, I had used for this calculation, was checked by me in Bern later when I detected, that I was wrong for only one to one and a half degrees.
In the following, third night, we frequently changed the guard above the constantly roaring waves. Between around 1 to 2 a.m. I was on the guard. Then, for some time, while the balloon had started to rise again, we made our watch together, then we both rested, because nothing could happen now. We had to rest, because we did not know, which demands for power and perseverance might approach us. We had to be prepared for almost everything. We could fall to the sea or land at a place, where we would have to face long and straining walks. So I also cared, that we ate enough from our plentiful food supply, and indeed, neither of us felt any tiredness. But nevertheless it happened, that we thought about many things, you normally don’t care for, like the sense of life and the future, that seemed a little bit dangerous for us - -
In the evening we approached again a layer of fog, approximately 600 to 700 meters thick. We allowed the balloon to drop, until the trail-rope was in the water for a length of about 30 to 40 m. Slowly the balloon closed up to the waves. The basket may not touch the water, and we could prevent this. The fog connected the clouds like valleys and mountains and once we came to the edge of such a mountain. There we saw the shadow of our balloon, clearly and with all details, circled by the fresh colours of the spectrum. The warmth from the sea, streaming up from below, warmed the gas in our balloon, so we came up high again and out of the fog and could finally see the stars in the sky. This again soon caused a cooling, the balloon dropped again and once more we floated, well balanced, but in the fog, until the break of the new, the fourth day, when the sun appeared again. Then it went up again and soon we reached 4000 m. Our situation still had not changed. We saw the sky and the fog and heard the waves. It was 10 a.m. when we discovered something in the distance, very interesting to us: land! We had been wrong for several times before. Once we had thought, we had heard church-bells ringing, then to recognize a coastal mountain, but it always had turned out to be shapes of the fog. Now we watched together and realized, it was really land! Of course, it was far away, at least 50 km, and we were driven parallel to it, but it soon became clearly visible and we shook hands with no words.....
We did not know exactly, where we were, if it was the Norwegian coast or the coast of Scotland. 5300 m was indicated by our instruments. We tried to reach a lower level and suddenly we saw a ship. It came from the coast and had a course parallel to us. We shouted down. No answer. Now we let drop the balloon more, until a part of the trail-rope again laid on the water. So we realized, that this rope was not tracked behind us, but driven aside of our course by the streaming. So we came closer to the ship. We asked the crew, to accompany us for a while. They did not listen to our calls, we gave them in different languages. They got the rope and – fixed it.
Actually, this was the end of our flight. Also to our question, where we were, we uncommonly got no reply. The crew had thought, we had risen the emergency flag. This was wrong, for we did not even have one. Probably they had taken the Swiss flag for an emergency flag, which would not be strange, because Switzerland had not yet shown its flag on the North Sea. Our trail-rope sucked an enormous amount of water. Five weeks after the flight I took its weight and it still had 95 kilogram instead of its normal 60 kilograms. The water sprayed into the basket, so I jumped over to the ship. After two hours of trailing, we were brought to land in Bergset near Molde, the rip-out panel was pulled and the balloon deflated. We had been in the air for 73 hours, many hours longer than any balloon before. It was a world-record flight for duration and we had won the Gordon Bennett Cup for our country.
We stood in Bergset for the night. The following day, we travelled via Christiansund and Drontheim to Kopenhagen, where we everywhere got a very warm welcome by the German consuls. Then we travelled back to Berlin, our take-off place.
So far the report of Oberst Schaeck. When he wrote at the end of the penultimate chapter: "we won the Gordon Bennett Cup", he was a little ahead of the time. The last meeting of the FAI on May 27th, 1908 actually had decided: "In case a balloon comes down on the sea and is recovered by a ship, the balloon will be taken out of competition, but without any penalizing for the pilot". So it was not easy for the jury. They pulled themselves out of this problem, by announcing on October 31st: "The decisions of the international conference in London from May 27th do not affect this years Gordon Bennett Race, because they had been made after the closing date of this race (February 1st, 1908)". So far in general, now in special: "The time of arrival of the balloon HELVETIA is recorded in its log-book by 3 p.m. on October 14th 1908 and confirmed by two witnesses. At this time the balloon was tethered by its trail rope to the steamer CIMRA 12 km out of the coast near the village of Bergset near Bud in the Romsdalsamt (Norway) and towed to land, where it was deflated and packed. The covered distance to the village of Bergset is 1212 km; if this distance is reduced by the distance, covered during the two hours tow by the steamer, which may be estimated with 22 km, there will be a distance to the launch field of 1190 km. As proved by a photography, reproduced in the Norwegian newspaper "Aftenposten" on Monday, October 19th 1908 Nr. 593, the balloon HELVETIA stayed hovered during the tow. Due to these realizations, the jury awards the Gordon Bennet Cup to the balloon HELVETIA, pilot Oberst Schaeck, 2nd pilot Oberleutnant Messner. Signed Busley, Hildebrandt, Moedebeck, Riedinger (Jury).
Thinking, that was it, is an error! The Aero-Club of the United Kingdom filed a protest against this decision (protesting in sports therefore is not an invention of present times!). The Federation Aéronautique International (F.A.I.), called for an extraordinary conference to handle this protest to the Ritz-Hotel in London on January 11th and 12th 1909. The record of this conference contains 15 pages, narrow-printed, and would be boring here. Summarizing, it should be fixed:
It was protested, because Schaeck/Messner landed in the sea at Norway and therefore had to be disqualified. For one reason, there was the decision of the F.A.I from May 1908, for another reason Oberstleutnant Moedebeck as launch-master had told the balloons, to prevent water-landings. Interesting arguments finally led to the rejection of the protest:
Three crews had fallen to the sea and had been set to the places 20 to 22 without figuring any distances. This decision was explained by the jury as follows:
"From the pilots fallen to the sea, we only had the log book of our Spanish comrade Montojo, which, still soaked with salt water, proved to us well the dangerous hours, he and his companion Don Jose Romero de Vejade had stood in a heroic way. But the determination of his position in the sea was only estimated by a skipper with a scope of one nautical mile. We think, that this landing in the sea could not be compared with others, most accurately documented landings.
Mr. Harry Hewat had lost his log book and reconstructed it by his memory. We recognize this difficult work very much, but the jury could not possibly acknowledge it as a document. Dr. Niemeyer, our proven pilot, also had lost his log book and was therefore put out of the race.
So you see, gentlemen, that we did not put these pilots out of classification because they had fallen to the sea, but because their landing spots could not have been confirmed by documents in a way, to compare them to other pilots without performing injustice."
This argumentation convinced the majority of the present delegates. The result of the ballot was:
36 votes for a rejection of the protest,
13 votes for a recognition,
6 delegates performed abstention.
So close together are triumph and failure!
Also the co-pilot of the winning balloon gave a report from his point of view. It is of a pleasant sobriety, without any emotion. Let him tell.
3:59 p.m. it was commanded: "HELVETIA, go!" With a good lift, we climbed fast, and when the last tones of our national anthem "Trittst im Morgenrot daher" died away and the hurrahs and best wishes of our friends staying back could no longer reach us, our HELVETIA levelled out at about 500 m. – We had begun our great flight.
Our orientation showed, that we were moving in south-easterly direction. Until past midnight, we often could determine our position by shouting from below; "Kalau" shouted up the helpful railway-officer, when we flew over his station at 12 p.m. Then, step by step, the lights became less. The earth had covered in a deep rest.
At morning, orientation became more difficult. First a light, later thick haze reduced our views, and finally, our eyes failed completely.
Finally at 10 a.m. the building of the fog opened a little bit; we recognized an alert meandering river, later also bridges. It must be a larger stream. Finally we managed, to spot ourselves on the map as well, it was the village of Barby. Slowly the balloon moved towards Magdeburg, while it was still climbing, until we reached the maximum altitude of this day, 2200 m.
Over the swampy areas of the Drömlings our balloon started to descent. Soon we touched the ground with our trail rope, when we again came to a climb by a little drop of ballast, reaching once more 1800 m. But meanwhile, the sun closed up to the westerly horizon, the air heavily cooled down, so the balloon descended quickly towards the Lüneburger Heide.
By this time, it also had become dark, but the wind had not died down at all. We might be travelling with 60-70 km; but so we did not touch the ground with our trail rope anymore, we soared quiet through the evening air. Still we could control our orientation on the map with shouting from below. With some fear we realized, that the track we were keeping would carry our balloon immediately to the North Sea. Probability to reach it before midnight was quite big, and what then?
Of course we asked each other, if we want to go out on the sea or not. But we never got a certain answer. "Depends on the conditions" it sounded, before we turned over to another subject again and again.
We were just soaring past Celle on this second evening, having our dinner together and while the author went on his guard with a sand-bag and the shovel, my pilot prepared for a rest and soon had his well-earned, empowering sleep. Luckly, we passed a little village, still full of life. They had seen us! "Come down", these good people shouted with all their power, "land, or you will be drowned, the sea is ahead of you." Not very encouraging, these shouts, but the decision was made. "It’s alright", was our answer, "we will cross it."
Meanwhile, we already had the sea below us. Monotonously, the breakers sounded to our ears and you soon started getting used to the unusual. – There, like a last warning, one of the offshore Frisian Islands came in our path. It was the bath island "Spiekeroog"; once again I had to stand the fight in my soul; "shall we land?" But the drawn decision was too fixed. As if this landing-place did not exist, we crossed it on our trail-rope. It was 10:45 p.m. Still we recognized two lighthouse ships close to us. Still we crossed a fishing cutter, but then, only the periodical beams of the light tower of Helgoland flashed to us, just to disappear soon after. Now we were alone over the excited, mighty-roaring sea. – We had left 30 bags of ballast and a lot of stuff, we could eventually sacrifice as ballast – so no danger.
But now I made heavy accusations to myself, having flow out without making my pilot aware of it. When he awoke and asked, how far we had already come and where we are, I only could put his attention to the monotonous sound of the waves with the remark, that we were floating over the North Sea for some hours now. "That’s good", was his answer, giving me back the full confidence, a confidence that was mutual and chained us to each other even in the hours of danger.
Very overheated on the next day, the full ball of the HELVETIA lost a lot of gas passing through the appendix. – So we had to be prepared for a strong cooling and a quick descent in the evening. To face surprises and an early catastrophe, we busy made precautions. Our load ring was prepared to serve as a place of refuge by weaving a net of strong ropes in it, then we brought all our instruments, maps and food for two days to this upper level. We also tied ropes to our bodies, to fix us in every position and to prevent us from being floated away.
Like a hush we passed the black clouds. Covered from all sides, it became cold and uncomfortable. These clouds went far down, and when we finally saw the sea again, we had already closed up to its surface to 200 m. We dropped ballast without result. Finally the trail-rope hit the excited waves. Now, we were only a few meters from the surface, we cut away the tarpon of 35 kg with a knife. It fell to the water while the balloon started to climb again. We had overthrown. Full of sorrows we looked to the constantly climbing track of the barograph. Soon we were up to 1000, 2000, 3000 and finally 3700 m, just to have another frightening drop at once.
No sign of land anymore, and we were now sitting in the balloon for 60 hours, half of this time over open sea. Why? We shouted out. We thought to have heard human voices, dogs barking, even church-bell ringing. But nothing came back to our ears, only the monotonous harmony of the breakers. – Then we believed to see clearly the lights of villages, ships, the flash of a light tower to disappear at once for ever again in the dark. – Now we felt uncomfortable because of an enormous drop of temperature. We noted minus 10 degrees C.
Then – about 10 p.m., on an altitude of 5000 m, we recognized some mountain ranges in the distance. These mountains had a similar shape like our Alps at home. We will never forget these hours, when our yearning for land became satisfied; we shook hands and drank the last bottle of Rhine-wine, toasting a happy landing. We both agreed: It could only be Norway, but on which part of this large shore was it, was something we could not recognize.
We were still busy studying this question, when we saw some strange moving of the waters surface in the distance. We soon realized, that this must be a ship. – They had not yet detected us. –We let the balloon drop still deeper. With the rope in the water, we floated over the flat surface. The boat now changed its heading and seemed to chase us. First at 2 p.m. it came as close as hailing distance, but all our efforts to learn where we were did not succeed. We shouted in English, German and French, but neither captain nor crew of this fishing boat could understand us and answered in sounds, we did not manage to understand. They were still steaming forward and when they came within reach of the trail-rope at 3 p.m. they pulled it to the boat against our protests and headed for the port with their prey.
Finally we closed up to the yearned port. The ship moored, the rope was taken by the helpful people running by and the HELVETIA was hauled to a hill close by. Here they pulled it down, and when the basket hit the ground, it was deflated by opening the rip-panel.
It was 5 p.m. So we had been in the balloon for 73 hours, 43 of them over the sea. Bergseth, the village where we landed belongs to the county of Romsdal and is 1250 kilometres away from Berlin. We could well hope, to become the winners of the Gordon Bennett Race.
The people that rushed by helped us with fun, to recover the balloon and at already 6 p.m. everything was packed and stored to the basket.
Oberst Schaeck and Oberleutnant Messner have written their reports very objectively, almost factually. After a lucky ending of a dangerous adventure, it is often exposed as not so critical. When it is still not over, the desperate situation becomes more apparent. Oberleutnant Messner wrote a message on the collar of his shirt during the flight, in the hope, this would be a report of their fate to their friends in Switzerland. This message still exists and contained:
"Driven to the North-Sea it was impossible for us to find land or help, from the night of October 12th to the afternoon of October 14th we kept our balloon above the water. We have to wait, what the night from the 14th to the 15th will bring. We hope to be driven towards land, because this area seems completely unused by ships, for we have not seen one for two days and two nights. We are both in the fog." Messner, Schaeck