Start: Lech am Arlberg, Austria, September 21
From the Book: Die Gordon Bennett Ballon Rennen
(The Gordon Bennett Races) by Ulrich Hohmann Sr
It is now the third race, to which my wife Hanne and me are travelling from Nürnberg to the village of Lech am Arlberg in Vorarlberg. We therefore know the way so we remember the many meetings we had before with our friends, who were all involved in this Gordon Bennett Cup.
Real friendship had developed between the Austrian organizers and competitors and us two volunteers from Germany, since I had met Gert Scholz and Joschi Starkbaum in Vienna, when they lugged the huge statue of the fifth Gordon Bennett Cup to the press conference of the European championships in hot air ballooning in 1986. We had met before, had been to several balloon-meetings and competitions together, but it was only a friendly knowing and respecting each other.
Gert Scholz, outstanding organizer of many balloon competitions, was event director of the European Championships in 1986 and of the World Championships a year later in Schilleithen in Austria. On his side his charming wife Maria Scholz-Fischhuber who manages a public relation agency. The success in organization of these championships convinced the Austrian Aero Club, to charge this group also with the management of the Gordon Bennett Race, after it had been done by different organizations in the years 1986 and 1987. Gert Scholz quickly had his crew together.
There was Helmut Kocar prepared to help as championship director. A lot of organizers wished to have him since he had a charm, only Austrians have, but was uncompromising if necessary. Helmut Prosch, engineer for land surveying from Salzburg was there for the calculation of the results. He also completed the international jury, who had to be selected and confirmed by the CIA of which the delegates normally respect the nomination of the host. The nomination of the two other jury members had been certain from the first moment. Dr. Ernst Iselin the most experienced Swiss gas balloon pilot alive and for decades Swiss delegate to the CIA and his friend and comrade in arms Alfi Feltes from Luxembourg composed a the jury according to the rules. Most important assistant prior to launch was qualified meteorologist Dr. Herbert Pümpel, restless telephoning and telegraphing, to collect data from all possible meteorological offices, to make a reliable prognosis for the competitors. Doris Maglot, Manuela Pikadlo, both employees in the public relation agency of Maria, Gottfried Zach as safety-manager and Heinz G. Scholz, brother of Gert and responsible for the sale of souvenirs, completed the circle that we also entered. My wife Hanne cared for the observers and later received the landing reports, and I entertained the spectators at the inflation and launch ceremonies with lots of explanations about ballooning in general and the Gordon Bennett Races in particular.
How would the 1991 race turn out? Our enthusiasm had been dampened hard before the race. We had all hoped, that the ninth race after the big break from 1938 to 1983 would be like the great races before the war. The separation of the world by the Iron Curtain was over now. 1983 the Polish team met a border, impossible to over fly near Regensburg. In 1984 and 1985 the border was not important as the wind direction was different. We all remembered 1986 as the year of the great disappointment. Hungary did agree with an entry, but a permission would have been necessary from Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately they were unwilling to make any concessions.
We cheered, when in 1987 and 1988 the willingness of Yugoslavia allowed again long flights from Seefeld respectively Bregenz and became enthusiastic, when a year later when even the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia had no objection to entry or over flying. When finally at the end of the year 1989 the walls to the east finally came down, we all thought that we had reached our final target.
What a disappointment in the year 1991! Helmut Kocar had got no reply to his request from the USSR. But who should have answered? Were the centralist structures still in order? The USSR was breaking to pieces so how would the states gaining independence behave if a balloon would land on their territory and presented them a permission of the central government which they hate so much? These states must be given time to organize themselves and even the biggest optimists among the competitors agreed with that. Much worse it looked in the Southeast. Slovenia already was quite independent, the central government in Belgrad seemed to have agreed with it, but Croatia! There was a bitter civil war raging, and no arranged armistice could stop the massacres. Impossible to allow balloons to fly there, but that was exactly the direction, the wind was blowing. So we all were far from the optimism of the year before.
When we arrived at Lech on the afternoon of September 19th, 1991, we were welcomed by our native friends. The tourist office had gained recognition in the previous years by handling the race very well. Its director, Hubert Schwärzler could rely totally on his employees Dietmar Flatz, Cornelia Meusburger, Barbara Braun, Stefan Jochum and Johannes Bischof in this. There was nothing which was forgotten such as the organization of the lodging or the transportation of sand for inflation and equipping the balloons. The fire brigade as well as the local clubs helped, where they were needed. So within three years, the Gordon Bennett Races had become a fixed feature in the schedule of this village, as if they had never happened anywhere else.
The competitors from Poland and America had already arrived. They met a the launch at Lech for some days of vacation, which are also used for acclimatization. We have just enough time to put our baggage into our rooms and then the American cocktail reception waits for us. Mister John M. Wallace has invited and announces, that he will look after the return of the race to America this year. Mister Wallace, lawyer from Springfield with political ambitions, is on a permanent election campaign which he doesn’t forget even in Austria. With his own public relation manager and a local TV team from Springfield Mister Wallace is continually promoting his state for the voters in far away America. That is the context that his statements must be seen and understood.
Friday, September 20th, 1991. The entry of the gladiators and their retinue begins. In the tourist office they generously gave space for the organization, as in the previous years they will be hosting the headquarter until the awards ceremony. And then they start coming, we know almost everybody. Most of them have been in the race for years. Why should the nominating national aero clubs exclude or replace proven teams?
Stefan Makne from Poland appears first. In his entourage the whole Polish team. Stefan, winner of the 1983 race did not take part in 1986, but was all the other races. With his co-pilot since 1987, Grzgory Antkowiak. For him it would be the greatest success if he could take up the glorious Polish victories before 1938. There is almost no other competitor who would not begrudge a victory to the congenial man from Poland. Piotr Szary, the second Polish pilot, is new on the stage but with Waldemar Ozga as co-pilot he has an experienced combatant who had smelled the breeze of Gordon Bennett Races previously in 1984.
Alan Fraenckel is also a well known fellow. As with the Polish team, we already shake hands the previous evening. Alan represents the American Virgin Islands, of course it is not a nation that has made great contributions to ballooning till now. But nobody can fly long distances on these little islands in a balloon. Alan lives most of the time in New York, is a keen competition pilot, making good performances in hot air ballooning. The year before, 1990, John Stuart-Jervis was his co-pilot in the Gordon Bennett Race. Not to blame John, but compared to the charm of the new co-pilot Jackie Robertson, John has no chance.
With the Americans, we miss our good fellows Lawrence "Fred" Hyde, David Levin and Frank Rider this year. Instead there we new faces. John M. Wallace, previously mentioned and his co-pilot Ronald G. Senez from Massachusetts. Randy Woods, Fred Gorell and Gordon Boring are old fellows but the co-pilot of Gordon Boring, Walter Noeske was also new.
With our Swiss friends, there was almost no change, except a new sharing of the duties of pilot and co-pilot. Karl Spenger, the old warhorse and winner in 1984, has obviously found with Christian Stoll an ideal substitute for Martin Messner, who flew with him before. Gerold Signer showed up with Silvan Osterwalder, who was pilot with Rolf Sutter the year before. Rolf instead had chosen Alfred Nater as co-pilot. All were people who knew the Gordon Bennett Race.
Of the Germans and the Austrians, only Rainer Hassold, co-pilot of Thomas Fink was new. Thomas Fink was still on a search for a substitute of outstanding pilot Erich Märkl. But substitute may not be the right word, because somebody equal may not be found. Erich Märkl, with more than 700 gas balloon flights up to his last participation in 1989, knows better than everybody else how to fly and to land a balloon. And the other men and women? Every other kind of sports envies the balloonists for Helma Sjuts, every other nation envies the Germans. Somebody like her exists nowhere else. A woman, aged more than 70, performs top level sport! When she is announced on the launch field there is always a special applause – which she really earns. She does not only fly "with somebody", lets somebody else fly, or however it may be called, no, she fights herself with burning ambition and accepts all strain. If she’s not nominated as pilot, she flies the race as co-pilot. Woe betide to those, who try to advise her, to calm down and give way to younger pilots!
Of Volker Kuinke and Jürgen Schubert not much has been heard before. Volker Kuinke, in 1985 was for the first time in a Gordon Bennett Race. He is considered to be a good pilot for duration flights, but did not become very evident in competitions. With Jürgen Schubert it seems, he had found the right co-pilot since 1990.
Not many words have to be said about Joschi Starkbaum and Gert Scholz. The success of these outstanding athletes of the last years speaks for them. But, this year, something appeared different. Joschi it is said is not to motivated for a seventh victory. To emphasize that, he pointed to his meager result at the world championships in Canada in August. Some kind of tiredness could be felt. They also did not deny themselves as much as they did the years before. Perhaps, a little feeling of superiority had also come up. However, at the day before the launch, no bookmaker’s would have accepted high odds for another victory of this team.
The second Austrian team is also known from the year before, but they changed responsibilities. Silvia Wagner had insisted in it, and Thomas Lewetz had agreed with a grin (as he said). In 1990, with the balloon MÜNSTERLAND, they had an envelope quite worn out, not very suitable for outstanding competitions and also as big as permitted. But they only wanted to gain experience. This year, they rented the quite new, little flown COLUMBUS as they really wanted to compete.
But now let’s talk about the race itself. The check-in is over. The day of launch comes closer.
Wonderful weather of Indian summer ruled the day before the launch. On Saturday at the briefing, the first rain shower happened. The advantage of this was that the umbrellas with the Gordon Bennett logo, still on stock from the last year were quickly sold out. Dr. Herbert Pümpel, highly regarded meteorologist, promised clear sky for the time of launch in the evening. Would he be right?
For the jubilee race, everything should work extremely well. The 35th race, 85 years after the first one. If one figure is subtracted by the other, 50 comes out, but this number was not worth a celebration, because it demonstrates, that in all these years political or economical situations did not permit the races. Still a jubilee? Of course! Gordon Bennett was born 150 years ago, and the Austrian Aero Club had been founded 90 years ago. So there were enough reasons for jubilee ceremonies.
The Austrian Aero Club had called its executive committee to Lech for a festive meeting, following an old tradition. In the old days, the delegates of the FAI also had their meeting at the same time at places such as the Gordon Bennett races, thus demonstrating the importance of this sportive event. So this year, all board members and the festive guests of the neighbour clubs came to the solemn launch.
The advise of the meteorologist was: "Fly the balloons low, there is a drift to the Northeast. Higher up, the wind turns and pushes you more to the South, closer to the border of Yugoslavia". Easy to say, difficult to be done in the mountains. All came in danger flying towards Yugoslavia. From rank 10 on they all had to give up at the border, and Swiss crew Signer/Osterwalder even crossed it. They had flown in rain, the water on the vent froze in 3000 meters, making it unusable for quite a long time. First at Ljubliana in relatively peaceful Slovenia they could start the descend.
American lawyer John M. Wallace nearly provoked diplomatic complications. This year he had chosen as co-pilot a major of the National Guard. His public relation manager thought, this man would be more impressive to the television audience at home if he would fly in uniform with all medals and decorations. So he climbed to the basket fully dressed. Imagine, if an American major in uniform had landed between the front lines of the Croatians and Serbians! When Mister Wallace realized which track the balloon flew, he finished (just in time) at Villach in Austria.
The crew from American Virgin Islands tried to be extremely careful. Alan Fraenckel/Jackie Robertson thought they landed right in time. On the ground, the observer asked them, why they had not flown on with 15 bags of ballast and 3 canisters of water? "The frontier", Alan pointed ahead. "But that’s the border between Austria and Hungary, not the one to Yugoslavia", explained the observer to him. But it was too late! With this ballast and his light balloon, he could have flown straight across Hungary and made a better rank.
The other teams performed better. Again and again venting, levelling the balloon out. The more they did it the more they came to the North and therefore the longer the distance grew.
The decision came, as at many great Gordon Bennett races in the past, before the second night. The crews with the best physical, psychological power and enough ballast in the basket, fought it out on Monday. Kuinke/Schubert were more to the North, and had enough space to the border of the USSR in Poland, while Starkbaum/Scholz got stuck more South in Hungary. A little luck is also needed to win the race. A nice side effect was a new German record in duration.
In the previous years, always some reports of the flights were written here. We will do the same this year. Of course, the report of the winner will get a special place. Eighty years after Hans Gericke again a German Gordon Bennett winner. The joy about this among the balloonists of this country was enormous. But before, Austrian Silvia Wagner shall tell, a woman had not reported yet. Women never stood aside at the Gordon Bennett races. In 1913 Madame Goldschmidt flew the race with René Rumpelmayer. From 1983 on Helma Sjuts flew in almost every race, and in 1984 there was an exclusive women-team.
Silvia Wagner started aviation in 1976 with parachuting and in 1980 she became an instructor for parachuting. After the birth of her second child, she started with motor flying and today flies all over Europe as professional pilot with 20 seater turboprops. In 1984 she developed her love for balloons and became the first female balloon instructor in Austria in 1990. Today she also makes her money with instructions and commercial passenger flights in her own company. Here is her report:
"Gordon Bennett Race 1990 was my first competition in a balloon race and so my first experience in this discipline. Pilot Thomas Lewetz took me with him as co-pilot. Old and heavy equipment as well as a thunderstorm forced us to end the race quite early. But the ambition was set and right after our landing and it was sure that we’ll try again next year. This time we would change positions as I wanted to take over the command. Thomas agreed laughing to this plan and but let himself be nominated as co-pilot. A balloon fit for competition could be organized in Germany as in Austria unfortunately only Joschi Starkbaum owns a competitive balloon. My experience had shown that I had to optimize our equipment in a way that we did not lack anything but also did not have too much of anything other than ballast.
The dressing for the expected extreme strain was found in the sport equipment McKinley from the Intersport company. Technically we improved our equipment by adding a lighter and more exactly working GPS and more powerful batteries to our proved navigation and communication instruments.
Food was mostly composed of energy providing elements, but I cared for every taste. So from the carrot to chocolate, everything could be found in our pantry. Thermal flasks with hot soup and hot tea should make the cold mornings a little more friendly.
Physical conditions for a long distance flight in high altitudes was given to us by many aircraft flights to more than 4000 meters to drop parachutists. Mentally we were best prepared for at least three nights in a balloon. Our participation at the BP alpine trophy 1991 in Ramsau taught me to calculate better the possible dangers of a balloon flight in the Alps under competition conditions.
Very important for to stand the strain is that at least one member of the crew is always wide awake. A comfortable bed, like a coated plank mounted to the edge of the basket, is a precondition.
Well equipped like this, my crew and I arrived at Lech on Friday. We were afraid of missing the check-in due to a traffic jam caused by the driving of the cattle down from the mountain pastures.
Already the first briefing allowed me to foresee the strategy of our flight. Our met man Dr. Pümpel pronounced a drift to the East close to the ground, turning more and more to South-East with increasing altitudes. That would mean, the higher you fly, the sooner you would meet the borderlines of Yugoslavia, which was like Russia, closed for this competition. So the target was, to fly very low along the valley of the river Lech in the direction of Warth and Reutte. Then to fly as far North as possible to the foothills of the Alps in the area of Füssen. On Saturday, a rain shower at noon lowered the mood of the competitors. But hope may never be given up, and our balloon was inflated despite of the low dark clouds. And soon the sun appeared again and allowed us to do the rest of the preparations in a wonderful scenery.
The night broke in and the time of launch came closer. Also, dark clouds moved again towards the launch field from the South. As first according to the drawn sequence – we took it for a good omen – my balloon D-Columbus with Thomas Lewetz and me on board opened the race.
Very slowly we slipped along the valley of the river Lech, as more and more balloons rose behind us under the sound of their national anthems to the night sky of Lech. The tops of the mountains around the valley were illuminated by fires, indicating the way to the North like lighthouses. It was very calm, only the rush of the creeks, the bells of the cows and the cracking of wood created by animals in the forests was with us in the first hours of our flight.
Everything looks so peaceful until at a narrows the current becomes so strong that it makes us rush close by a church towards a power line. I don’t want to loose too much sand and half a bag saves us from an early touch-down. Thomas, already asleep, wakes up from the wind in the basket caused by the quick fall and climb and takes over command of the balloon for the next two hours. My time to rest begins. The cry of a night bird, reflected from the opposite hill slope, startles me from my sleep. Wide-awake, I fly the balloon again through the Tyrolean valley of the Lech, illuminated by the full moon. Urged to use up as little sand as possible, I let the balloon hover just 10 meters above the tree tops. We are approaching Reutte, soon we will have reached the foothills of the Alps, when suddenly the balloon turns towards a side valley and starts to climb uphill. The decision about what to do is difficult. Shall I really throw my nerves overboard as sand or better hope that the heading will turn again to our fortune?
We drift along the hills very close. Is there a power line? Coming closer, I identify the supposed power line as ski slope, the shadows thrown by the setting moon create optical illusions. How does our way continue here? We already had reached the end of the valley, when the wind turns us to the middle of the valley and we fly down the valley again meter by meter. A little before we enter the main valley of the river Lech again, it starts to become bright. At the town of Füssen, two lee waves make me sacrifice another bag of ballast, which means, that we have used only two bags of the valuable ballast that night. For sure, no other competitor was more economical on his way than we were.
The sun rises and a new day with new adventures waits for us. But first, we have to care for our physical wellness. A rich breakfast in the sunny basket over the famous castle of Neuschwanstein make us forget the strain of the passed night very quickly. The flight continues, still very low over the mountain ridges. Ballast must be saved, because my plan is a flight to the third night. But flying low, makes the lee waves more violent. Once we are pulled down so quickly that I almost had to face a landing in the trees but just in time the balloon levels out and carries us up the next hill at high speed. On the information frequency the first warnings from thunderstorms are broadcasted. But who can believe such weather reports with this blue sky and sunshine? To our feet Lake Chiemsee spreads hundreds of sailing-boats on it with no wind. They look like toys but are rapidly growing. The cold surface of the water sucks us, quicker and quicker it goes down. Only the dump of much ballast saves us from a splash down and nearly creates a new sand bank in the lake.
The Austrian border is not far away and Salzburg radar requests us to keep a constant altitude which becomes more and more difficult in the moment. Cold water surfaces and forests change with heated field and push our ball up and down. The forecasted thunderstorms can’t be seen where we are, the drone we hear is caused by the airplanes from and to the airport of Salzburg. We are quite close to the radio beacon of the airport. The controller makes our motorized colleagues fly around us. They are not angry about the detour, because we are a nice view. The wind turns now more and more to the north-east. We fly across the area of the Hausruck, along the river Salzach to the river Inn and further on to the Danube river. The broadcasted weather reports talk more and more about an approaching cold front with includes thunderstorms. And in the Northwest, the clouds are already coming up. Also above us, it becomes hazy. Dropping more sand keeps us at an altitude of about 2000 meters.
The wind speeds up and drives us faster and faster. The weather reports about the approaching front are broadcasted in shorter and shorter periods, the bad weather starts to catch up to us with a short but heavy rain-shower near the town of Linz. Calculation starts. When and where will the first thunderstorms meet us? The decision is made. When the first thunderstorms will be in the area of Linz, we will begin the landing, because then, the thunderstorms will be about one hour behind of us. The wind speeds up more and turns north. The flight passes the town of Freistadt, then the Waldviertel area to the Czech town of Znojmo. Brno radar tells us, that a landing under VFR at night is not permitted on Czech territory. We don’t want to do this voluntarily, but we inform the controller about the approaching thunderstorms, and that in this situation a landing must be declared as an emergency. He supported us until we touched down.
Shortly behind Znaim we got messages about the first thunderstorms in the area of Linz, which activated our decision to land. Many signs show, that the thunderstorms would reach us in a short time. So the wind became stronger. At an altitude of about 50 meters it was still 30 knots, which means more than 50 kilometres an hour. Our landing beam helped no longer, the rising fog from the ground broke the light. What is underneath of us, a lake or one of the huge Czech fields? I decide, to speed up the fall of the balloon. The ground fog increases rapidly and makes everything look like through a milk glass. From time to time, the moon shines through the quick moving wisps of clouds, this light makes see the outlines of the trees. Where are power lines? A very busy road appears below. Then a huge, black plain, surely no lake, spreads. Shall I stop the fall? The rate of sinking is about the same as with a round parachute. Thomas as well as me have had about a hundred landings with such a tool.
Wind speed is still at 25 knots, I allow the balloon to continue it’s descend. It is heading towards the big darkness. Near the ground, the wind calms down a little. A road intersection, the direct road from Brno to Vienna, with a huge field of beets behind, will become our landing place. Six minutes after touch down, our ground crew is with us. We pack the balloon, waiting for the weather front. When we store away the last parts, a heavy rainfall starts, but no thunderstorms appear. But I still think, my decision was right, even if my heart was bleeding, to empty all the saved sand bags on the side of the field. Another year will come with a new Gordon Bennett Cup. Our team will not change.’
The 35th race, 85 years after the first launch, 150 years after the birth of Gordon Bennett, the third German victory! From the flight 1907, Oscar Erbslöh had reported, 1911 Hans Gericke. So it’s logical, that in 1991, Volker Kuinke shall tell about his impressions.
Gordon Bennett 1991: the Flight to Victory
Report from Volker Kuinke
A Gordon Bennett never forgives a mistake. So we take the time at home in Düsseldorf, to inflate our D-EUREGIO with cold air to inspect it from the inside. The result is calming: Only a few spots, that have to be sealed.
On Thursday, September 19th, we drive to Lech in the Austrian region of Vorarlberg with all our stuff. We have Max Tenthoff and Ute Schubert as chase crew, Jürgen Schubert and me.
The anxious question. What is the weather doing? At the main briefing on Friday, 5 p.m., Gordon Bennett chief meteorologist Herbert Pümpel encourages all competitors: Wind in the lower altitudes from West-South-West. But in altitudes above 3000 meters from the West-North-West, this means drift in the direction of Yugoslavia, not very tempting, considering the political situation in this country. In addition, in regard to the Soviet Union there is no permission to enter this country. All the other countries including Albania, Romania and Bulgaria had given permission, which is a sign of hope.
The numerous clouds, that darkened the sky on Friday, should move away on Saturday and the wedge of a high pressure area should rule the weather. Possibly good conditions. So on Saturday morning, next to the other balloons, D-EUREGIO is laid out and prepared for inflation. What a bad surprise, when at about noon, a strong rain shower falls on the already prepared balloon. Everything is totally wet in a moment. Channels form in the carefully taped rip out panel and they have to be removed. An unpleasant work especially since there is so much to do prior to a Gordon Bennett launch. But it was a surprise also for Herbert Pümpel, who could not detect any other shower within a circle of 200 kilometres around. St. Peter finally sends some sunshine, soon sucking the rainwater from the slowly expanding gas balls. So the launch preparations on the Schmelzhofwiesen continue. We had drawn launch number 13. Will this mean luck for us? If you like it or not, there is always much tension before such a launch. Is there really everything you need in the basket?
At 8 p.m. everything is ready. One balloon after the other lifts off to the night sky under the sound of its national anthem. The weather situation is a little critical, because only in the lowest layers the wind really comes from the South-West. Someone who wants to fly high at once to cross the Alps, risks to enter a faster wind from the North-West, facing a landing in front of the Yugoslavian border already in the same night. Herbert Pümpel advises all the crews, to stay low and use the downwind of the valley to fly along the river Lech. Then to reach the northern side of the Alps at Reutte and to continue there with the wind from the South-West. That is also our decision.
The little space in the basket we have to share with: 28 bulging sandbags, two canisters of water-ballast, an instrument box with barograph, a Dittel FSG 70 radio, a Becker-transponder with altitude encoder, two ICOM radios, a heavy bag for maps, oxygen set with bottle, a huge bag of food, ELT (emergency location transmitter), two batteries for the supply of the night-beacons with energy and different other tools.
At 8:59 p.m. D-EUREGIO lifts off from the platform at Lech. The balloon makes its 44thflight. For Jürgen, it’s his 70th, for me, flight number 207 in a gas balloon. Behind us we leave hours of hectic preparation. It is a little relief, to be in the air at last. But this relief doesn’t keep for long. Our balloon is the only one, which is heading straight towards the cableway to the Rüfikopf, which I don’t like at all. When I force the balloon to a very low altitude, this individualistic guy changes its heading and follows the other balloons down the valley.
First we fly very low over the church and rooftops of Lech. Many shouts and whistles come from below. The last balloon has just taken off, the national anthem had ended. Slowly we fly down the valley of the Lech, accompanied by the roaring of the river. An avalanche of cars makes its way in the direction of Warth, obviously most of them spectators of the launch of the 35th Gordon Bennett Race.
After having passed Bürstegg, the flight becomes a little faster. Some tree covered hills force us, to pull up our night beacon quickly. I have to pay attention, not to collide with a fir tree. Friend moon is fully in the sky and watches us. Only sometimes he hides behind huge mountains of clouds which suck up his light. Only the edges of the clouds have a silver shining. On many mountains around fires burn, a nice little farewell from the mountain rangers of Lech to the Gordon Bennett pilots. There is a concert of the cow bells, ringing from the alpine pastures around.
A look to the map frightens me. The valley of the Lech has many bends and curves. Impossible, as I think, that a balloon will follow them. Jürgen thinks different. He has a lot of mountaineering experience, and was an active mountain climber in former days. Well, we’ll see!
Warth is ahead of us and welcomes us with is lights. Here, the valley makes its first huge bend. At first, it seems, as if the balloon is heading straight towards the mountain in front of our track. But then slowly but soon very definitively it follows the bending of the valley and passes well between the huge blocks of rock. With great respect, I look northwards. How huge the mountains and how precipitous the rock walls rise there, and how small and fragile compared to them our balloon and we are! As if the moon wanted to emphasize my thoughts, he let his pale light fall to the steep rock walls. I have an enormous respect of the mountains, but I also realize the unique beauty of nature, that is revealed to us. We see things, only a few people may see in their lives.
Always when the aerostat is close to a hill slope, animals flee from the monster in the sky. This often creates rock-fall. As hard as we try, we can’t see the fugitives. It maybe chamois. Like dark, sharp shadows the fir trees stand out clearly from the background where the moonlight reflects on some rocks from time to time.
The shadow of the balloon seems to be glued to the hills. My feeling is that we are proceeding much to slowly. We have just watched another balloon flying quite close to a rock wall, being forced to sacrifice ballast. An other one flies at the opposite side of the valley about 200 meters higher than we and close to a tree covered slope. Again and again the pilot checks his distance to the trees and the rocks with his strong beam light. Ghostly the light of the strong beam rushes through the dark fir trees. I admire the strong nerves of this crew regarding this little distance to the obstacles. Till now, we were kept away from larger sacrifices of ballast. Let’s hope that it will stay this way and that we will manage to fly out of the Alps. Anything but high and to Yugoslavia. About an hour ago, we could see, how a balloon was driven away to the Southeast. Quickly the lights of its anti-collision beacon disappeared. It was very high and Jürgen said: "He has already purchased his ticket for Yugoslavia."
Everything works well until we are about 5 kilometres from Reutte. There, crossing the valley of the Lech, is the Namloser valley. While we are flying a little higher, to keep enough distance from some trees. About 100 meters lower Helma Sjuts flies her balloon right through the middle of the valley. She keeps exactly the direction, our balloon didn’t want to take at all. Even a short pull on the vent doesn’t help anymore. We are pulled inside the Namloser valley and thus away from Reutte and the north side of the Alps. All moaning and cursing doesn’t help. Yearning, my eyes follow Helma and Alfred, who don’t have to fight our problems. Jürgen can’t believe, what a trick the wind played on us. Even in the lowest altitude, it is impossible to slip back to the valley of the Lech. What do we do? D-EUREGIO meanwhile purposefully climbs up a hill towards a mountain ridge. I start to feel unsafe. A half bag of ballast is sacrificed. At once, the balloon follows and lifts us over the obstacle. But on the lee side, it starts to fall again. A very steep, dark valley with sharp rocks envelopes us. No human settlement can be seen. Eerie sounds the roaring of the deer from below. Somewhere water falls to the valley with thunderous noise. The thunder is reflected and strengthened by many rock walls, A unique scenery of sounds.
Fortunately, the fall could be stopped with the sacrifice of a little ballast. At a low altitude the balloon makes its way around the mountain. The lights of a little village are now visible and on the little road outside of the village we can see our chase crew giving us a sign with the headlights of the car. Reutte can be seen in the distance. Somehow I feel as if the lights of this town would give us a scornful grin. Can we still manage it to return to the valley of the Lech? D-EUREGIO has flown almost a circle keeping the direction we have now it doesn’t appear impossible.
But now, another problem had come up. The moon had decided, to make life and flying a little harder for us. We had loved his light up to now, but now it becomes disturbing. Because we have changed the direction the light now comes from the front. Very bright over the ridge it dazzles in a way that obstacles ahead can’t be detected well enough anymore. Also, the balloon is heading straight towards the mountain top of the Thanneller. There is almost no more speed and the mountain is dangerously close. Finish, that’s not the way to carry on! One bag of ballast is sacrificed. No matter what happens, lets just get away from here. Slowly, then quicker, the balloon climbs and lifts us out of this complicated situation. Nearly 1½ hours we have spent on the Thanneller.
But what is that? Suddenly a sharp wind blows from the front, the envelope of the balloons starts flattering and the basket shakes. D-EUREGIO has obviously come to the lee waves of the mountain. We climb with 3 meters per second now and have a speed of 50 km/h. The heading is not so good – 85° - but still good enough, to help us leave the Alps possibly at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Flying higher now we have a fantastic view to the mountains around. Also impressive is the night sky full of stars around the black ball over our heads. The track of the balloon had calmed and stabilized as well as my nerves. Often I can see shooting stars, falling from the sky and seeming to disappear behind the high mountains. If you see a shooting star, you may have a wish¼
At 4 a.m. we are over the town of Garmisch, west of the mountain Zugspitze. By its greatness, it clearly stands out of the neighbour mountains of the Wetterstein range. A lonely light can be seen on its top. I try to keep enough distance from it to avoid more climbing because further up the wind still blows towards Yugoslavia. It is very difficult to get the balloon out of the Alps completely. Again and again black mountain ridges, which have to be crossed, appear in our track. It’s not easy to estimate the distance to them. Concentrating we stare into the darkness which holds so many secrets.
The moon doesn’t help us anymore. He has become tired; his brightness has gone. He still swims on the western horizon above the pall of haze to which human beings contribute such a lot, but soon he dives into it; starts to flicker as if he wants to dissolve, and finally disappears. Good night or better, Good morning, because in the East twilight starts.
In the last hours there has been almost no clouds but now in the North huge cumulus clouds were rising. I do not trust my eyes – there are flashes of lightning inside the clouds. It must be the rest of the thunderstorms from the previous days; hopefully not dangerous anymore. With increasing brightness these flashes finally disappear and the clouds collapse more and more.
D-EUREGIO passes the town of Mittenwald in the North and flies into the valley of the river Inn, heading approximately 80° . Speed has decreased a lot. The whole valley is covered with fog. The white carpet slowly moves to the North. Suddenly we see a Polish balloon east of us. They have to climb because they are heading straight towards a tree covered hill. For quite a long time, we can only see the upper half of the envelope looking out of the trees moving as slowly as we do. An interesting image.
Meanwhile, it had become brighter and the sky in the East glows red. In the glow one can see mighty peaks standing out. The mountain peaks of the Kaisergebirge, belonging to the northern calcium alps. This view is so impressing that all tiredness and strain of the night before is blown away. D-EUREGIO stays south of the mountain called Wilder Kaiser while Thomas Fink, flying very low, passes it to the West. The question for us is if it is sensibly to force the balloon to stay low, thus sacrificing lot of gas or ballast but proceeding more North; or if it is better to allow the balloon to climb under the influence of the warming morning sun and to cross the eastern Alps first and not to give away the possibility to fly a second night right now. The decision is very difficult but finally we agree to give free way to the balloon but brake it down a little bit on its way up.
In higher altitudes; suddenly a balloon appears in the Northwest. Quickly it comes closer and its heading is definitively more to the southeast as we fly. It is D-CONTINENTALE with Helma and Alfred. But also D-EUREGIO has struggled itself higher and makes more speed now. The heading is 100° to 110° . Not very encouraging considering which country is in that direction. But we see no sense in forcing the balloon close to the ground and making almost no more speed while spoiling a lot of ballast in the coming up and downdrafts. But I can’t stop my thoughts running ahead for many hours imagining a landing on the Austrian-Yugoslavian border.
How bad are wars and how much suffering they bring! Four years ago we could land in Yugoslavia with no problems but today it is impossible. Those views are too fascinating, to think about it any longer. The balloon crosses the ‘Steinerne Meer’ (rocky sea), a high plateau of huge dimensions. It is probably the most famous karst landscape and forms the south-western wing of the Alps at Berchtesgaden. Looking down vertically we can see, how quick our balloon is proceeding. Really, the rocks down there look like waves. Totally noiseless our tramp moves on over the Steinerne Meer to the East. We can still see it for a long time.
Very different shapes of mountains are crossed by the balloon. Very impressive compositions of rock, nature had created here! On shaded spots snow remains. Small glacier lakes formed colourful counterpoints on the grey, stony nowhere-land. One mountain is coated with veils of mist playing around it, always changing its shape. Only the peak peeps out of the white mass.
It is 10:20 a.m. and position is south of Schladming. Still 20 bags in the basket and present heading 120° . Overwhelming is the view to the Dachstein range. Jürgen knows almost every peak and lots of anecdotes from his time as mountain climber. Far from the South Großglockner and Großvenediger are greeting us and above them a little spot, D-CONTINENTALE. What a great experience is a traversing of the Alps!
In the valleys particularly thick fog still rests. No one down there will expect a balloon over himself or can imagine, how beautiful it is up here. We wonder where all the other balloons are. We can’t see anyone of them. Could they have managed to stay on the north side of the Alps and to filter into the wind from the southwest?
In the early afternoon and already on the south side of the Alps I have a little rest on our "deluxe" balloon bed made by Woerner. But suddenly I am wide awake. Jürgen states: "If we continue like this, there is only one hour to Yugoslavia". Everything, but not this! I force D-EUREGIO to lower layers hoping to meet a streaming there which would save us from a landing on the Yugoslavian border. Minutes of tension begin. Will the balloon change its track enough? It does! But I have to concentrate completely on the flight now. Low mountains are underneath. There are still many up und downdrafts, which may cost us a lot of ballast. And that is something I have to keep away from, otherwise we could forget the second night. I manage, to stabilize the balloon at 1500 meters. Quite limply the envelope looks, no wonder, D-EUREGIO comes from 3500 meters.
Mount Wolfsberg is passed and slowly the landscape becomes definitively more flat. Heading is now about 65° . But we still have to pay attention to the Yugoslavian border. First we fly parallel to it and don’t recede from it. D-EUREGIO approaches the control zone of Graz and a very fruitful radio conversation begins. The controller allows the aerostat to pass through the middle of the final approach sector south of Graz and requests only to keep an altitude "round about xx feet". I love this, because every order to keep a definite altitude would cost us ballast. Weather-information from Graz for the next night sounds good. Up to 5000 feet wind from southwest with 5 knots, above 5000 feet turning via west to northwest, 10 – 15 knots. A worsening of the weather – if any – may be expected not before the second half of the night and then only of a very moderate kind. In our direction, Hungary, there is no worsening expected.
14 bags are left in the basket. So the course is set for the second night. We only have continuously to care to not come too close to the Yugoslavian border. At the present heading of 40° to 50° , this would hopefully become no problem.
Now we leave the airspace of Graz. Slowly dawn comes up. The cooling makes our balloon fall. Again and again some shovels of sand leave the basket, to keep the altitude. The sun has disappeared behind the mountains in the West. In the many night hours ahead we will miss her warming beams. Unnoticed by us, the moon had left his bedroom and looks at us with curiosity. For sure he is astonished that we want to stay a second night under his guard. It is time for dinner. Austrian unleavened bread with salami, a few grapes and mineral water. At the next Gordon Bennett race we will also take a toothbrush with us.
D-EUREGIO approaches Hungarian airspace. I try to make radio contact with Budapest. In vain! Obviously the distance is too big and our altitude too low. The daylight disappears and below more and more lights show up. Many children, still playing in the courts, wave and shout. Our chase crew is quite close to us. They will stay overnight somewhere, a wise decision after a 24-hour drive.
Our yellow gas filled ball now moves in a direction of 25° to 30° , the speed is 20 km/h. The navigation is not easy. For some time now the balloon flies along a motorway. But we cannot find this motorway on our maps. So we can just estimate our position. Also it becomes more and more hazy. Only a few lights can still be seen from below, everything else is sucked up by the fog.
If you are overtired and get confronted with different problems at the same time, many thoughts shoot through your brain. My imagination is thinking of the worsening of the weather with upcoming clouds. A feeling of fear overcomes me. Do we really have to land at night in this hazy soup? We can’t read the VORs, drawn on my maps. A fatal situation! I try to make radio contact with Vienna. With successful contact and with the help of the transponder we finally get our definite position. D-EUREGIO has flown with the wind almost from the south, predominant in the lower layers, to the area of the Neusiedler See. This also explains the haze appearing so quickly. The motorway which we could not find on the maps is the one from Graz to Vienna. We had thought to be already much more to the East.
But now the next problem comes up. Our balloon is heading straight towards the TMA of Vienna, and it does not help that we are Gordon Bennett competitors and have a properly working transponder with altitude encoding on board. We are a little disappointed for the officials at Lech had promised us no problems, especially with Vienna. But instead of this the controller requests us to land. I try to explain him that it may be extremely dangerous to land at night with a balloon. "Then climb to 10000 feet at once, please". Under normal circumstances, this would also be impossible or could be done only with big sacrifices of ballast. But now the situation is different because the balloon had been up to almost 3500 meters during the day. Only one bag is dumped and soon the aerostat climbs to the requested altitude. The controller is satisfied and we are too, because up here visibility is again unlimited.
Heading is now 95° . The speed, the controller tells us, is 15 knots. According to our own calculations, it seems to be a little less. Its cold up here, extremely cold. But that’s a problem you can live with. We cover with everything we had taken with us. Vienna and Bratislava can be seen close together brightly illuminated. Hard to imagine that these two towns belong to two very different nations.
We can see clearly now how the balloon moves more and more to the East. We easily accept this because we want to try to extend the flight as much as possible during the next day and to fly deep into Romania. Our chase crew still don’t know of this idea. I ask the controller at Vienna, to phone the championship office at Lech and inform them about our further intentions. I also ask him about the other balloons. He tells us he knows only of a D-COLUMBUS and an Austrian balloon, but nothing about all the others. We can’t imagine that only three balloons are left in the air.
Vienna advises us to call Budapest for our aircraft is already deep in Hungary. Now we have no more problem, making contact. Our transponder is permanently running but I am a little worried about using up the energy. At once, the controller at Budapest accepts my suggestion to activate the transponder only every 30 minutes for a short time. Even more, he is satisfied with a one hour period. Wonderful! Now finally some calm returns to our little basket. So we can alternately have a little rest on the Woerner bed. But when laying down, the cold is felt even more uncomfortably, so sleep is almost impossible.
It’s midnight. Below us the large Hungarian town of Csorna passes slowly. Jürgen had laid down and so I have some time to follow my thoughts. How little do I know about the country of Hungary! What kind of a town is Csorna? How many people live in it? But all these questions stay unanswered and the balloon carries us further on its voyage to eastern Europe. What can we expect, if we really land in Romania or Bulgaria? Will there be great difficulties? Or doesn’t the balloon fly so far? Questions and more questions.
The sky over Hungary is full of iron. Again and again I can hear and see airplanes, fortunately much higher than the balloon. For safety reasons I switch on the transponder again and call Budapest.
Cirrus clouds approach at high speed covering the moon for a short time and then disappear to the Southeast. Will it really work, down to Romania? Or does the bad weather proceed faster and will catch up to u? More and more often, cirrus clouds accompany us on our way and don’t let us expect the very best. But there are also sequences without clouds allowing an unlimited view to the clear nightly sky full of stars. How unique is our situation up here in the small willow basket 3000 meters above Hungarian terrain!
West of us we can still see the lights of Csorna. Why don’t we proceed faster? Jürgen is also unsatisfied about the speed. What can be done? But very sudden, our attention is turned to something different: There was a flash of lightening in the West! There, again! But no cloud can be seen and no thunder can be heard. How far away may be this thunderstorm? Hopefully far enough!
First we did not notice that D-EUREGIO had started a moderate fall. The old altitude can be reached again with ease and quickly so why not try? How fast is the wind below and which heading the balloon will fly there. So we allow it to continue the fall. At 600 meters I level out.
We fly in the direction 20° to 30° and are much faster than on 3000 meters. So we keep the altitude and continue low. Soon we reach the border to the CSFR. My stomach feels uncomfortable. Two years ago, at the 33rd Gordon Bennett race, Gustav Vornbäumen and me had failed at the Czech border and had been banned to the last place. Also, there are no VFR flights at night permitted here. I say goodbye to Budapest thanking for the helpfulness and then call a little insecure Bratislava on frequency 132:35. I can’t trust my ears: "D-EUREGIO you are welcome in CSFR". We are overwhelmed. The helpfulness and friendliness of this controller can’t be beaten and continues the next hours. It is really unbelievable! Frequently, we get accurate position reports and other information.
We are very worried by the weather. More and more clouds appear and I almost regret it, to have descended from the higher altitude because I have the feeling that we will sucked right into the middle of the bad weather. It becomes again more and more hazy around us and I don’t think that this time the Neusiedler See is the reason for it. We climb a little, to keep the overall view. In fact soon the balloon lifts us out of the haze at an altitude of 1800 meters. Clouds below, clouds above. My heart beats faster. In the Westthere are flashes of lightening again but this time much closer. 4:30 a.m. and still two hours until sunrise. If I had known this before I would certainly not have flown the second night. Our controller at Bratislava tells us that we have to expect showers in the next hour but he had heard nothing about thunderstorms. But again and again Jürgen and I see the flashes in the West. We also hear Stefan Makne on the radio. I ask Bratislava if I can have a short talk with him – no problem. Quickly, I file a warning to Stefan, concerning the thunderstorms. We decide to continue in our altitude and to keep an eye on everything. As soon as we come too close to a CB cloud we will land. No matter or where!
Oh dear – these minutes until daybreak can become damn long. But we were lucky. The CB clouds we could see were all at least 20 kilometres away from us. Only weak thunder can be heard. As frightening as it is to watch a thunderstorm from a balloon basket, it is also a gigantic performance of nature in front of our eyes.
We feel very relieved when the first daylight finally makes its way to us from the East. Particularly since it has to penetrate thick mountains of clouds, which appear even more threatening by this. Aside of these clouds the sky starts to glow. Never before I have seen such an impressive morning atmosphere. South of us is a CB cloud which is very active. Again and again there are flashes inside making it look like a huge torch but thanks goodness the distance to D-EUREGIO is quite big.
Meanwhile it had become so bright that we could land. So we decide to leave our thunderstorm guard post at 2600 meters and to fly to lower layers. Bratislava gets informed about our changing of the altitude and we meet some agreements for the case since we could no longer keep the contact. Bratislava will inform the championship office at Lech about our position and in case we will land in the CSFR, we will phone Bratislava to report our landing position. In case the balloon will not land in the CSFR but continue its flight to Poland the helpful controller tells us some frequencies on which we can make contact in Poland.
But first the controller slows down our descent. In our track are some higher mountains of the ‘High Tatra’, we can’t see through the layer of clouds below. Not before we were north of the ‘High Tatra’, the controller allows us, to descend.
Meanwhile some sunbeams had slipped by the towers of clouds in the East and now shine on the layer of clouds below us. As a response the layer tears open here and there opening the view to a wonderful landscape, reminding me at once of the ‘Black Forest’. They are the northern foothills of the ‘High Tatra’. We decide, to continue our descent.
The weather has calmed and no thunderstorm activities can be detected at the moment. If D-EUREGIO stays low we see no risk in continuing the flight. If the weather worsens rapidly, we can land at once. Decided, done!
First, D-EUREGIO hesitates to leave the warmer layers but some pulling on the vent finally make it fall. From 1800 meters we then enjoy an unclouded view to the landscape. A small town is below. We can see an industrial area and a railroad. Hearing the horn of the locomotive makes us recognize a foreign country. Everything looks different. Hard to describe but very impressive to us.
Very slowly the forest becomes less and the terrain more flat. We have no more radio contact to Bratislava. We also don’t hear Stefan Makne anymore. On the balloon frequency 122:25 an unfamiliar calmness rules. Shall our balloon be the only one which is still in the air? I can’t imagine. But where are all the others then? But first of all Jürgen and I are very happy that we did not have to land at night and that St. Peter agrees to let us fly on a little.
Will we be able to reach Poland? It looks like this. At our present altitude the balloon has a heading of 50° to 60° with a speed of about 40 km/h. In fact, at 8:00 a.m. the Orava lake appears in front of us and on its north shore is the borderline to Poland. The joy is great to reach this country. It is more than 52 years ago that the last German balloon has crossed this border.
A tiny village is on the east side of the Orava lake. As much as we look we can’t detect a border station or something similar. Unfortunately we still have no radio contact with Polish ATC even though we tried many times on the different frequencies we had received from Bratislava.
Endless wide spaces all around mostly used for farming. The shape of the fields are very long and very narrow. I remember at once to the 1987 Gordon Bennett Race to Yugoslavia where it looked quite similar. Many little villages can be seen mostly without a face. Just a few houses on both sides of a lonesome country road.
Above the clouds tear open again. The balloon wants to climb. Well, let him go. Perhaps we can make radio contact with Warsaw and get an actual survey of the weather in higher altitudes. Both work. But Warsaw is not very cooperative. We are told to call Bratislava again because in this part of Poland, Bratislava is in charge of the airspace. Weather information can’t be given.
All efforts to make radio-contact with Bratislava again are in vain and no wonder considering the distance. Our own weather observation shows cumuli above the torn layer of clouds reaching up to 3000 meters and higher but mostly they look harmless. We have to be careful and this works only in low altitudes. So back down again.
At 2000 meters D-EUREGIO crosses the town of Tarnow, a good point for orientation. The balloon continues its fall down to 500 meters. With a few hand full of sand I can stop the fall and we are continuing stable at a low altitude. Above our aerostat the clouds had become more thick again. You can already say, grey in grey. The little road below looks suspiciously dark. Should it rain? Very soon our rain eave tells the truth and a little later the water is falling quite hard from the appendix down to our basket. A wet surprise. Quickly, we store all tools to a plastic bag and into plastic films we fortunately have on board for this case.
We prepare for the landing. It is 10:35 a.m.. Everywhere around is enough space for landing. We have still 5 bags in the basket and also some water ballast. We agree that the flight will be continued even in the rain as long as ballast permits and no thunderstorm comes up. Everything is wet already. Due to the closed layer of clouds above updrafts can’t build up. So it is possible to continue the flights of this worn out and meager little balloon very low and stable without the use of much ballast. And soon the rainfall ends. Wonderful! We want to fight for every meter. Everything, but not landing. Our ambition have awoken. But we will not take any risk.
The balloon flies low over many farms. Everywhere we see huge herds of geese. My impression is that they react to the balloon with even more panic as they do at us. Wherever the balloon appears a big excitement of shouting and waving starts. We reply to every greeting much to the joy of the people down there. Not many of them may have seen a balloon before in their life.
The area below becomes still more lonesome than it has been before. Suddenly I see a flock of gigantic birds on a field. As we approach they hurry to a forest nearby to look for protection from the monster approaching from the sky. Are they been buzzards? I have no other explanation. Then again tiny villages and in front of every farm a huge flock of geese. Dogs are barking. What’s this ball, up there in the sky? The clouds above tear apart again – unbelievable.
Meanwhile it has become noon and its time to eat. The balloon climbs again. Still four bags and some water-ballast. Ahead of us there is a restriction-area, called EDP21. In any case we want to stay clear of it. We neither know how far up it reaches nor which activities happen there. To pass it the balloon has to fly more east so up we go. It works. D-EUREGIO stays south of it. But we are again quite high. More than 2000 meters and the balloon wants to continue climbing. Below the clouds – north of us – we think we hear shooting several times but maybe we are wrong. In any case it was good to stay clear of the area. I feel a little uncomfortable, hanging in a small willow basket under a worn out little balloon in the middle of a completely strange country.
We haven’t seen any aircraft at all till now. Generally on our flight over Poland there have been no control zones, except for this single restriction area, of which we could stay clear. Up to the Russian border, no more obstacle of this kind can be seen: very good. If only the weather and the balloon continues to play the game with us. Suddenly I realize, that D-EUREGIO is in the air for more than 40 hours now. We feel much joy about this fact. Curiously enough, we are absolutely not tired. Is the fact that we see so may indescribable new things the reason for this?
The weather in the west look worrying. Some cumuli clouds rise up high there. Once we think we had heard thunder far away. Or not? These cumuli clouds are approximately 50 – 70 kilometres away. We now want to fly very low again and stay there. Another climb would be impossible considering the situation of our ballast.
Below a forest area of huge dimensions awaits us. The layer of clouds above is again thick enough to allow a stable low altitude flight across this nature preservation area. What a unique beauty! A lonesome farm is below. They have just discovered the balloon. We fly on across a forest of birches with a kind of moor land around. On a little river we can see the reflection of our balloon.
Speed has reduced very much. Our yellow ball now flies with 12 – 15 km/h very low across the landscape. Surface wind is completely calm. It’s crazy: After 41 hours flight, we now make a real minimum distance competition over this unique forest area.
A moped rider, probably coming from the farm, tries to chase us. Again and again the wheels of the vehicle slip on the sandy ground. He follows us up to the beach of a lake. The balloon is so low, that we can see his face. In his face we read disbelieving and astonishment. Who are you? Where do you come from? Where do you want to go? The track ends and he stays back waving. Now we see our reflection in the lake then endless forests approach. Wild animals rush away in panic and we hear the cracking of branches but don’t see anything. A herd of wild boars? The forest becomes more open as birches and alders replace the firs. Jürgen has seen a moose. I don’t see it. Later, we see deer.
After about one hour the forest suddenly ends and the balloon flies over wide farmland. Many people work on the fields on this cloudy afternoon. Whenever they discover the aerostat they let everything go and their eyes follow us with astonishment. I remember back to the times of Ferdinand Eimermacher and Carl Götze. It must have been similar to us in those early times when a balloon appeared. And what we can see also fits better to those times. The people still work on the fields with their hands or the help of horses. Numerous horse drawn wagons are used to carry home the harvest. Only a few tractors are used. The main product seems to be tobacco. That is something we did not expect here. Often the people make signs that we should land. What should we expect us after a landing? Always as we cross a village and half of the population follows the balloon.
The mood in the basket is at its best. Even if the sky is grey and grey we love it because it is our only chance, to keep the balloon in the air. A little less than three bags of ballast are left in the basket. But the flight of D-EUREGIO is so stable and the altitude kept so constantly that I use up almost no sand. Jürgen concentrates completely on the navigation which is not easy with maps of a scale 1:500.000. He performs very well and we always know exactly where we are. So I can concentrate completely on the flight. From time to time the balloon wants to go down and then I have to correct it with a little sand.
Jürgen and I wonder where our chase-crew may be now and how they feel. Observer Kurt Fabes has contact with gas ballooning for the first time in his life. We hope he will cope with our marathon flight.
D-EUREGIO now crosses a little mountain ridge. My feeling is that the layer of clouds becomes lower and lower. Can we make it to the Russian border? We are now in the air for 44 hours. Speed has increased and the heading has changed. Why this? Up to now we flew at the low altitude at 70° to 80° and 30 km/h. Now the heading is more 100° with 40 km/h.
Suddenly the sky darkens in our direction! It is as if we were heading towards a black wall. There a flash of lightening! And soon, pouring rain starts to fall. Down as quick as possible! So we are just 150 meters high, everything goes quickly. A short pull on the vent line. The load of the rainfall helps. With 2 meters per second, we rush down. A long pasture between high trees is exactly in our track. That is very good. With the last full bag, I stop the fall completely. The trail rope is released. Even if the horizontal speed is high, the balloon touches the ground with a sinking speed of only 20 centimetres per second and the razing on the ground is short. A thick frog jumps aside shocked and is the first creature that welcomes us here. The balloon is ripped out and the envelope deflates in a hush.
At once I rush out of the basket and run to the balloon pulling the upper half to the middle of the envelope to prevent the rain water from entering to the inside. It is coming down in buckets. No human being can be seen. Then I realize that an important balloon flight has come to a happy end. We don’t know anything about our ranking, but our joy is enormous having made such a long and distant flight. "Happy landings, Jürgen!"
The rain clatters loud on the ripped balloon. Gusts of wind lash the tops of the nearby poplar trees. Jürgen makes some camera shots of the landing field. It has become so dark already that he has to use the flash. How shall we continue? I am a little bit disappointed, because no helpers show up. Has nobody seen us landing? Finally from the other end of the pasture a tractor approaches. It stops, and I try to explain the driver with hands and feet, who we are and where we come from. He looks a little helpless. Suddenly, a Volkswagen with a German number appears. We don’t trust our eyes. It is the family Kamiski from Buxtehude visiting their relatives here in this area. Her mother drew her attention to the balloon as Mrs. Kaminski said. She was running to the house, shouting: "Satan, the devil incarnate, comes from heaven"! After a look out of the window they quickly realized, that "Warsteiner" will hardly have done something with the devil and assumed, that this may be a German balloon having made quite a long flight with its crew maybe needing help. What luck for us!
Now the landing report must be sent to Lech as quickly as possible. We decide that Jürgen drives to a telephone with the Kaminskis and I will stay with the balloon. I have no idea at this time what it means, to phone from Poland! Jürgen leaves and I stay back at the balloon in the pouring rain.
Meanwhile in the little village news had spread like a crown fire. What a strange ball had fallen from the sky and to which purpose it may be used? An invasion starts. Within a few minutes more and more people come even if it’s still coming down in buckets. They feel the envelope make signs that it will be very good for rain clothes and look at me with curiosity. I remember quite well the landing with Gustav Vornbäumen in Yugoslavia four years ago when only the police could keep the curious crowd away from the balloon. The situation is not very easy.
I am very tired I feel cold and I am wet down to the skin. About 30 – 40 persons stand around me and bomb me with questions which I unfortunately don’t understand. I try, to approach these people open minded and kindly. Somehow I feel that everything else would be wrong. Often, they stand together in groups, discussing vividly this exciting event. I also try to ask questions. Who has seen a balloon before, and so on¼
A cigarette is offered to me and I try to explain the guy that I am a non-smoker. Then one of the farmers offers me a candy. Normally I don’t like candies but to be not considered as impolitely I take it with thanks. It doesn’t taste very good but the farmer smiles at me. He will be the one to whom we’ll have to owe a lot.
Jürgen is off for more than an hour now, and I start asking myself, where he is? A telephone call can’t take so long. Strange thoughts shoot through my brain. After a balloon flight of 44 hours, I stand together with 40 people on an lawn in the rain, 50 kilometres from the Russian border, completely overtired, cold and totally wet. A surrealistic situation. What happens if Jürgen doesn’t return? Perhaps, an accident has happened. What can I do now? The only conclusion is to wait, wait and wait again.
My "candy-farmer" takes special care of me. He gives me a sign to take a seat at his side on the tractor. I try to explain that it is necessary and to wait for Jürgen because I think he probably wants to take me home with him. But he doesn’t give up. He even knows some words German and wipes over the seat with his hands as to clean it and says: "Please, please". I can’t say "no" any longer. I climb with him on the old tractor. But he doesn’t drives off. Now I understand, he just wanted to keep me away from standing in the cold rain any longer. The tractor has a roof keeping the rain away. I am touched. But where is Jürgen? He is off now for one and a half hour.
More and more people come. I shake hands with everybody, smile at them. Often, they ask me about brandy. I pretend to love brandy and have the feeling the people like that.
My farmer points with his hand to his mouth and says: "Hunger!" I understand this as a question, concerning my rumbling stomach and nod my head. At once his little son, approximately seven or eight years starts with the bicycle. Another half an hour passes. Meanwhile it has become completely dark. Then finally a light comes from the direction the Volkswagen has disappeared two hours ago. But my joy was too early. It is the boy with the bicycle packed with a big linen bag. He has brought bread from his mother at home and a thermos flask full of tea. There is nothing on the bread and the tea consists almost completely of sugar but it is quite hot and helps me a lot.
The subject I am thinking about for a while is the balloon. Can we risk it to let it stay here overnight? I have my doubts. The people are simply too much interested in the envelope. But how can we recover the completely soaked material in the darkness? I don’t know.
Finally, the headlights of a car appear in the distance. Thanks goodness, it is the Volkswagen. Jürgen takes me aside and tells me that the Kaminskis advise us to recover the balloon. I understand at once and together we discuss the next steps. Our farmer offers to fetch a large trailer on which we can load all the material. It is good that the Kaminskis are now present for translation. So all the open questions can be discussed now.
Jürgen shocks me a little telling me that he was not able to file the landing-report. I can’t imagine. They have been to the school with the teacher. There was the only telephone in the village. Unfortunately, even trying often and hard, no connection could be made. Jürgen reports to me the reaction of the teacher when he learned, that they wanted to phone to Austria. "Come in first, this may take long."
Our farmer returns with the tractor and pulls a huge trailer behind it. We decide, to wrap the balloon together with the net like a hot air balloon and then load it on the trailer. The light envelope of D-EUREGIO now weights much more with so much water is on it. It is a bone breaking work. All people present people help a lot and finally I feel a little warmer being still wet to the skin.
Finally it is done. The Kaminskis invite us to stay overnight with them. Together we drive along the sodden track leading from the landing place to the house of their relatives in the Volkswagen. Last but not least the car gets stuck in the mud on a hill. Only pushing helps. Ankle deep we sink into the sodden ground and get splattered all over by the spinning wheels of the caravan. Finally we arrive. I haven’t seen much of our route since all windows were fogged up.
Micha, the sister of Mrs. Kaminski, a young woman of 21 years with blond curls gives us a warm welcome. She is married to a young Polish man whose name I cannot understand. I find myself in a house which is not very old. Everything is furnished quite simple. The furnishings of the room serve as accommodation for the night and consists only of a small double bed and a table. On the wall is a poster, showing the port of Hamburg. It is a naïve painting with the ship "Wappen von Hamburg" in the middle. I had used the original for several trips to Helgoland, What a coincidence.
We store all the instruments in the room and our wet clothes can be hung in the loft. It is very cold and a little damp, let’s hope they dry up. After everything is stored somehow we discuss what to do now. Jürgen and the two men drive to Zamosc, where friends live who own a telephone. The town is about 30 kilometres away and the roads are very bad. And there is still the pouring rain.
It’s time for them to leave. So Jürgen had already dinner at the teachers house, it’s my turn now. Micha had made sandwiches with white bread, liver sausage and tomato slices. It tastes wonderful. It becomes a nice evening. Micha and Raschka know German quite well and so we talk about this and that. In the background, an old tape recorder plays Polish music. Raschka explains the situation with the balloon to me: "The people here have nothing. They would have cut the envelope to pieces and make coats of it". Well, D-EUREGIO is now safe in a barn. Slowly, a little relief comes up and with that also tiredness. A bottle of beer we share has some effect on me.
It is over, my longest and most adventurous flight. Where have all the other balloons landed? What has happened to them? Which ranking may we have achieved? Where is our chase crew right now? If everything worked fine they are on our track. Hopefully the friendly controller at Bratislava had phoned to Lech and told our position.
With much tension we wait for the return of the Volkswagen. Hopefully they could manage to get connected. Meanwhile I can realize what it means to make an international call from Poland. I also realize how little I knew about this country till now.
It’s almost midnight, before the men finally return. "I could hardly manage it, to give our landing report to Hanne Hohmann", reports Jürgen. "A longer talk was impossible as the connection became worse and worse." Jürgen tells us, how difficult it was and how much time it took, to get a connection to Austria at last. They had driven to Zamosc, where friends of the Kaminskis live. This family is in the lucky situation to own a telephone – perhaps, because the man is a pilot.
Now we can go to bed peacefully. More could not be done today. In bed I think again of what happened. But I don’t get far because I soon fall asleep.
The next morning we are awakened by the shouting of children. This are Melanie and Andreas, the two kids of the Kamiskis. Breakfast is already done. The host himself was at the stove. He has made scrambled eggs with cubes of ham. A Polish specialty for breakfast, as they tell us. The eggs are from their own hens and so there is a whole bowl full of this really tasty breakfast.
Soon we are powered up and ready for new deeds. The sun shines and only the soaked ground with many puddles indicates how much it has rained here yesterday. I hang our still wet clothes on the line in the garden. The Alfred drives us with his Volkswagen to the farm, where the balloon is in the barn. How is our balloon and who has carried us here so brave?
I finally see something of the landscape. The little roads are mostly unpaved. Scattered farms and lots of tobacco fields around. The farm, where we drive to, is not far away. The farmer is happy to see us again. Alfred tells us that the barn on this farm had burned down last year and that the farmer was very lucky to be able to build a new modern barn. Obviously, it is extremely difficult in Poland to get material for construction. If you order something you have to wait long until a part of it is delivered. And then there is still the question if the community needs something of it first. A situation we can hardly imagine.
D-EUREGIO is really stored well in the barn. Fortunately the platform of the trailer on which the balloon is, stored looks like a huge riddle so some of the water could already run away. A horrifying work to separate the net from the envelope is ahead of us. On the fenced lawn in front of the barn we start working. Alfred, his son Andreas and the farmer help us. It is a trial of patience to untangle the net and put it to the shape it had before. But after some hours of work we had finally made it. The envelope is spread on the lawn and has already lost some of its moisture. Everything else – the trail-rope, the sandbags, the flag and now also the net - hang on the wooden fence on the side of the lawn. A colourful and strange view.
Meanwhile it had become noon, and while the envelope continues drying in the sun we care for the balloon-mail. To more than 300 letters the data of launch and landing have to be written, before they can be sent. An enormous amount of work. But the day is still long and the material still not dry. We get a good idea seeing the gusty wind. The rip panel is opened completely and we hold the opening to the wind. Soon, it has blown up the balloon to a half-ball and becomes difficult to hold. We have to take care that the balloon isn’t blown away. Now the envelope dries very quickly also on the inside so our hopes grow that we can pack a dry D-EUREGIO.
It is half past one when the farmer comes and invites us for lunch. That is something we did not expect. Soon we sit with him at the table. His mother had cooked. She is a farmers wife like out of a novel. The menu starts with a soup cooked from beet roots and tasting wonderful. The main course is fried sausage with smashed potatoes, savoury vegetables and a bowl full of grated cucumbers with a cream garlic dressing. Something that reminds me a little of tsatsiki and which also tastes perfect. The farmers wife talks to us but we can’t understand. Does the farmer know where we came from with the balloon? I ask him for a map. Soon he has understood jumps off and returns with a very old atlas from school. Together, we show him our track. He whistles through his teeth. From so far away?
I look for the restroom in the house. The farmer gives me a sign to follow him. When he leaves the house I think he may have misunderstood. He walks around the house towards the stable. Behind the building he then points to the dung heap. I am speechless and try not to look too shocked. That something like that still exists. But also with our host family particularly strange conditions rule. They have a bathroom with a toilet but no paper. Fortunately we could save some from the basket.
Meanwhile, our balloon is completely dry. So we can pack the envelope in the afternoon. The balloon mail is also almost ready. I always have to think of our chase crew. Why haven’t they arrived yet? Where are they right now? Probably, they don’t know about our landing. Did they have problems entering Poland? I am worried. Jürgen thinks, they should be here already. Together we discuss all possibilities and reconstruct the situation of the past days. "If they are not here tomorrow morning, something is wrong", states Jürgen. Let’s hope for the best. During our flight, we had been passed several times by a military helicopter. We are sure he had recognized the balloon but nothing happens.
It had become evening when the material is completely packed and the mail is written. We decide, to have a walk. "The teacher", Jürgen tells, "told me that our landing spot must be close to the mouth of a river". We decide to find it.
We start walking along unpaved roads and across wet lawns where many frogs live. The sun is deep between the trees and the air is absolutely clear. I am lucky that not many people watch our walk. Who else makes an evening walk in moon boots? But what can I do? My baseball shoes are still soaked. After a 20 minutes walk, we reach our landing spot. Just a few spots of sand and flat grass witness what happened here yesterday.
We estimate the two rivers in southern direction. Under wild fruit trees and through high bushes we make our way. The first river is only small with little water. Hidden between trees and bushes, it wasn’t easy to find. But where is the second one? We wade through knee high grass. The swampy ground moves under our steps and is obviously an ideal place for snakes. It’s good, to carry moon boots!
Finally we also find the second river. The banks of this river are covered with close vegetation and we conclude that this is still a healthy river hosting many animals. The water runs very slowly. A little later we have found the place where the two rivers unite which is a good spot for orientation on the map. On our way back, we see a farmer, bringing home fresh grass with a horse drawn wooden wagon. An uncommon image for our eyes.
On the lawn in front of the farm the balloon is waiting to be brought back to the barn. This time we manage it with a big wheel barrow. Inside the barn the farmer covers everything with tarpaulins so nobody can find it. Then he proudly shows us his harvested tobacco and the stable. The pigs were just fed and there is an enormous noise.
The little black dog must have fallen in love with Jürgen and me because he doesn’t leave us alone a single moment. We talk about our evening walk. The farmer draws a snake on a piece of wood. I had been right!
The daylight becomes weaker. It’s time to return to the Kaminskis. We say good bye and thanks for the help.
The way back on the little road to the house of our hosts takes only 15 minutes. It is a nice evening atmosphere. The Kaminskis are very proud that they can offer us two bottles of beer, we share among five persons. After I returned home I learned how difficult it is in Poland to buy beer and other things natural for us.
After dinner we sit together in the kitchen for a while and talk about life in Poland. Soon, our chase crew is the topic and speculation starts where they may be and when they may arrive at Nielisc. At 10 p.m. Jürgen and I go sleeping. We are quite tired. It was a straining day.
At midnight I wake up from the bang of a car’s door. A little later I hear loud knocking on the front door. Steps on the floor and then Raschka looks into our room and says: "They are here!" We jump from our beds dress in the minimum necessary and rush outside.
A torch blinds us. Max wants to be sure that really we are the ones who live here. The joy is great to be together at last. The hugs are endless. For almost one hour we stand outside and share our adventures. We are not very quiet. But then we remember our hosts and press all together into the little bedroom. Fortunately, our crew has enough sleeping bags with them. But first a bottle of brandy circles. It is one from Lech with the engraved subject "Gordon Bennett 91", we got as souvenir.
Falling asleep is not easy because some of my mates snore quite loud. I develop the "snoring hit parade". For reasons of discretion, I don’t tell, who was on top.
Next morning everybody was getting ready to go. The balloon had to be fetched from the barn and then the problem had to be solved on how to press all the baggage, instruments and five persons in the Volkswagen of the chase crew. Kurt has a look at our landing spot. Then it is time to leave. A warm fare well to the Kamiskis family who helped us so much and then the car drives off.
We are not heading home but to Zamosc, a renaissance town of 55,000 inhabitants which is worth visiting. In the beautiful old downtown many houses from the 16thcentury are still standing. Here, at the post office, we want to postmark and send the 350 letters of balloon mail. It was a unique situation that happened to the employees of the post office at Zamosc in South-East Poland on the morning of September 25th, 1991. A woman and three men enter the office and do honestly insist in sending 350 letters to Germany and other foreign countries. That had never happened before. One of these men also wants to send two telegrams to Düsseldorf. A Polish man, speaking some words German, helps to clear up the general confusion a little bit. He helps me filling in the form for the telegrams and also translates at the counter for stamps. Jürgen is on the way to the next bank to change money after we were told how much this will cost. We can read disbelieving in the faces of the clerks. So much money they can pay they must be mad! Ute's efforts to have 50 letters stamped but wanting to get them back to take them with her, fixes the image they had got of us. That is something the friendly lady behind the counter doesn’t agree with in any case. All explanations don’t help. These fifty letters are for philatelist collectors who want to have undamaged characters. But we have no choice but to send these letters on the "normal way", too.
Not before 1 p.m. we are back at the car we had parked a little outside of the town. Kurt had been so kind to stay back at the car and is happy that we are finally back. A gas station has even unleaded gas so the problem of refuelling is also solved. Then the long and arduous way back begins.
The larger roads are in a better shape than those in our new German territories but still so bad that going fast is impossible. First Max drives the Volkswagen on the road to Lodz, then we turn towards Wrocklaw. It is planned that Kurt takes the night train from Dresden to Vienna.
Uncountable fires to dispose of potato leaves are burning on Polish fields this afternoon. The whole country seems to be under a pall of haze. It’s like driving through flat ground fog. Late at night we arrive at Wrocklaw. Misguided we wander through the streets looking for the road to Dresden. Very old trams cross our way and a lot of cobblestones are on the street. Short before the Polish – German border we have the opportunity to refuel with unleaded gas and to get rid of our last Polish money. Then the fears at the border crossing start. Will we have problems? We pass a line of trucks, kilometres long. Then the car is in front of the barrier. Some custom-officers run up and down. They are busy controlling a truck. One of them comes close to the basket once and looks curious, but his attention is soon drawn to another subject so we can continue our trip without any hold-up. A big stone falls from my heart.
At 2 a.m., after a 13-hours drive, we have to find the central station at Dresden. The first station was the wrong one and a taxi-driver then shows us the way. When we finally arrive at the central station they tell us that the night train to Vienna Kurt wanted to take had left two hours ago. Wonderful! The next train to Vienna leaves not before next morning. Jürgen and I try to find a room for Kurt, but all the hotels around are booked out. After much discussions we make the wise decision which is to take Kurt with us to Düsseldorf. From there he may travel home as well.
The tiredness catches us so we have to change the driving often. The weather worsens and soon we have pouring rain, reducing our speed. At 8:30 a.m. we are 10 kilometres from Cologne on the motorway A 10. The same as every day, a big traffic jam. At 10:30 a.m. Ute and Jürgen unlock the door of their house. Done! After a 22 hours drive finally at home in Düsseldorf.
Which ranking may we have achieved? Kurt phones to his wife in Vienna. "You have won", he shouts, "it was on the Austrian radio news!" We look at each other and can’t believe it. Jürgen and I, we had an idea that D-EUREGIO must have finished on one of the leading ranks but we had not thought it may be the first place. The whole world knows it for two days that Jürgen and I had won the 35th Gordon Bennett race, just we had no idea and learned it at last.
All the tension and over tiredness of the straining drive back home is swept away by a feeling of happiness seldom felt in one’s life. After we had breakfast together, I drive home. The telephone is ringing without interruption and several telegrams of congratulation have arrived. I have only little time to take a refreshing shower.
At 6:30 p.m. we all meet in front of Ute’s bookstore. Kurt has never before been to Düsseldorf so we show the downtown to him. We walk along the narrow streets and have a beer here and there. The atmosphere is great. Late at night we go sleeping. But we can’t sleep long because early next morning the next meeting is fixed to drive together to the awards ceremony at Lech. After seven hours of a speedy driving we arrive there but not without having a look to the Namloser valley first. The valley that had worried us so much the first night.
At Lech, the first snow had already fallen. It is much colder than a week before. We get a very warm welcome. The awards ceremony is in great harmony and a lot of interesting discussions between people from different nations take place this evening.
The next morning means to say good-bye to Lech. How many wonderful but also thrilling and exciting hours have we had here during three Gordon Bennett races. So the farewell is a little hard, it was nice to travel to a well known place and to stay in a familiar lodging.
For me, it was in every case a superior balloon flight. The most beautiful, most exciting, most straining, longest, most distant, most adventurous but also most successful flight.
Such a long Gordon Bennett flight is an extreme strain and can be stood only by offering all physical and psychological power. But also, the human part must fit. With Jürgen, I have found a co-pilot, to whom I feel close friendship and with whom coordination in the basket works excellent and creates much of fun.
Generally, I continued with this flight at the point, where Gustav Vornbäumen and I had to finish two years ago. Then we had to land at the Czech border and thus being banned to the last rank, even if D-EUREGIO had the most north position of all balloons also at this 33rd Gordon Bennett race¼
Let’s hope together, that the East will open wider and that the next Gordon Bennett races also make possible other distant flights in this direction.
My great hope is that the Gordon Bennett Cup will stay in Germany longer than just one year. That we may not get left behind with the material. Net-less balloons and some more improvements are necessary, to achieve the same amount of ballast, Joschi Starkbaum and Gert Scholz take with them to the race every year.
Good luck and success to the 1992 Gordon Bennett race.