GORDON BENNETT 2024
Our adventure of the year, if not our lifetime: The 66th Gordon Bennett Race in Albuquerque, USA. We were a bit uncertain about our 2024 participation while the event was to be hosted in Switzerland, because we had had such a beautiful flight from there the year before, but when we learnt that the race was moved to Albuquerque, the answer was of course: YES! =)
The legendary Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett, which has been taking place since 1906, is the oldest and most prestigious air sports event in the world. The rules are quite simple: the balloon that lands furthest away from the launch podest is the winner. Only a thorough understanding of the weather and equipment allows the balloon to be gently steered by choosing different air currents at different altitudes in order to stay in the air for as long as possible. Above all, this means saving hydrogen and sand. Ideally, you follow the natural rhythm of the gas balloon: warmed by the sun, it rises in the morning, while in the evening it cools down again and sinks towards the ground, where it has to be stabilized by releasing ballast. Usually helping with this procedure is a layer of cold air close to the ground, the so-called ground inversion, on which the balloon floats and glides silently through the night.
Compared to a race in Europe, the preparations for the USA are a lot more complex – for our team they, began at the end of July, in the venue of our club, the Ballonsportgruppe Stuttgart. All the equipment was packed and then taken to Switzerland, from where the Blaser Swisslube company organized a shared transport for the balloons taking part from Europe. The balloons then traveled to the USA in an oversea container for two months.
At the beginning of October, we boarded a plane from Frankfurt to Vegas to follow our balloon – the pictures of our fantastic road trip from Vegas to Albuquerque can be found in the blog post before. The launch as part of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the largest balloon meeting in the world, was of course a spectacle in itself. After it had been relatively gusty throughout October 7th, the balloons had to be filled quickly at sunset. As one of the last balloons to be filled, we really were in a hurry getting all the equipment into the basket in time.
16 gas balloon teams from 9 nations took off into the night sky this Saturday evening, under the competition leadership of another member of the Ballonsportgruppe Stuttgart e.V., Tomas Hora. The experienced gas and hot air balloon pilot has already taken part in the race eight times.
Our first challenge was to navigate around the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque: the less ballast we used, the longer we would be able to stay in the air later on. Thanks to the night vision device generously lent to us by a friend, we succeeded extremely well in this low level flying, even though it meant hardly any sleep for the two of us. We were then able to rest as we continued our journey via Oklahoma the following day – flat lands as far as the eye could see. Our chase crew, Louise and Peter, only had to follow the east-west I40 highway to stay close to the balloons pushed by the westerly winds.
The attractiveness of the USA as the host nation of the Gordon Bennett race was not only the large land mass but also the simplicity of the airspace. There were only a few major airports like Dallas to avoid on our way east. After his duty, the controller from Amarillo in Texas said goodbye to the balloons for the end of his workday without handing them over to another airspace – there was none to come for hundreds of kilometers. When he arrived at his farm, the controller met the team Germany 3 who had just landed there with their balloon – a lucky coincidence that guaranteed for a great landing party!
Things got really exciting for us on the morning of the second day: for the first time in the race, our balloon climbed to over 3000 meters time due to the rising sun and it was time to put on the oxygen masks. We has tested the mechanical fit of our adapter for the American bottles, but not its tightness – now the rushing before takeoff took its toll! An improvised rubber seal from the protective cap of one of the oxygen tanks, cut out with the scissors of a pocket knife, finally produced the desired result – the system was tight and we could breathe again. The balloon was allowed to rise further and our journey could continue.
Stable autumn weather ensured fantastic conditions throughout the flight, with hardly any clouds to be seen in the sky. Not a single balloon had to land prematurely in this race due to weather or airspace reasons. Two teams landed due to problems with the on-board power supply; for all the others, the mixture of ballast reserve, experience and personal preferences ultimately determined the duration of the journey.
After crossing the Mississippi in the morning of the third day of the race, we decided to land in the evening. We might have surpassed one more team and thus climbed one place in the ranking, but open spaces were becoming more rare in the direction we were flying, and we really didn’t mind if we would finish 6th or 7th. For a space on the podium we would probably have continued though! ;-)
We had crossed a total of five states on our aerial journey and spent three nights and three days in the wicker basket, which was our living room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and balcony. After 65 hours, 38 minutes and 1,649 kilometers, we landed south of Tupelo, Mississippi. Retrieve was immediately there, as were the friendly landowners and an enthusiastic local balloon pilot with his wife.
Two teams went on for another night: a French and a German balloon each spent over 85 hours in the air before landing in North Carolina on the east coast of the USA after 2,661 and 2,587 kilometers respectively. After the French victory of Eric Decellieres and Benoit Havret, the Gordon Bennett race will take place in France in 2025.
The runners-up Willi and Benjamin Eimers from North Rhine-Westphalia had already been victorious last year – they won the 65th Gordon Bennett Race in St. Gallen, which means that the 67th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett will be held in Germany in 2024. Launch is scheduled for Friday, September 13th in Münster… and guess who’ll be there! ;-)
Thanks go out to all our sponsors of the Stuttgart Club, Stuttgarter Hofbräu, BW-Bank, Stadtwerke Stuttgart, to all our club members whose contributions and voluntary work make such great adventures possible, as well as the other two German gas balloon teams, Eimers/Eimers and Michels/Michels and our Command Center for the excellent collaboration.
See you in Münster, 2024!