The Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett International Gas Balloon Race is one of the oldest and most prestigious aeronautical races in the world. Michael Buckle travels to a secret location just outside Bristol to report for AeroResource.
In 1906 at a location in central Paris, sixteen hydrogen filled balloons took to the skies, marking the start of an event that has ultimately become one of the most respected aeronautical races in the world. The race was the brainchild of James Gordon Bennett Junior, socially known as Gordon Bennett. Gordon was the son of one of the most beneficial figures in American Newspaper history, founding the New York Herald, which was later to be inherited by Gordon Bennett himself.
As a millionaire publisher Gordon funded and participated in many voyages and races, most popularly the sponsorship of the Aeronautique Gordon Bennett International Gas Balloon Race. In the early 1900’s Bennett had a passion for pushing the technical development of powered air-flight forward, sponsoring the first event which took place on the 30th September 1906.
The winners of that remarkable first race were US Army Lt. Frank Purdy Lahm and his co-pilot Henry Hersey – the pair lifted off in front of a crowd of reportedly 250,000 spectators, finally reaching the northeast of England 22 hours later after covering a total distance of 400 miles.
With David Hampleman-Adams soaring to triumph in 2008, the 2010 the Gordon Bennett race was brought home to Britain, taking place in a secret location just north of Bristol. Unfortunately the site originally planned for the launch had to be cancelled at short notice due to unforeseeable issues, resulting in the event having to become available for advanced ticket holders only, with a smaller venue hosting the launch.
The aim of the race is quite simple, all participants launch from a set location and the team who travels the furthest in a straight line ultimately win. But however simple the aim may seem, in reality the winner is the team who carries out the best planning and tactics leading up to and during the race, by studying the latest forecasts in extreme detail, noting bad weather predictions, winds and the pressures at various altitudes, hoping to plan the flight most likely to take them to victory.
Back home, the teams have their own ‘control room’ full of experienced experts in both ballooning and meteorology. Each team has a satellite phone and GPS trackers making it possible for them to call their control centres and discuss the best tactics, routing and strategy.
It was 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon, the winds were beginning to drop and with beautiful blue skies, the inflation of the balloons began. Before dusk fell there were a total of 4 balloons ready – less than a quarter of the participating balloons that needed filling. Unfortunately the balloons have an inflation time of several hours per balloon, making it a very long process and resulting in the hydrogen team managing to work through 20,000 cubic meters of Hydrogen. At 12 o’clock as the full moon shone in the clear night skies above Bristol the balloons were finally ready and the proceedings began.
Jonathan Harris, the GB 2010 safety officer was present at the podium to ensure the balloons were not over loaded with ballast (sand) as the families, friends and on-looking crowds waved good-bye. There was a very patriotic atmosphere whilst the national anthems played and the teams sung along, watching their balloons float away in the lonely night sky. It is easy to see the similarities, and atmosphere, that may have been present 100 years ago and it is fantastic to see this tradition has lived on.
So as the 20 Balloons lifted into the sky, the race was on with the latest trajectories showed the flight routing would undoubtedly be across France with several continuing possibilities, this caused a huge dilemma for the teams. There was a very strict rule in place that there must be no flying over or within 5nm of Italy after Dusk or before Dawn – any infringement of the rule would be an immediate disqualification.
This meant the teams faced two options, either try and gain as much speed as possible and make it across Italy before Monday evening, or slow down enough to make the Italian coast early Tuesday morning.
Hydrogen flights have basic cycles, allowing them to travel hundreds of miles across several days;
- Upon take-off the teams are loaded with ‘ballast’, primarily sand and water, which is easily unloaded to make the balloon lighter and gain altitude.
- During daytime the helium heats up and the balloon gains more lift and altitude.
- As night falls, the helium begins to cool and the balloon looses lift and decreases in altitude, to counter this the pilots unload ballast to become lighter to induce more lift.
- When day-time comes back around, the helium begins to heat up once again. However due to the lighter load, the balloon gains more altitude than previously and it begins to rise to the top of their ceiling; the pilots then have ‘vent’ hydrogen to decrease altitude.
The cycles continues until the crew have unloaded the majority of their ballast and are then unable to complete the cycle again; normally a flight can last for around 3 days, however the first to land were the Japanese team at 17:15GMT on Sunday making a flight time of only 23 hours. The team’s tactic was to release a lot of sand after take-off to pick up some fast winds at high altitude, which was successful, but they didn’t fancy flying over the Pyrenees throughout the night with low amounts of sand.
Whilst routing across the Bay of Biscay, the teams were subject to a special treat from the RAF Red Arrows who were performing a display near-by, once on the ground ‘Red 8’ otherwise known as Duffy, called the GB Control Room to report their sighting of David and Simon in GB3 floating across the French skies.
With Monday evening’s nightfall approaching, Swiss 2 raced ahead praying they could cross Italy before Dusk, whilst France 2 slowly trailed behind trying to time their departure from Sardinia and entry to Italy’s coastline finely between sunset and sunrise. Thankfully both teams had the weather on their side and managed to time it perfectly with no disqualifications.
The race very much on with only 6 teams making the call to leave France and follow the leaders. Upon entering Italy, France 2 touched down just outside Salerno, covering a total distance of 1804km. So far Swiss 2 was in the lead, landing very much on the edge of the completion area early Tuesday morning; this left it a four horse race.
Germany 2 pushed on past Italy and landed on the outskirts of Croatia. Unfortunately early Wednesday morning an official statement was released by the Race Director – Don Cameron, highlighting a growing concern about USA 2, who had approached poor weather and a search operation was called. Everyone involved prayed the following statements would be positive, however more and more concern was raised as time passed.
The final two competitors, Great Britain 3 and Germany 1 touched down safely mid-morning, with David Hempleman-Adams in GBR-3 landing in Serbia and Wihelm Eimers in GER 1 in Moldova.
With all teams down and the results being finalized, focus grew greater on the missing USA 2 team; Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis, their balloons tracker last reported in at 05:58 GMT on Sunday morning and failed to report 15 minutes later, the last reported indications were a altitude of 9,000ft with a wind speed of 7kts over the Adriatic Sea.
Rescue teams in several aircraft and fast patrol boats have been scouring the waters for wreckage or life rafts but as of time of writing, nothing has been found. Several statements followed over the coming days, with the team issuing a final statement on Friday evening, the contents of which not looking too promising…
The Gordon Bennett 2010 Control Centre has examined the transponder readings from Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer-Davis’ balloon, registration N801NM, and calculated the change in height of the balloon over the time period recorded. The data show that the balloon had a moderate descent rate initially which then increased into a high rate of descent, to around 50mph.
This is very pessimistic information. At this rate of descent to the surface, survival would be unlikely.
It is the opinion of the Gordon Bennett 2010 Flight Control Team that the balloon appears to have suffered a sudden and unexpected failure. The cause of this tragedy is still being examined.
Gordon Bennett 2010 Race Control Team – Friday 01/10/2010
Despite the daunting bad news, the final competition results were collated and Swiss 2 were declared the winners, travelling a total distance of 1314.42nm in a time of 58 hours and 37 minutes. Germany 1’s final result was a total distance of 1248.74nm in 83 hours and 14 minutes making them 2nd place and David Hempleman-Adams and Simon Carey managed a total distance of 1084.72nm, giving them 3rd place. Although only coming third, it was a remarkable achievement for the pair, with it being only the second flight of their balloon, the Cameron Balloons GB1000 and first race together as a team.
|Pilot 1 Name
Pilot 2 Name
|Takeoff Time (UTC)
Landing Time (UTC)
Ron van Houten
|14||USA3||John Michael Wallace
Carol Rymer Davis
|N-801NM||2010-09-25 23:2978hr 29min||No result
Official Results Courtesy of GordonBennett2010.com