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A bunch of basket cases
Joe Jares
June 11, 1979
The revival of an old racing classic was a gas, especially for the aeronauts of Double Eagle III, who rode a thermal roller coaster 617 miles to a bumpy victory
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June 11, 1979

A Bunch Of Basket Cases

The revival of an old racing classic was a gas, especially for the aeronauts of Double Eagle III, who rode a thermal roller coaster 617 miles to a bumpy victory

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It had been 41 years since the last James Gordon Bennett balloon race. Almost every year from 1906 to 1938, the world's best gas balloonists gathered in Europe or the U.S. to compete for the Gordon Bennett Aeronautic Cup. The winners were those who were most expert at finding the right winds at the right altitudes and thus flew farthest from the launching point. The record holder was Maurice Bienaim� of France in La Picardie, which in 1912 wafted from Stuttgart to Riga, a distance of 1,361 miles.

In 1939 the defending champion Poles were set to stage the race—but that was the year the Nazis marched in. After the war, for one reason or another, the race was not resumed—until a fortnight ago, when 17 balloons from 10 countries ascended over Long Beach, Calif. and the Gordon Bennett was off the ground again.

The winner was Double Eagle III of the U.S., piloted by Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson, who, with a pal named Larry Newman, last year had made the first transatlantic balloon crossing. This trip—617 miles in a little more than 47 hours—was made with a double-walled polyethylene balloon, each layer only two millimeters thick. It looked like something the Jolly Green Giant would put a sandwich in—a giant Baggie.

The man responsible for resurrecting the race is another American balloonist, Dr. Tom Heinsheimer, 39, an atmospheric physicist who rides in balloons across the Los Angeles basin to study air pollution. Heinsheimer decided in the summer of 1977 to try to bring back the Gordon Bennett. He had just sailed over the Alps in a gas balloon and was sitting in a Swiss bar talking with friends about the grand old days. "There had been revival attempts over the last 40 years, but none had come to anything," he says. "I found allies on the international scene. The Swiss rallied around. Their position was, 'It's impossible, and perhaps a mad thing to do, but we'll be glad to compete.' "

Heinsheimer got the proper international sanctions and the approval of the Poles, who were still the defending champions, after all. The U.S. had practically no gas balloons—hot-air balloons can't fly nearly as long, but they are much cheaper to operate. Heinsheimer convinced American balloonists that the Gordon Bennett was really going to return. Four gas balloons were built, the Double Eagle III, and three by Ed Yost of Tea, S. Dak.

Tradition was honored. James Gordon Bennett, the promotion-minded publisher of the New York Herald (the man who sent Stanley to find Livingstone), had donated the first cup. So Heinsheimer persuaded the Paris International Herald Tribune, a descendant of Bennett's newspaper, to sponsor the competition.

"The minimal use of ballast will be the name of the game," said Chauncey Dunn of Denver, who piloted Cloud Dancer. "One bag of ballast overboard will take you from sea level to approximately 560 feet. Let's say you're trying to make a decision to go from 13,000 to 14,000 feet. That will take six bags of sand, because the air is much less dense up there."

The mood was festive at the launching site, a large parking lot off the port bow of the Queen Mary. (The old girl has found a permanent mooring in Long Beach harbor and serves as a hotel, museum, municipal landmark and home for Sparky, the electric eel.) T shirts and patches proclaimed HOT AIR IS MY BAG, BALLOONING is A GAS. Security was lax and gawkers found it easy to slip inside the gates and peer down into the wicker gondolas—which look like glorified laundry hampers—and poke at the balloons. Some idiot wore golf shoes to do a polka on the spread-out Polish balloon Polonez. Or maybe it was an anti-Communist zealot with an ice pick. Whatever, when Polonez was inflated on Sunday, it leaked. A crew member wearing a gas mask crawled inside and discovered light streaming in through about 30 small holes. After careful patchwork, the Poles took flight—but only for a little more than six hours.

Most of the launchings were stirring—up, up and away while thousands cheered. But a few were tragicomic. Columbine II, an unofficial entry because it held more helium than the rules allow, had too much ballast, lifted briefly and then splashed down into the harbor like a returning space capsule before taking off again. Two balloons, Columbine II and Belgium's Belgique, were shot at by nuts on the ground.

Other aeronauts had more pleasant experiences with the L.A. area citizenry. Erwin Sautter, carrying two U.S. passengers in his Swiss entry, Ajoie, came down near a fiesta in Duarte, and the crew was treated to pizza and beer. Japanese engineer Saburu Ichiyoshi, the pilot of Joinus (a gasbag made in West Germany), sailed across the approach corridor to Los Angeles International Airport and found himself so close to a jumbo jet that he could almost see the passengers' faces at the windows. Joinus continued over Dodger Stadium, then came down in a hilly L.A. neighborhood, where residents helped roll up the balloon.

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