This Gordon Bennett would most
likely never have been held in Belgium had we not
had Albert Vanden Bemden.
Born in 1918, Albert was the link
between the ‘modern’ hot air balloon generation of
1970-till-now and the pre-second world war
He was – so to say – born in a
balloon: his father was the Belgian pilot Félix
Vanden Bemden who, in the beginning of the 20th
century, constructed balloons, stocked them, and
prepared them for the balloonists to fly. Félix was
Ernest Demuyters’ Balloonmeister during many of his
Gordon Bennett adventures.
Albert obtained his pilot licence
in 1937. He made over 400 gas balloon flights! He
flew over the Alps in 1962! And participated in 1979
in the ‘alternative’ Gordon Bennett Balloon Race
organised in Long Beach, California, USA.
He was a born story teller and it
was HE who got the Belgian Hot Air Balloonists
enthusiast to start flying Gas. He was a most
charismatic man. Philippe De Cock, Ronny Van Havere,
Benoît Siméons, Bob Berben, Luc Van Geyte… they all
hung at his lips when he was telling them of the
adventures he had lived.
He had known Ernest Demuyter, 6fold Gordon Bennett
winner, since childhood.
In the beginning of 2006 Alberts health had turned
badly, he hurried to finish his memoires, and the
whole Belgian ballooning community prayed that this
Gordon Bennett Centenary would be honoured with his
Yet he passed
away on April 10, 2006. A true ballooning Monument had
Others in the Gordon Bennett history
have to be regretted too:
Until 1998 no
Gordon-Bennett-Race was cancelled or even postponed
because of weather conditions. Snowstorms and rain
often have struck the pilots with a lot of stress.
It also often took days, until the first signs of
life reached the championship organisation after
landing and, let's remember 1908, sometimes it was
believed, that some competitors had not survived the
flight. But it had always ended well. 1923
became the most tragic of all competitions.
21 balloons were inflated in
bright sunshine on Solbosch plain near Bruxelles.
The stands and places for spectators were well
crowded. The wind wasn't very strong in the
beginning, but quite gusty. Launch preparations were
on the run, when the sky darkened and a heavy
thunderstorm came up. Lightening flashed through the
clouds, soon rain clattered down in heavy drops,
followed by hail.
With this wind it might have
been very difficult for the launch crews to level
out the balloons. Overall, all lifted only slowly
and then had to dump a lot of ballast immediately to
prevent them from crashing against the nearby
houses. In the rush, whole sandbags flew overboard.
It is a miracle, that no spectator, who stayed there
in spite of the thunderstorm, got hurt. They did not
see anything from the disasters that followed now
for the balloons had already gone out of sight.
First it met the Spanish balloon POLAR. After half
an hour of flight he was above Heist op den Berg,
when a flash of lightening struck its envelope, set
the gas on fire and sent him burning back to earth.
Co-pilot Penaranda did not survive the fall,
Gomez was lucky, he survived, both legs broken. 40
minutes later a flash of lightening struck the Swiss
balloon GENF with the pilots von Grüningen
and Wehren. Both met death when the burning
balloon sank to earth at Moll. The same happened to
the Americans Olmstead and Choptaw,
killed by lightening at Loosbroek
There was no radio on board in
those days. The other competitors got no news of the
tragic occurrences if they had not seen them by
themselves. They had to deal with the awful weather
alone and landed very soon after short flights.
In 1983 there where two
races scheduled at the same time, the Coupe Gordon
Bennett and the one for ‘Charles et Robert’, were
not very lucky. The Place de la Concorde was a
wonderful location and thousands of spectators had
come. The whole airspace over Paris was kept free
for the time of the launch, but then a heavy
thunderstorm approached. Some of the 18 balloons in
both races started before the first flash, the rest
after the thunderstorm was over. So conditions were
not equal for all. In the ‘COUPE CHARLES ET ROBERT’,
Americans Maxie L. Anderson and Don Ida
had launched in front of the thunderstorm. The
speedy wind from the west drove them to Northern
Bavaria towards the frontier to Czechoslovakia. They
had to landed before it. In a forest clearance near
the village of Schönderling in the county of Bad
Kissingen they tried it and lost their lives.
CHARLES ET ROBERT (constructors of the first gas
balloon) had earned a bitter honour. This cup was
never competed for again.
The grand event in ballooning,
Coupe Gordon Bennett, lifted off from Wil,
Switzerland on Saturday 9 September 1995. The 15
teams from seven countries had excellent conditions
and it appeared that new records might be set for
this prestigious event.
A number teams had stayed in the air two nights. And
then three nights. As reports of the team’s progress
filtered in one could sense the excitement. This
year’s event was going to be a true test of which
team could fly the longest.
By Wednesday morning, September 13, four teams were
reported to be still in the air. Then the magic of
this event was shattered by an AP wire story from
Minsk, Belarus. Two Americans flying a balloon had
been shot down and killed by a Belarussian military
helicopter near the Polish border.
The shooting occurred on Tuesday, September 12. The
Belarus government waited 24 hours to inform the
U.S. Embassy that the two pilots, who were carrying
American passports, had been killed.
Alan Fraenckel, 55, and John Stuart-Jervis,
68, representing the Virgin Islands, had been shot
down after crossing into Belarus airspace from
Poland and, according to an official statement from
Belarus, failed to respond to radio calls and
warning shots. Their balloon was reported to be near
the Osovtsy military base and an adjoining missile
Both pilots were reported to have died from injuries
suffered when their deflated balloon fell to the
forest floor near Beryoza, about 60 miles from the
The FAI said in a statement,
"We are concerned that this incident will damage
international relations. This is the exact opposite
of what the sport of ballooning and FAI seek to
achieve, which is
During the 51th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon
Bennett all pilots and crews,
all officials, all balloonists, all balloon fanatics
those who past away.
And the Belgians will all send a special prayer for
Albert Vanden Bemden.
Yet love is the answer to
To Fientje, Alberts beloved wife, who could ever be
seen at his side, the love for her husband was
than her desire of living. Two months after her
husband she passed away. In our eyes these beautiful
peope will live on together for ever.