Not Spy Balloons: Gordon Bennett Balloon Race

These 18 Gas Balloons Launching In October from New Mexico Look Just Like The China Spy Balloon (Get Excited)

The drama of a Chinese spy balloon seizing headlines just half a year ago, its cryptic figure-eight patterns over military facilities triggering national concern, still lingers in our memory. Its silent, stealthy journey from Alaska to Florida was a startling reminder of our skyward vulnerabilities.

Gas balloon race
Credit: JP.Girard

Gordon Bennett Balloon Race Oct 7th, 2023

Fast forward to October 7, 2023, just a few months away. At the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, eighteen gas balloons (that look very similar to the infamous China Spy Balloon) from nine nations will vie for the prestigious title of Gordon Bennett Champion. The scene resembles a diplomatic summit of ballooning— a convergence of diverse cultures and intellects, all rallying behind a singular objective: to achieve the ultimate challenge of navigating the skies farther and longer than any other.

Gordon Bennett Balloon Race History

The Gordon Bennett Balloon Race, conceived by James Gordon Bennett Jr., the proprietor of the New York Herald, made its inaugural flight in 1906. Bennett Jr., an adrenaline junkie and newspaper tycoon, pioneered this competition focused on endurance and strategy rather than speed. The international competition challenged pilots to fly their gas-filled balloon the furthest from the launch site without touching the ground.

They Do Look Similar: But Are FAA Registered Aircraft

Despite the uncanny resemblance to the notorious Chinese balloon, rest assured that these competing aircraft share no more than skin-deep similarities.

So, let this serve as a gentle reminder to those with vigilant eyes who might mistake these floating specters for another stealth operation: there’s no cause for alarm! These are simply gas balloonists participating in one of the world’s oldest aviation contests. They are as if plucked from the charming animated movie “Up,” albeit minus the anthropomorphic dogs and the heartwarming elderly gentleman protagonist. Yet, the race does have a few endearing elderly gentlemen who are as competitive as they come!

These balloons are bona fide, FAA-registered aircraft, steered by commercial balloon pilots, and are just as legitimate as your regular commercial airliners. Many of the pilots have 20+ years of ballooning experience, are balloon builders, instructors, and conduct commercial hot air balloon operations. During the Gordon Bennett Balloon Race, the gas balloons will be meticulously tracked by dedicated ground crews, the FAA, the military, and the Gordon Bennett Race Officials to ensure compliance with the laws of the sky.

These inflated globes are filled with hydrogen – a gas flammable but lighter than air, thus an indispensable ally of the balloonist. But there’s no need to worry; these balloons are no potential Hindenburg disasters waiting to happen. A thorough inspection precedes each takeoff, prioritizing both pilot and public safety.

Gas Balloon pilots
Gas Balloon pilots: Forden and Padelt (Gas balloon builder)

Our skyward adventurers, readying for takeoff, are not the Chinese lookalikes they may seem. Sure, their balloons mirror the infamous Chinese intruder’s smooth spherical profile, are white (some are yellow), and are filled with the same kind of lighter-than-air gas that powered its unscheduled tour of U.S. airspace. But the resemblance stops there. These are not unmanned, covert surveilles illicitly shipping classified data back to Beijing. They are manned craft, with crews of brave pilots armed with no more than a cellphone, GPS, altimeter, variometer, a map, and an intrepid spirit. They’re not on a mission to steal state secrets; they’re aiming to conquer the winds, the weather, and Mother Nature’s caprice.

Unlike the rogue Chinese balloon, these gas globes are smaller. The Spy Balloon was over 100,000 Cubic Feet, whereas these balloons are around 1/3 of the size at 25k-30k cubic feet. They are just spacious enough to accommodate a couple of audacious pilots, their fuel, and their dreams.

These gas balloons are also not the typical hot air balloons you see flying in Seattle in front of Mt. Rainier or Cappadocia, with influencers posing to get some followers. These are long-distance, hydrogen-filled spheres of daring and courage. Their pilots, likely airborne for 48 to 96 hours, will navigate wind currents and weather, redefining the term ‘frequent flyer.’

Navigation And Steering Gas Balloons

To aid them in their navigation, they carry a secret weapon: sand. The very sand you’d find on a beach or in a sandbox. By releasing sand to ascend and venting gas to descend, they perform a delicate, lofty ballet with the wind that requires skill, judgment, and a steady hand on the release valve.
Credit: – Dropping sand ballast

Don’t Be Like Belarus (Tragedy In 1995 )

It is crucial, however, not to overlook the hazards these brave balloonists confront. The Gordon Bennett Balloon Race history isn’t devoid of tragedy. In 1995, two American pilots, Alan Fraenckel and John Stuart-Jervis, were tragically shot down by a Belarusian military helicopter after their balloon was misidentified as a spy craft. This somber incident serves as a stark reminder of the risks these pilots willingly undertake and the crucial importance of clear communication and understanding.

Get Excited And Look For Them In The Sky

As the Albuquerque Balloon Festival nears, let us dig out our old binoculars and prepare to cheer on these gallant balloonists in their grand adventure. Let’s celebrate them for their true nature:

  • Ambassadors of a timeless sport
  • Intrepid explorers of the sky
  • Champions of the first form of aviation

Winner Of The 2022 Gordon Bennett Balloon Race

In 2022, a German team took the Gordon Bennett Cup home. Wilhelm Eimers and his son Benjamin Eimers flew a distance of 1572 km, launching from St. Gallen, Switzerland, and landing by the Bulgaria Black Sea Coast.

Of the 18 teams competing this year, three will represent the United States: Bert Padelt with Noah Forden, Barbara Fricke with Peter Cuneo, and Mark Sullivan with Cheri White. Let’s root for the home team!

Record Flights In The US For Gas Ballooning During Competiton

Record winning flight 2017 map
Map of balloon tracks from the 2017 Gordon Bennett Race

Records for gas balloon flights in the US:

Distance: Nicolas Tièche and Laurent Sciboz, Switzerland, 3670.76 km /2275.87 miles (2017) (#6 in the above map)
Duration: David Hempelman-Adams and Jonathan Mason, UK, 71 hours, 31 minutes (2011)

Who Will Win The Gordon Bennett Balloon Race This Year In the U.S.?

Who will fly the farthest? Who will conquer the whims of the winds and elements? Who will touch back down to earth as the 2023 Gordon Bennett Balloon Race champion? Will a new U.S. gas ballooning record be broken? Only the winds and time will reveal the answer. But one thing is certain: we’re in for an incredible journey. So, America, keep your eyes skyward. Adventure is on the horizon, and it’s drawing ever nearer. Let the races begin!

Hot Air Balloon Pilot Eliav C.
About the Author

Chief pilot of Seattle Ballooning. I get the opportunity to provide luxury hot air balloon rides just South of Seattle in front of Mt. Rainier. When you do what you love, it’s not considered work.

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