Chapter 14 - 1925


Monday June 8, 1925


18 Get Away in Bennett Cup Balloon Race. - Two American Entries Are Off Perfectly; Northeast Breeze Will Take Flyers Over France to Atlantic. - BRUSSELS, June 7 (By the Associated Press) - Eighteen balloons, representing seven countries, took the air this afternoon and this evening in the Gordon Bennett Cup race for lighter-than-air craft.

The start was made in perfect weather, although the heat was excessive. A light breeze was blowing from the northeast, and if it continues, the course of the gas bags will be over northern France and southward or westward toward the Atlantic Ocean. The balloonists who succeed in keeping away from the English Channel or Atlantic Ocean for the longest period will win the race.


Americans Among Favorites


Ernest Demuyter, the Belgian champion, who won the original Gordon Bennett trophy; Ward T Van Orman, United States, and Maurice Bienaime, France, are the favorites in the race. Van Orman carried with him a wireless outfit and will attempt to raise American stations while in the air.

Approximately 150,000 spectators watched the inflation of the balloons and the start from Solbosch Plain. The great bags were late in getting away owing to the gas flowing rather slowly into them. It was nearly 8 o'clock this evening when the last of the competitors cast loose.

The starters were [list of starters]


U.S. Envoy Speeds Pilots


Both the American bags made excellent starts and their pilots expressed confidence that they would give a good account of themselves. The American competitors receive a warm sendoff from the crowd. Ambassador Phillips was one of the last to shake hands with his countrymen.

Should the present weather conditions continue the balloons will reach the Atlantic at various points between Dunkirk and Bordeaux, according to the air currents they meet at different altitudes. -


New York Herald Tribune, Wednesday, June 10, 1925


Belgian Balloon Appears Victor; U.S. Entry Falls. - Belgica Credited With Greatest Distance as America's Goodyear III Drops Into Ocean in Bennett Race - Is Rescued by Vaterland - Latest Report Has Ciampino V and Aerostier, Both Italian, Second and Third. - BRUSSELS, June 9 [Tuesday] (AP)

To-night it seemed certain that Belgium would be declared the winner of the first renewal of the Gordon Bennett Cup race for lighter than air balloons. This evening Ernest Demuyter, Belgium's national hero, who piloted the bag Belgica, was credited with having gone the greatest distance from the starting point, landing at Quimper, Brittany, 422 miles away.

Actually, the Goodyear III, piloted by the American, Wade T Van Orman, covered 710 kilometers (441.18 miles), but dropped into the Atlantic near the Ushant Light, and Van Orman likely will be disqualified under the rules governing the race.

A wireless dispatch to-night from Van Orman, on board the steamer Vaterland, said: "Dropped into the sea June 8, 11 o'clock in the morning; latitude 48,27 north, 5.31 longitude west, Greenwich. Rescued by Vaterland. All safe. Equipment saved."

Belgium's second-string man, Veenstra, flying the Prince Leopold, is the lone aeronaut of the eighteen who had not reported up to 10 o'clock this evening.

The French bag Grand Charles, piloted by the youthful Frenchman, Ladu, dropped in the sea south of Portsmouth, England. The Picardie, flown by the famous French pilot, Bienaime, and which was one of the favorites to win the race, came down in Picardy, having gone a much shorter distance than several of the other starters. Although three of the eighteen starters dropped into the sea, all their crews were saved.

The official results as announced to-night follow: [Belgica and two others down]

The following eleven balloons landed safely but are out of the race owing to the short distances covered: [list of 11 balloons] –


                                    Will to Win


                           By George Denniston

[this article first appeared in the column, Hangar Flying, in Balloon Life magazine, October 1993]



In June 1925, American pilot Ward Van Orman, his aide, Carl K Wollam, and their Goodyear III balloon crossed the Atlantic aboard the S. S. Leviathan to participate in the 14th Gordon Bennett Classic International Balloon Race. The three previous races had been won by Belgian Lieutenant Ernest DeMuyter, who thus retired the first cup. The Americans had been frustrated in their attempts to win by this first rate pilot who had for years been studying the weather on the Continent.

Van Orman landed at Cherbourg, France, and traveled overland to Brussels, Belgium, where the race was to start. The 18 teams began inflating their hydrogen balloons at Solbush Field June 7, 1925. During the five-hour inflation, the weather continued to look very good, although it was extremely hot. The winds favored a flight to Spain. If Van Orman and Wollam could make Spain, that might give them the greatest straight-line distance from the start, and thus, victory.

Van Orman and Wollam took off at 6:20 PM Greenwich time, carrying 43 bags of sand for ballast. Climbing steadily, they searched for favorable winds. When it became apparent that all the winds had shifted west, their objective changed from Spain to Brest, a city on France’s northwest Atlantic coast.

At 7:40 PM, they passed DeMuyter, who was flying at a lower altitude. At 7:45 PM Van Orman and Wollam were at 2,700 feet making 14 miles per hour. They passed over the southwestern Belgian countryside, where they could see evidence of the aftermath of World War I – devastated farms, irregular lines of trenches, and occasional shell holes.

At 10:30 PM Goodyear III passed over Lens and Arras, France, and the two men were able to receive a concert over French radio. Referring to nautical charts, they timed the signals from lighthouses on the English Channel, and using triangulation, determined their precise location.

They did not know that by 11 PM, 12 of the 18 balloons had already landed, with varying results. The English balloon, Banshee, landed at 10 PM near Suderville, at the tip of the Cherbourg Peninsula, only five yards from the sea. Lieutenants Flood and McCormick, in another American entry, landed near Dieppe, also on the Channel coast.

Word came to race headquarters in Brussels by carrier pigeon (none of the balloons carried a transmitting radio) that DeMuyter was over the English Channel, and had dumped 250 pounds of ballast, attempting to find a wind to bring him back over land. Later he landed at Quimper, Brittany, for a total distance of 422 miles. A French entry, The Grand Charles, landed in the ocean and sank; the pilot and his aid were rescued.

            Another English entry, the Elsie, was flying along at a low altitude with its guide rope trailing on the ground to provide altitude stability. The rope became entangled in a passing freight train and the balloon abruptly swung down onto the tracks. Amazingly, no one was seriously hurt.

            At 1 AM on the 8th of June, Van Orman and Wollam picked up the American radio station WBZ. A little later, they spotted a lighthouse; they identified this as Touquet Point. They determined that they would soon be directly over Le Havre at 5,000 feet. Because clouds had formed beneath them, they could not see the city at first. Finally, through a hole in the clouds, they had a fine view of the Seine River entering the English Channel. Their speed soon picked up, and they floated at 26 miles per hour between the islands of Jersey and Guernsey.

            Van Orman thought he should carefully check his direction once again. Too late. He found to his dismay that their present direction would carry them two miles north of Brest, missing land entirely, then straight into the Atlantic Ocean.

            Although not yet desperate, they immediately tried various altitudes, from sea level to 20,000 feet. To their consternation, they found that all the currents were going in exactly the same direction, and that none of them would permit a landing at Brest or on land. By 6 PM the second evening, they realized that they had one more chance: they could try to land on the small island of Ouessant, about twenty miles west of the coast of France. But at 7 PM, that island was six miles to the south. They had missed the last bit of land between themselves and the United States, 3,300 miles to the west. They had only enough ballast to fly 1,500 miles. Van Orman drew a line on their map representing the approximate path of steamers coming from and to the English Channel. It was a line beyond which they dared not fly. They calculated that they would arrive at that line at midnight!

            They discussed the possibility that the winds might soon reverse themselves. In that case, they could continue, then ride the winds back for a landing in France within the next 36 hours. At 10 PM though, when they tuned in the London weather report, the forecast indicated that the winds were going to blow toward the west for three more days.

            The pair did not talk to each other for the next hour and a half. Van Orman was so preoccupied that he scarcely paid attention to his aide. Seeing no alternative but to be lost at sea, Wollam opened the Cognac rations and imbibed liberally. Suddenly, he took out their signal pistol, aimed at the hydrogen-filled bag above his head, and fired. He missed the 54-foot diameter bag over their heads by two feet!

            It was now 11:30 PM. They had equipment to land in the sea, but did not want to do so because it would mean disqualification. The two men had spent years preparing and training; They had traveled 3,500 miles to get there during the past week, and “the thought of being disqualified seemed to overshadow any thoughts of personal hazard.”

As Van Orman describes it: “Quite suddenly an idea kept coming to mind which, at first, seemed so ridiculous that I discarded it. It was this: If you don’t want to be disqualified for descending into the sea and have no land on which to alight, there is only one choice and that is to descend on a boat. As wild as the idea sounded we were forced in our dilemma to consider it.

I turned to broach the subject with my aide when Wollie’s voice was the first to break the silence by almost shouting, ‘I am going to be first!’

I couldn’t quite grasp his thought, so I asked him, ‘What do you mean?’

He said, ‘Well, Van, you have a family to take care of and if there is any choice between us, I am going to be first to go to the unknown and leave you a fighting chance.’

This spontaneous offer on Wollie’s part to sacrifice his own life for my family stirred my emotions beyond description. The only reply I could make was simply, ‘If we have to go, we will both go together.’”

Just when things appeared the blackest, Van Orman, using binoculars, spotted a little light. It was a steamer slowly making its way towards the entrance to the English Channel. Quickly, the pair dropped down from 2,000 feet to 30 feet above the water. Then they tossed overboard an item which they had carried for years, but had never used – their sea anchor.

Van Orman got out his big flashlight, and pointed it in the general direction of the ship’s bridge. Holding a book of Morse code in one hand, Van Orman signaled with the other: “We are going to land on board.” The ship responded by flashing every light on board.

The basket struck the ship’s forward deck at just the right height. Six able seamen grabbed it and held onto it. Knowing that if the envelope struck a smokestack it would explode or burn, Van Orman called to the captain to swing into the wind, so that the envelope would blow over the deck. When this maneuver was accomplished, Van Orman and Wollam jumped out of the basket and pulled the rope that opened the top.

Sixty miles at sea and 500 miles from Brussels, they had successfully landed on the 25-foot deck of a tiny German freighter coming from Cairo, Egypt and bound for Rotterdam, Holland. Such a landing had not been accomplished before in the 140-year history of ballooning.

The ship’s captain, Rudolph Nordman, spoke excellent English. He had been with the Hamburg-America Line passenger service for many years, and had recently been promoted to his own ship. And his ship, at this late stage in its voyage, was low on provisions. The crew were down to salt pork and potatoes. A well-prepared gas balloon carries many items for many eventualities. All too often, these have to be thrown overboard to lighten the load and extend the flight! Now with this miraculous arrival, onto the ship’s table went canned peaches, blueberries, and pineapple; peanuts; canned eggs, and other treats!

The balloonists left their envelope as it lay, and fell asleep in one of the officer’s cabins. The next morning, with the help of the crew, they packed their envelope without finding or making any tears in the fabric.

Captain Nordman later confided that he was not particularly anxious to give them assistance, assuming they were French. However, as soon as he saw the American flag flying from their rigging, he immediately ordered his crew to give every possible assistance.

Returning to Brussels, the two intrepid voyagers learned they had been disqualified by the Belgian Aero Club. The Seattle Times of June 10, 1925 stated that the Goodyear III was disqualified “because its pilot accepted aid when the balloon fell at sea.” At the same time, the race was deemed won by the Belgian A Veenstra, flying Belgica, who had touched land but then not only descended into the sea, but who had nearly died after seven hours in the Bay of Biscay. Van Orman protested this unfair and seemingly irrational decision, but was overruled….

The story has a happy ending. The following year, 1926, Van Orman won the race. In 1928, after American pilots won three races in a row, they retired the second James Gordon Bennett Cup. Seven years later, having won the 1929 and 1930 races, Van Orman helped his American teammates retire the third Gordon Bennett cup.


[This account was adapted from “The Wizard of the Winds” by Ward Van Orman as told to Robert Hull, North Star Press, St Cloud, MN, and from various newspaper articles.]