Chapter 9 - 1920
[The Great War Intervened]
Germans and Austrians barred from competing. As a result, they refused to participate until 1925.
EIGHT BIG BALLOONS START ON LONG RACE -Seven Competitors, Preceded by Pilot, Take the Air at Birmingham. - FOUR NATIONS IN CONTEST -Gordon Bennett trophy, Loving Cups and Cash Offered as Prizes. [Special Despatch NYH] BIRMINGHAM, Ala., Saturday (October 23, 1920). With the sky the limit and the United States the goal the international balloon race began from the balloon field, North Birmingham, this afternoon, eight big balloons, including the Pilot, with representatives of the two daily papers, and the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce balloon, piloted by Roy Donaldson, starting on the trip. There was a mild northwest breeze at the time of the start.
A tremendous crowd was out to witness the race. Under the rules the Pilot will have to descend at noon on Sunday, and after leaving out his passengers will make an effort to ride to his home at Springfield, Ill. C G Andrus, aerological expert from the Weather Bureau at Washington, during the day studied the wind maps and predicted the balloons would make toward Cairo, Ill. and thence into the Ohio Valley. The morning was employed in filling the big bags with the by-product coke gas from the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company. The Pilot started at 4:15 and four to ten minutes later the others started in the following order:
[list of entrants in order of departure]
Representatives of the Aero Club of America offered the Gordon Bennett trophy, and other prominent personages interested in ballooning witnessed the start with a number of Government officials. Loving cups and cash prizes are also offered.
The start was under auspicious circumstances.
BALLOON MEN TO DROP TELEGRAMS ON ROUTE - Aero Club to Keep Informed of Whereabouts.
Each pilot is supplied with a number of blank telegrams on which he may write a note, and drop it from the balloon as it passes over populated areas. Persons are to fill in and send in these telegrams if they recover them on the ground. If necessary, a search for a lost balloon starts from the last known point.
ARMY BALLOON SOLE ENTRANT STILL ALOFT - Lieut. Thompson's Landing Anxiously Awaited by Race Officials. -OTHERS HAVE LANDED - Belgian Entry Reaches Lake Champlain and May Be Victor. -DROPS NEAR BURLINGTON - Goodyear II, Piloted by Ohioan, Crosses the Boundary Into Ontario. - BIRMINGHAM, Ala., Monday, October 25 - With six of the seven balloons entered in the international race for the Gordon Bennett trophy already down, officials anxiously awaited reports to-night from Army No. 1, piloted by Lieut. Richard Thompson, with Lieut. Harold Weeks as aid.
Since the hop off in Birmingham Saturday nothing has been heard from this entry. It was regarded as probable that Lieut. Thompson had found a favorable current of air and pursued it without passing near any place of communication.
Late to-day it was learned that the Belgian entry, "Belgica," had landed in Lake Champlain near Burlington, Vt. but both pilots reached shore safely. Local race officials thought this balloon had reached a point further from the start than any of the other five entries down, but until Lieut. Thompson is heard from it will be impossible to determine the winner. -
DETROIT, October 25. The balloon Goodyear II, an entry in the international contest for the Bennett trophy, landed just before 5 o'clock this afternoon at Amherstburg, Ontario, across the Detroit River from Detroit. The craft was piloted by Ralph Upson of Akron, Ohio with W. VanOrman as aid. The Goodyear II left Birmingham at 5 o'clock Saturday afternoon. Pilot Upson stated upon landing that he had encountered air currents over southern Michigan and a severe snowstorm high above the Detroit River.
KANSAS CITY, October 25. The balloon Kansas City II, piloted by Capt H. E. Honeywell, a participant in the international flight for the James Gordon Bennett trophy, landed to-day on Tongue Mountain, near Lake George, New York, according to a telegram from Capt. Honeywell received to-night by George Meyers, president of the Kansas City Aero Club. -
MOUNT CLEMONS, Mich. Monday, October 25 - The balloon Triomphale VI, Italian entry in the international contest for the Bennett Trophy, landed here this morning. The big ship, piloted by Major H. Madori, with Lieut. Pirazzoli as aid, left Birmingham, Ala., at 4:30 o'clock Saturday afternoon. For the greater part of the journey north the trip was made at an altitude of 12,000 feet, and part of the time through a severe storm, with the temperature at 2 degrees below zero. The course took the big bag through Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio and into Michigan. Lake St. Clair was sighted last night, and with only one ton of ballast left the crew decided to land, bringing the ship to earth inside the city limits here.
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. October 25. The French balloon Lorraine, entrant in the international balloon race, landed near Mason City, Ill., last night, according to a telephone message received here this afternoon. Bad weather caused the descent, it was said. -
The balloon Audiens, the first Italian entry in the international race for the Gordon Bennett trophy, piloted by Major Vallee, descended yesterday afternoon at Homer, Cortland County, NY. Major Vallee telegraphed to the Aero Club of America last night. The messages said the balloon had been up more than forty-eight hours and the descent was made without accident. Major Vallee expects to reach New York to-day.
Ralph Upson, pilot of the Goodyear II, which landed at 5 o'clock in the afternoon at Amherstburg, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, in a telegram to the Aero Club said he was forced down by a heavy snowstorm, encountered at 10,000 feet.
Lieutenant DeMuyter, pilot of Belgica, the Belgian entry, sent word of his landing on North Hero Island, Lake Champlain, saying his descent was forced because he was out of ballast. He landed at 9:30 in the morning. The balloon crossed over the Great Lakes Sunday night and the maximum height reached was 20,000 feet, at which a heavy snow and rainstorm was encountered.
[Lieutenant Thompson landed in central Michigan]
Air Race Won by Belgian Balloon (from the Aerostat)
The Aero Club of America in an unofficial statement, placed the Belgian balloon, Belgica, which landed at 9:30 AM, October 28, at North Hero Island, Vermont, first in the Gordon Bennett International balloon race.
The distance covered by Belgica, in charge of Lieut. DeMuyter and Lieut. Labrousse, was estimated at 1,100 miles. The American record is 1,173 miles, made by Alan Hawley and Augustus Post, in the International event in 1910.
The American balloon Kansas City II, with H.E. Honeywell and Jerome Kingsbury, was placed second in latest reports. This entry, which landed at Tongue Mountain, Lake George, N.Y. was estimated to have covered more than 1,000 miles.
The Italian entry, with Major Valle in charge, which landed at Homer, N.Y., after forty-eight hours in the air, was within twenty-six minutes of the American endurance record, the Aero Club said. This record was made by Clifford B Harmon and Augustus Post in a national race in 1909.
[English version – From the book, Belgica, by Ernest DeMuyter, Editions France – Empire, 68, rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Paris. First Edition, 1961. Translated from the French by George Denniston.]
Ernest DeMuyter, Belgium’s great balloon pilot, first flew in a Gordon Bennett race in 1912 at the age of 20. He flew again the next year, but did not fly again until 1920, when he piloted his Belgica to victory in America. This race was preceded by the difficulties of finding an aide, ultimately a balloon officer, Lieut. Labrousse, provided by the government of Belgium; and by a severe sore throat that put him down, but not out. The Belgian Military Attaché visited him just before takeoff:
Finally at the very moment where we brought out our basket and began to attach it to the envelope, a smiling person extends his hand: it is Colonel Dubosc, our military attaché. We had already met in Washington before our rail trip from New York to Birmingham. Then he said:
“I am aware of your problems, and am very happy that you have surmounted them. The Belgian Government must understand the importance of your participation. I would like to help you.”
Is his visit a confirmation of this?
We spoke of the subsidies allotted me by the State.
“Insufficient,” he concluded.
He spoke to me of the growth of Belgium, of foreign contacts, of the great future promised to our country.
At the end of this comforting monologue, I knew that a voice more powerful than mine would henceforth listen. He ended with these words:
“Win! I am in charge of enlivening foreign affairs!”
I am captivated by these promises that make me feel exultant and it is he who tells me to get back to work. He turns back, however, and asks me:
“Do you wish to send a message?”
I think for a moment, and then I reply to him:
“Yes, my colonel, to inform my friends of my plans which will end by my landing east of the Great Lakes.”
Momentarily surprised by my confident reply, he asked:
“You are certain of it?”
“Completely certain, my colonel!”
“Very good. The message will leave soon after you do, but remember, you must win!”
After a solid handshake, he left me.
Win? Yes, I will win! Who dares pretend that I am ill? To work!
I was obsessed by several questions:
Of all the air currents, which is the least? And which one will become the best? Is the itinerary fixed?
Once again, I make the point. I establish a verifiable plan.
If I follow this plan, I can cover a trajectory of….
They have just given the signal to start. Our tricolor flies at the mast. We climb into the basket, filled with sacks of sand. We rise scarcely one meter. They transport us to the takeoff site. One of the assistants holds the cord to release the appendix. Quickly he breaks it. The indispensable escape of gas is carried out.
Some orders. A light breeze as the appendix opens.
“Ready?” they ask me.
“Let go everything!”
My face is full of resolve. They applaud. A band plays the Brabançonne: we lift off.
Hundreds of faces are uplifted toward us, while the aides are already bringing up the next balloon.
Our plan? To follow a current carrying us to the northwest first, then toward the north and northeast of the region of the Great Lakes, after having abandoned the initial direction which would have taken us to the Rocky Mountains. All this, according to my foresight, comes from a study of meteorological bulletins.
Belgica leaves third. Above us, the first two balloons vanish into the sky.
We continue to climb. Birmingham is laid out before us, becoming flatter and flatter, further and further away. And now we see the mountains that arise from the valley we are flying over.
We have risen to 1000 meters. We cross the first chain before rejoining the Tennessee River Valley. We are in equilibrium at 1500 meters.
Night comes. A light mist is present. A light rain is also falling, the first we have had while in the South. Happily it does not last long.
Then we enter into a shadow bathed by moonlight on which the landscape is printed in reverse, like a negative. The treetops form bluish undulations, while in the distance one begins to see the first steep mountains.
The wind pushes us at a feeble pace. This gives us leisure to contemplate our surroundings, which does not prevent me from noting minutely any changes in our course.
Labrousse and I exchange impressions that make our respective characters transparent. On my part I am very much aware of the beauty of the countryside, of its grace, and grandeur.
Labrousse smiles at my exclamations. He holds himself straight as a ramrod in the basket and only responds with grunts to my enthusiasm.
Good humor nevertheless reigns in the basket of the Belgica.
Our direction has already shifted from northwest to north. We are heading close to Illinois, an industrial region.
At sunrise, after having reached 3000 meters, we are aware of two currents, one in front of us and one to the east of us.
Now, a marvelous cultivated region rolls out its colored tapestry. Not little fields, such as we know in our part of the world, but fields as big as our Provinces.
During the night, we traveled by dead reckoning, taking into account our direction and estimated speed. Check points were not available to us.
We have a solution to find out where we are: question the first living beings that we meet, profiting from the night’s natural descent.
We have been traveling for 24 hours. It is now 4 PM. The sun is dropping towards the horizon. A slight cooling of the air suffices to drop us to a lower altitude.
We descend some more; I call with a strong voice:
“Hello, boys, how are you?”
Do they think it is a joke?
They do not respond.
I try again:
“Hello dear boys – how are you? Are we in Indiana State?”
Their response is rapid and to the point.
“You are in Indiana State.”
“How many miles from Indianapolis?”
They confer, discuss. They want to be precise. We wait some time, then one of them, a new voice tosses up to us:
“Sixty miles from Indianapolis.”
“Thank you very much. Goodbye.”
To which they reply almost in unison:
I am already leaning over my maps, while Labrousse responds to their friendly gestures.
Conclusion: My trip planning turned out to be correct.
We are 100 meters above the earth. We need to gain some altitude. We have a minimum of sand left from the 775 kilos we started with, and we need to lighten the balloon. We have carried four canisters of oxygen for our masks at high altitudes. Unfortunately, once again, we have no need for them. We decide to jettison two of them, being the most useful things to sacrifice.
Judiciously we wait to throw them overboard next to a frequented place. Soon we find ourselves above a road crossing. There are many cars. The timing appears well chosen. I verify the routine. The canisters carry my address in New York. Hopefully they will be returned to me. We find a surface next to the road,
An automobile stops. He makes some signs.
Good, that one is in good hands.
Then the second follows the route of the first. It is recovered by an equally friendly driver, who appears very amused by this little incident.
We no longer have time to follow the destination of our canisters. The loss of weight occasioned by the jettisoning makes us gain altitude rapidly, to our great satisfaction. But we are soon followed by a hundred cars that came out of nowhere and who escort us in a noisy parade. The effect is stimulating to our morale. I had not slept during the first night. I felt a heavy fatigue. I am scarcely over my sore throat; I hope to be able to take a rest later.
For now it is necessary to maneuver efficiently.
In losing altitude, we several times changed direction. We even retraced our steps at a very low altitude. We need to find once again a wind blowing north, if we want to be on track!
We climb to 3500 meters and there (o happiness!) a blessed current takes us at 50 km/hr toward the north- northeast – the Great Lakes!
To attain this goal, that is the trickiest part of our trip. What a great distance to fly. It is by doing that, in my opinion, that we will gain the victory.
However, flying over the Great Lakes is no little affair! These lakes are veritable inland seas. They are 300 to 500 kilometers long. It could happen that an adverse wind could take us toward the surface and a rapid bath. Assistance would be scarce and difficult.
But put away these pessimistic thoughts. We shall soon see, after all! Moreover, whomever fears danger, often brings it on himself. It is with a cool head that one must look at the possible eventualities. One must be free to judge them, to understand them, to remedy inconvenient possibilities.
Let’s go forward!
And I say to Labrousse:
“Down there are the Great Lakes.”
“So it’s the best route.”
I am happy with this reply. I needed my brave companion’s reply. It appeases me noticeably. The pilot has the responsibility for the trip. The aide is a companion, but he is also a passenger whom you do not wish to kill.
And I end the conversation by saying,
“Let’s go, let’s cross the Great Lakes!”
“Let’s cross,” calmly replies Labrousse.
Has the balloon suddenly become lighter or do our hearts weigh less in the basket? Our conveyance also seemed to be putting out some emotion. It seems to direct itself more surely, more rapidly towards this destination we have chosen to attain.
We do not talk any more. We sense that our friendship is better with silence. It unites us above the immense country that we are flying over. And me, I dream:
How many Belgians could be put in such a space? How would our provinces seem, and our entire little country, on the surface of this infinite land?
Forever, Belgium, forever!
Always! Always forward because we are alone, because we are far away, because we are obligated to accomplish what others more important than us, are not obliged to accomplish.
In the midst of this solitude, two men shook hands. Silently, as with a great eternal oath, like the chevaliers did of old.
Was it the beauty? The country…. Was it hope? The desire for a victorious struggle against the elements, the sole adversaries against whom we are permitted to struggle, for the fate of our freedom as men, the thinking flyers. ?
And the voyage continues pleasantly. We approach an area of low pressure, which happily speeds us up, but is also inconvenient, as it brings snow and rain.
At a speed of more than 50 km/hr, we continue to fly toward the north-northeast. Then what I foresaw soon happened. The sky began to obscure, lightly at first, then markedly, with the sun disappearing before our eyes.
This weather is as much to fear as our approach to Lake Huron. Besides, according to my calculations, Lake Erie is to be found to our right.
We try in vain to see through the dense layer of clouds that slide by below us: it is impenetrable; our eyes only distinguishing their gray mass. What I fear above all in this thick weather, is snow, and reducing our altitude is not a solution. At a low altitude, it will rain. The rain would weigh us down a lot and we could be forced to land and terminate this voyage near here, something I want to avoid at all costs.
I recall my conversation with Colonel Dubosc. Who knows whether I hold in my hand at this moment, the fate of Belgian ballooning, and the future of gas ballooning?
Yes, it is necessary to risk everything to win.
What would be my ideal in such circumstances? Would I be afraid to do it? Would it be to accept the suggestion to abandon the flight? Certainly not. What another can do I can do also.
Win, and we will get the government to take a greater interest in future.
Is it that at this very moment I am not sure of winning, of taking my modest trophy, for the glory of Belgium? Is my courage like snow in the sun?
I must win. I must risk all to win.
The temperature gets colder. The balloon descends. We let the motion happen, being careful not to accelerate too much, taking care not to toss away too much sand.
We need to know our position with respect to Lake Huron. Our speed hovers around 60 km/hr. It is 11 PM. We are still in the clouds.
At midnight it rains. We continue to descend.
We advance, certainly, but what are we approaching? We scan the horizon and see only clouds. It continues to rain. In spite of the rain shield, which is designed to protect us from downpours, we are drenched; gusts of wind hit us from all sides. How shall we protect ourselves? Besides we scarcely dream. A restlessness grabs at our throat. The rain becomes heavier. A veritable curtain kisses the countryside. Water runs in our sleeves, in our collar, making way through every passage however small, and slides down our backs. We are chilled to the bone, unnerved, and restless as a result of this interminable voyage.
Suddenly a hole in the clouds. Like two seamen lost at sea, we cry together:
Perhaps we are saved. If we can avoid remaining under this deluge too long, we can possibly still hope for victory.
And Labrousse cries suddenly:
“Look down there.”
“It is a lake.”
Quickly I go to my charts. We continue on course. We will soon get to the southern edge of Lake Huron. We move now with the strong west-southwest wind which propels us east-northeast..
Encouraged scarcely controlling my emotions, I say to Labrousse:
“The course is good! Now we must climb and get out of the rain.” But for now we still descend. Happily the descent is slowing.
We must pass above the lake and risk to go still further, so we put over sand ballast, and there is little left. I begin to sacrifice certain things that are not absolutely needed, but their weight is not very much.
Under the influence of a few degrees higher temperature, which rewarms the gas in the envelope.
“Victory! Our descent is stopped. We are climbing, Labrousse. We are climbing.”
I cannot hide my joy. Labrousse worried about the previous reserves that were sacrificed, but he is won over by my enthusiasm.
Our altimeter once again indicates a gain in altitude; we gain about 10 meters. Finally, without doubt to compensate us for our tenacity, the rain stops.
The water on the balloon does not take long to evaporate, which lightens the balloon and accelerates our ascent.
Finally we get clearly away from Lake Huron and into the Canadian Province of Ontario. We reach 2000 meters. In spite of our variations in altitude, we have continued to gain kilometers to the east- northeast. We are going to leave Lake Erie and its hundreds of kilometers of length on our right. But there remains Lake Ontario.
It is one o’clock in the morning. We hear a loud noise which is long and of increasing intensity. We are certainly above land, on the other side of Lake Huron, and the noise that we have just heard must be a train. I notice a feeble current running, very far from us, on the ground.
We are above Canada, in the Province of Ontario. But our adventures are far from over.
For the moment, we truly appreciate our hard won position. We sing a popular refrain – which I don’t recall exactly, but I think it was “Over Ontario.” Definitely, we feel we are the happiest people in the world.
We advance always towards the north-northeast. The temperature lowers noticeably as we move north.
We are always at 2000 meters:
“Look, it is snowing.”
Can’t we escape this plague of aeronauts?
It is 2 AM. In the distance the moon lights up the snow. We approach it at a still greater speed. The temperature has fallen to -7° C. We soon find ourselves in the middle of heavily falling snow. If the pilot in me did not make me concerned, I would cry out in admiration, so sweet is this impression of drowning.
Noises seem to stop some distance from us. There is silence. Except for a type of hail, where the snow falls, forming and reforming its crystals, and with this hail, such a great increase in our solitude, that one would desire a dreamless sleep, under a clear sky. But for now we must intend the opposite… and not dream or sleep.
It is more and more certain that we are descending. As for provisions, we have nothing to eat, or to throw overboard. We have been saving two cylinders of oxygen; now we must part with them, for we are no more than 1500 meters high.
“Labrousse, look! Ontario! We are going straight towards Ontario!”
We have tossed the last cylinders; there remains only a little sand and our instruments. What are we going to do? Are we going to continue across this new lake? Are we going to risk a leap of 300 kilometers without any guarantee of success? Have I the right, even to claim victory, to risk the life of a man? Am I aware of what can happen to us?
Once again I ask a question of my aide:
“What shall we do?”
From his mouth came these words that I was hoping for in spite of myself:
“Whatever you do will be good.”
The reply of my co-pilot gave me great pleasure.
“Then – let’s go,” I said.
As it was, it was too late to risk landing.
On this Monday, 25 October 1920, at 2:28 in the morning, Belgica launched into a grand new adventure.
Our descent is on the point of stopping. Happily! Our throwing of sand had been very great and we are not more than 800 meters high; that is to say, very near the ground. With the column of warmer air that exists above the lake, I hope to be able to hold altitude, and then return to 4000 meters. In this zone, we would find rapid currents that would let us cross the lake.
We fly over Knoxville. The descent continues. We are closer than 200 meters from the lake. Painfully, we sacrifice once again some useful things.
I am riveted to the altimeter. Finally, at 80 meters:
“Labrousse, the descent is stopped.”
Belgica commences to go up slowly. Ouf! We slowly gain altitude. We have changed currents. Now we advance to the north-northeast. We are paralleling the coast. This light, which shines and makes the sky red, is Toronto.
We are at 400 meters. We hope that the climb will continue. We do not yet have reason to be completely reassured. At this altitude, we parallel the coast, but above the lake.
The stream of air we are in takes us away from the coast. The dice are thrown. Alea jacta est…
We must have confidence. We must use well the three hours needed to cross. In going higher, we would find a faster current. So we must gain altitude. What will we do without our sand ballast? We still have the guide rope. We are going to cut it up into pieces. Labrousse begins the task.
It is our second night, the hardest, in terms of morale. We have risen to 1500 meters. Towards 3 AM, we are at 3000. One hour later, we are navigating at 4000 meters. We encounter some rapid winds. It becomes cooler. We have risen to 4500 meters. And we estimate that we have accomplished two thirds of the crossing…
Happily, because the snow begins to fall again very lightly. A new descent, however slight, begins. At 5 AM we are still at 3000 meters.
“Listen, Labrousse trumpets”
“ I hear what sounds like horns.”
Through a hole in the clouds, I can see a forest. We are east of Lake Ontario. The water crossing, which we have accomplished thanks to the fast winds at altitude, is over. This good news makes us truly euphoric, unhappily quickly dashed by a glance at the altimeter.
We descend steadily. What will the landing bring? Daylight is coming soon. We are going to get warmer again, but can we hold on until then? Are we going to be able to continue our voyage?
We are flying above the land in New York State. From where we are we can see the forests which encircle the lake and border the length of the St Lawrence River. In addition, we can see the countryside at rare intervals for below us the cloud cover is dense.
The thought of our native land, so far away, adds to our wish to win. Here are two faces with determined expressions searching the horizon. We are looking a bit like escaped criminals, with our unshaven beards, and our cheeks creased with fatigue.
3000, 4000, 5000 meters
We are traveling above a new cloud deck. We are at 6000 meters. There we discover the sun, which in just a few minutes has removed all the moisture from our balloon.
7:30 AM. We are in equilibrium at 7000 meters. The temperature is -11° C. We are moving at least 80 kilometers/hr. Great speed! But which in the present case disturbs me. Will we find ourselves above the Atlantic Ocean? This idea hardly makes me smile.
But where does this indifference that is progressively surrounding me come from? I feel myself taken with a certain fatalism that I can scarcely defend myself against. Is it fatigue? Perhaps. The altitude – definitely.
The danger that we run is as great as if we have all the difficulties of the world on our doorstep. Labrousse, more corpulent than me, is asleep. I struggle. My lungs suffer, my eyelids feel heavy, my eyes can scarcely see what they are looking at. It is not impossible, given the situation in which we are maneuvering at this high altitude, that we advance toward the sea at over 100 kilometers/hr.
I make a great effort to bring myself back to my senses. We must descend if we don’t wish to succumb to altitude sickness or find ourselves out over the Atlantic.
How long has this state lasted? I ignore it. My head turns. I almost faint. By a supreme effort of will I say to myself:
I have to get hold of myself, I have to pull the valve cord.
I valve several times. This maneuver is always tricky, especially at high altitudes. But because of the steady progress of our ascent, I had to do it.
We suffer less. Labrousse appears less oppressed. But am I going to regret this maneuver?
At this moment Labrousse opens his eyes and speaks with difficulty:
“I felt like I was dying.”
“Now, all is well,” I told him mechanically, already benefiting from my careful piloting.
Labrousse himself is furious. He blames his excessive weight, and swears to lose ten kilos for the next expedition.
I am going to have to endure the consequences of my valving, but for the time being at least, we rediscover the effects of a more humane temperature and pressure.
According to our estimates, we must not be far from the beautiful Adirondack Mountains, halfway between New York to the south and Montreal to the north. It is a very picturesque region but one which does not lend itself to a landing.
The clouds surround us. We are at 5000 meters. We are both feeling the effects of fatigue, to which is added the aftereffects of our partial paralysis.
4000, 3000, 2000 And always clouds. How can a landing be made? That concerns me a lot and our morale suffers a blow.
Now here we are at 1500 meters. But where are we exactly? What is it like underneath the clouds?
1000 meters. And always the horizon is obstinately obscured. Is this black cloud a storm cloud? We hold on to the lines. And while we are now at 500 meters, we still do not see the sun.
400, 300, 200 meters – still nothing.
180 meters… 160 meters… We stare in the sun’s direction, but can only penetrate a few meters, so our sight fails us in the fog.
Meanwhile I am sure that we are going to find ourselves above the Atlantic Ocean.
150 meters. Land... Land… Land... Suddenly, through a hole in the lowest clouds, a somber surface appears. Is it the ground? We can scarcely distinguish what is passing beneath us. A torrential rain has just complicated our task.
According to my calculations, we cannot be above the ocean, but these lands we are passing over are covered with lakes. It is absolutely necessary that we be sure that it is land that we see.
The rain falls, always very dense, and we still descend.
The somber surface approaches. But it is impossible to distinguish if this green is that of a plant or …
“Labrousse, look. We are over a lake!”
For one second I note the peril we are in. It is not towards the land; it is towards the water that we drop. Some dozens of meters still to go.
I have scarcely time to glance at my charts; we are above Lake Champlain! 160 kilometers long and 15-25 wide.
And suddenly, a splash under the basket: water bathes our feet, mounts to our waists, then our shoulders; only our heads remain above the liquid element.
The balloon seems to want to climb again, but it is prevented from doing so by the water which spurts from the basket. The two-tiered envelope filled with gas rests on the surface of the lake and transforms our aerial craft into a watercraft that can be moved by the wind. We hold on tightly to the rigging, for our basket has a dangerous tendency to tip over.
In this situation, I make the good judgment of not pulling the rip panel, so with the remaining gas, the envelope will act as a sail, and take us towards land.
Several hundred meters away, I can see an island (the isle of Motte). If we can only get there! However I must quickly give up hope: the wind that waffles the lake moves us to the southeast - 45° different from the direction at several hundred meters above the lake. We are therefore getting further from the island, and are moving toward the center of the lake, so to say, to an adventure.
The basket wavers from right to left. At each moment we fear being thrown into the water.
“A boat!” cries my companion.
Is he thinking of leaving the basket?
“Stay,” I cry to him, for I hope, in spite of everything, to get to the west (sic) bank of the lake which I estimate is 5 kilometers away, since I am sure that I want to depart the basket honorably, and the weight of my companion is useful here.
The boat gets further away. Is my companion sorry? Do the extremely transparent waters fascinate him? We are both quiet.
We are moving always more or less dangerously. We will land on some shore of the lake. The water that is bathing the lower parts of our bodies is icy.
Finally we approach the shore. How long will it take to get there? I don’t know. The sight of land comforts me. Provided that we can keep going in the same direction!
Our half deflated balloon is an immense sail, blown by quite a strong wind. The land is still pretty far away, when suddenly a violent shock shakes the entire basket, then a second. In the yellow light one can see a dark mass below the surface. Are we going to wreck our craft on granite rocks? An instant later, however, we are moving away from these dangerous rocks, for we advance without any more shocks. Finally we experience what feels like a violent pull on the reins, and come to an abrupt stop: our basket is stuck on a long talus slope; we are facing a creek mouth surrounded by rocks.
I pull the rip cord and the venting valve and the balloon, pushed by the wind, drops on the rocks at the foot of the talus slope.
I sense that my companion is very close to a nervous breakdown. So to divert him, I ask him to go and reconnoiter the island. This project makes him smile; his only dream is to get out of the basket and the balloon. Some moments later, I see Labrousse walking on terra firma, scaling the promontory and disappearing before my eyes.
I am alone now with my Belgica.
I find myself in a curious state, groggy from the high altitude and from the cold bath. But I am also happy to have finished my business in such favorable circumstances and my hope that the end of our journey would have no serious consequences.
I thought of the French aeronaut, Faure, dead from freezing shortly after a landing like ours in North America.
Another idea obsessed me also, which I could not control or get rid of: the sea. Constantly, the same phrase kept coming to my lips.
I must end the flight before the coastline. I must at all costs.
All notions of place and time are erased from my mind.
I run on the moss-covered slippery rocks. My boots slip on them, and I have numerous falls, accompanied by some forced baths.
The sea! I must stop before it.
I have detached the balloon from the basket, but it must be brought to the shore, which means pulling it several dozen meters.
Am I hearing things? I think I can hear a conversation. I can just distinguish some French words. Is some type of fever playing the game of hallucination with me?
The basket is now empty. How many trips I made and how many times I risked breaking my neck on these slippery rocks!
In spite of my fatigue, I am happy with myself. My illness before departure, the forty-one hours of our voyage, two nights without sleep, and for an ending our plunge, did not prevent me from preserving the envelope. All the instruments on board are covered. All that remains is to save myself.
My activity was life saving. Immobility could have been fatal, soaked as I am. But how I would love to stretch out on the ground and sleep! Unhappily my wet clothes bring me back to reality. I will climb this promontory with difficulty, and I….
But what are these voices? Where are they coming from? They are getting near, I am certain of it!
Scarcely have I had this thought than I see coming towards me a group of men and women, who offer me warm coffee.
Belgica had landed on North Hero Island, in the NW corner of Vermont. DeMuyter and his aide were lavishly hosted by the local minister, who also worked for the Associated Press, and his sister. The next morning, his host bounded into the bedroom, and cried,
“You have won!”
Second place went to Honeywell, who said, “Congratulations! Next time I will keep an eye on you!”