On this day: World’s most prestigious balloon race started 110 years ago

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US Aviator Lieutenant Frank P Lahm, winner of the 1906 Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett (Image Credit: FAI)

Lausanne: Today goes in the history as a day of reckoning for the Air Sports as American Lieutenant Frank Purdy Lahm won the first ever Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett one hundred and ten years ago on 30 September 1906, a prestigious balloon race. The day also marks the 110th year of the race started then.

What is Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett

In this race, the balloon pilots must take off and fly far and wide, traveling throughout the day and overnight, before landing safely at any place. The participants fly in an open wicker basket, and are lifted into the air by a balloon filled with lighter-than-air gas (helium or hydrogen). The rules are simple – whoever flies furthest, wins.

The race is so named in recognition of the founder father of the race, James Gordon Bennett Jr., who, in 1906, first organized this race with the help of American Newspaper New York Herald. Gordon Bennett was publisher of the New York Herald, founded by his father, James Gordon Bennett Sr..


Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett was first set up in 1906 by American newspaper publisher Gordon Bennett, the person who worked as publisher of New York Herald. Bennett, a sporting brain, is recognized as someone who organized the first polo match in the United States. He helped in establishing the first Polo club of US, Westchester Polo Club in 1876. He also set up the Gordon Bennett Cup for international yachting and the Gordon Bennett Cup for automobile races. It was then he entered the Air Sports and started the first ever balloon race.

In the first race which happened in Paris, 16 teams launched their balloons from the Jardin des Tuileries on the late afternoon of 30 September 1906; the participants included Charles Rolls of Rolls Royce, US airman Alberto Santos Dumont among other who participated in this historic event.

Winner of the First ever Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett

The historic Balloon race, the first edition of the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett,  was Lieutenant Frank Purdy Lahm.

Lieutenant Lahm flew the farthest, north from Paris, crossed the Le tunnel sous la Manche (also called Chunnel), a channel between France and England, and continued till the Yorkshire Dales after 22 hours and 15 minutes flight duration where he landed ending his race. With this time, he covered a gigantic 647.1km.

Such was the performance of Lahm that the person who came second, behind Lahm, was defeated by more than 50km. Lahm was in the US Army had only completed 14 flights in a balloon prior to this historic day. He gradually became the first ever certified pilot in the US Army, and was eventually given charge of developing the US Air Force. Lieutenant Lahm stayed in the army his entire career, and reached the rank of Brigadier General, before retiring in 1941 at the age of 64.

Since then

The Balloon race event, Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett, has since gone on to have a similarly illustrious tournament for the aviators and balloonist from across the world, providing career to them.

The event now takes place every year, always in September and always under full moon. The participating Pilots, in a team of two, spend up to three days and nights aloft, flying distances of up to 3,000km at heights of up to 5,000m or even more. The most recent edition of the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett was held in Gladbeck, Germany during September 18-25, 2016. The Swiss team, travelled 1,804km, to Greece in the Mediterranean, to win this year’s race.

There is no change in the set up of the tournament– as per rules, whoever flies farthest, wins. And the open baskets are similar too.

Tracking of the racers has been easier as the modern communications technology has aided the public to track them as they race, and of course advances in weather forecasting play a crucial role.

The first winner, Lt. Lahm can still recognize the balloons of today, even 110 years on, as there isn’t much change as they remain similar to those used a century ago.



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