I have three thoughts about hot-air balloons: they look eerily peaceful, they’re key to one of the internet’s best videos, and I will never ride in one. That last bit has been fully cemented by the story that follows.
There is an international, hot-air balloon race called the Gordon Bennett Cup, which has a unique but simple premise. Each year, teams of aeronauts meet at a location and see who can fly the furthest distance from the launch site. They just kinda … go, then at some point they say, “that’s enough!” But when to say “enough,” can be a tough question, and sometimes it’s not up to the aeronauts to decide. Suspense!
Now, the key to flying a balloon is that you need some weather — ideally weather that is good. But the tricky thing about weather, and what separates it from humans, is that it has the ability to change. While cancellations due to weather are extremely rare in this particular race, a pleasant takeoff doesn’t prevent voyages from wandering into less balloonable conditions.
In 1908, during the third Gordon Bennett Cup, an American balloon hit a large patch of fog, then found itself stranded in the North Sea. In 1926, multiple crews were killed by a lightning storm that set at least one balloon aflame and forced several others to crash-land. In 1995, a Belarusian attack helicopter shot down an American balloon that had drifted into their airspace. Helicopters aren’t weather, but that example also highlights an important lesson when ballooning: expect the unexpected.
I, for one, would have never expected that conditions can also be too good, but then again I will never be an aeronaut. Picture a sky so clear that you can see everything before you. You’re able to reach breathtaking heights. The sun and the moon are simultaneously in view on opposite ends of the horizon. You drift along at somewhere between 10 and 20 miles per hour, hoping to be the last balloon afloat. And then you realize that you’re over the Canadian wilderness with no humanity in sight. That happened to a pair of Americans in 1910.
Alan Hawley and Augustus Post (who was born in Brooklyn in 1873 but I’m certain I saw the other day in 2021’s Brooklyn) departed from St. Louis on October 17th, 1910, in the America II. The fact that they made a sequel to a balloon makes me assume America I didn’t have a great time, but either way, this was America II’s time to shine. Leaving the ground at 5:46 pm, they traveled low during the night, breezing north at an altitude of 200 feet. The pair took three-hour shifts, one observing the horizon while the other rested in the basket. They used rivers for navigation and changed direction as needed by adjusting their altitude, finding a fresh wind current to blow them a new way.
At low altitude they could call down to the gawkers below and ask what town or county they were over. The grounded fools beneath them wished Hawley and Post well, our team pushed on, and by 9:40 am Lake Michigan came into view. America II powered through pressure changes above the water and
soared deliberately rose to 5700 feet, continuing on to the northeast.
As the second night came, fog rolled in below them. The northern lights danced overhead. Venus shone to the west. But one thing missing from their view was people. As Augustus noted in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Volume 81, “When full daylight came, we could see no signs of life below us; as far as eye [sic] could reach, nothing but lakes, fringed with forests, appeared…”
Continuing over the Canadian wilderness, they began to hear the sound of woodcutters. America II began to descend, but not to land. Post noted, “…we hailed them and asked where we were. They said we were over Lake Kippewa … and headed for the wilderness. They offered some advice, which we could not make out.” Onwards!
The aeronauts carried on for another six hours. At times they wished to call it quits, but beneath them was a tangle of lakes and rivers. Returning would be impossible without a boat. It’s common for ballooners to not pack a boat since their intentions tend to involve air — the opposite of water — but for once, this decision came with downsides. They went four hours more without seeing any sign of life, in part due to clouds beneath them — a curious place for those to be. As noon approached, what looked like they might be roads and cultivated fields appeared in view. This lone hint of civilization made it clear to Post that, “it looked like suicide to go farther, particularly as night was coming on.”
Hawley and Post finally elected to descend. America II picked up speed as it approached the ground. Despite plenty of time to find a safe spot to land, no clearing could be found, so they headed towards the next best thing: some trees on the side of a mountain. While dodging escarpments, they snagged the balloon onto a large tree, then hit the ground at 3:45 PM, 46 hours after leaving St. Louis. Somehow uninjured, they tidied up their crash site, as gentlemen do, and surveyed the scene.
But after flying for nearly two days in good conditions, a heavy storm quickly found them on the ground. Although likely relieved to deal with rain and not an attack helicopter, the pair was still in some distress. They hunkered down under the waterproof basket cover and pulled out their maps,not to figure out how to get to safety but to see if they had traveled far enough to claim the world record. Satisfied that they might’ve done it, the grounded aeronauts went to sleep, tucked away somewhere deep in Quebec.
They awoke to good and bad news. The good: it was no longer raining. The bad: it was snowing. With the weather changing like the trickster it is, they began to follow a river towards Lake St. John, the last landmark they’d spotted from the sky. Three hours in, Hawley slipped on a rock and wrenched his knee. Between that and the whole crashed balloon thing, he was just having one of those days.
Once the pair could go no further, they set up for their first night away from the safety provided by a crashed balloon. Augustus took the rifle they carried and attempted to fell a beast of the woods to provide meat for dinner, but his shot missed the squirrel, so he immediately gave up.
In the morning they reached the lake, but their pace slowed as Hawley’s knee worsened. Their days became a cycle: trudge along, stop to eat an egg, keep following the shore, sleep, cry (probably). Snow returned. Rations ran low. In the wild, the construct of time is meaningless. Fortunately, Post had a watch so he knew it was 7:00 am on a Monday when their fortunes changed, one week after leaving St. Louis.
The pair found a tent that to them looked like a palace. To you or me it would have just looked like a tent, assuming you’ve seen a tent before. If this is your first time, it looked like a sheet of canvas hung to provide shelter. They settled in, lit a fire, and waited for the owner to return. The following morning, smoke from the fire drew the interest of a pair of trappers who were starting off on a hunting excursion. The two couples met on the shoreline and after some conversation, Hawley and Post’s journey home began.
By then, the U.S. and Canadian governments had begun large-scale search efforts. Most back in the States assumed the worst — downed over water, eaten by wolves, helicopter attack — but thanks to the trappers, our two aeronauts soon reached a town from which they telegraphed home. Celebrations were planned for their return, both for the fact they were alive but also because they had won the 1910 Gordon Bennett Cup.
America II traveled 1171 miles in 44 hours 25 minutes, winning the race by 40 miles. While their voyage fell 22 miles short of the world record, no one had ever flown as far as they had to snatch the Cup. After being lost in the Quebec wilderness, surviving a crash landing, suppressing man’s natural cannibalistic instincts, Augustus Post and Alan Hawley’s Gordon Bennett Cup record flight of 1171 miles would stand for some time — about two years.