|1909 NATIONAL BALLOON RACE
Pre-Indy 500 Races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Sportsmen and other people enthusiastic about autos
were also intrigued by another newly emerging form of
transportation: the gas balloon. For the most part,
ballooning and aviation were synonymous in the public
mind, since the only other method of flying--gliders--was
still very experimental. While the Wright Brothers would
succeed in attaching a motor to a glider-type device in
1903, they kept it under wraps for a few years as they
worked on securing patents.
In the summer of 1905 several members of the
Automobile Club of America including Charles Glidden,
Homer Hedge, David Morris, John F. O'Rourke, and
Augustus Post founded the Aero Club of America.
They were avid balloonists but found little support in
America for the sport of aviation. They determined to
establish a new club with an organization similar to the
Automobile Club but whose purpose was to promote
aviation. It thrived until 1923, when it transformed into the
National Aeronautic Association, which still exists today.
The first international balloon competition was held in
Paris France on October 1, 1906 with 16 balloons
competing. The James Gordon Bennett International
Cup was won by a young Lieut. Frank P. Lahm, of Ohio.
His aid was Major H.B. Hersey, a meterologist. They
traveled 415 miles in the balloon the "United States".
While the $3,000 trophy went to the ACA, Lahm received
$2,900. The win also meant that the next race would be
held in the United States, home of the winners.
Dr Julian P. Thomas, a well-known local devotee of
ballooning said, "What we should now do is to have a
cup for annual contests among Americans alone, thus to
prepare ourselves for the greater contest in the
International competition. Lieutenant Lahm's victory will
also tend to stimulate inventors of aerial machines and
of aerial appliances on this side of the water."
St Louis was eventually selected as the host city. One of
the movers and shakers in St. Louis was Albert B.
Lambert, who learned how to fly balloons. He helped
organize the Aero Club of St. Louis. He purchased a
balloon launching site near St. Louis which he named
after himself. It was later converted into an airport and is
now the St Louis International airport.
The 2nd International race was held Oct 21, 1907. Nine
Balloons took off. As they passed over central Indiana,
towns would ring their fire and church bells to alert the
populace that the race was approaching them. Some
people found letters dropped from the balloons, asking
them to report their time and location to a newspaper.
Some people tried chasing the balloons in their cars,
reaching 25 mph, but the balloons beat them.
By the 23rd, the race was over and the German balloon
the "Pommern" landed in New Jersey, having traveled 880
miles! It beat the French balloon by only 5 miles. Hence,
the 1908 race would be held in Berlin Germany. The pilot
of the "Pommern" was Oscar Erbsloch and his aid was
Prof. A. Lawrence Rotch of Harvard.
At the Berlin race on Oct 11, 1908, 23 balloons from 8
countries competed, taking off 2-minutes apart, on a
warm sunny day. It had been thought that the balloons
would head toward Russia, however they flew off in the
When the only American-made balloon, the "Conqueror",
was released, it shot upward rapidly, the basket swaying
violently. When it reached 4,000 feet, the top of the
balloon burst! If fell to earth like a rock. The crowd of
80,000 gasped in horror as the balloon started ripping up.
Thousands stood petrified and some turned away
fainting, as the balloon fell rapidly. Everyone knew the
men would be killed.
|The First Balloon National Championship
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Saturday, June 5, 1909
|The History of International Gas Balloon Races Leading Up to Indianapolis
|1909 National Championship Race Results
The winner was decided by who landed the furthest from
the starting point. However, an award was going to be
made to the balloon that stayed up the longest too. The
world record was held by the Helvetia (see above) which
stayed up for 73 hours during the Berlin race of 1908.
The pilots had an instrument to record their altitude, a
compass and a battery powered flashlight. The light not
only illuminated the instruments at night, but could serve as
a signal to the ground. They kept constant records,
estimating their speed direction as they tried to determine
their location. Their most important item that they carried
with them was their ballast because without it, they were at
the mercy of depressing air currents.
The baskets were only 4' square. The pilots, trying to save
weight, carefully chose the things they took with them. They
would take blankets and rain coats for the weather. They
carried a rifle and ammo in case they landed in the
wilderness. A life preserver was taken in case they landed
in water. They took medicines and stimulants, small cans of
soup, coffee and edibles and plenty of water.
The ballons were filled with natural gas which is very
382 Miles /
26 Hours 35 Minutes
Landed 6 miles south
of Ft. Payne AL
355.5 Miles /
35 Hours 10 Minutes
Landed 2.5 miles north
of Corinth, MS
325 Miles /
26 Hours 30 Minutes
265 Miles /
11 Hours 40 Minutes
230 Miles /
18 Hours 30 Minutes
2 Hours 45 Minutes
NAA historian Bill Robie describes the Gordon Bennett
long-distance balloon race of 1907 as "a watershed event
for American aeronautics in general and the Aero Club of
America in particular." Held in October, it brought out
something like 300,000 spectators, enough to persuade
U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to dispatch the
Army to help keep order. Leo Stevens was on hand to
supervise the filling of the nine competing balloons, three
of which were American entries. As the contest
progressed, it proved to be a long race, with each balloon
remaining aloft for over 24 hours. The winner was a
German pilot, Oscar Ebersloh, who landed some 873
miles from St. Louis.
|Indianapolis Race Results
CARL FISHER'S BALLOON STORY
Carl G. Fisher called from Tennessee: "Yes, we are safe and
sound, thanks to the poor marksmanship of a number of
"They began firing on us when we were in Brown County, IN,
and have kept up the target practice ever since - right up to 6
o'clock Monday evening, when we stepped out of the basket.
"It has been a regular fusillade down here in Tennessee.
"We decided to land Monday night on a farm about seven
miles from Tennessee City, but it was almost worth our lives.
We began to hello, and the farmer, Frank Burgess, in
whose oats field we descended, began to run. He soon
emerged from his house with a rifle, but by this time we were
close enough to earth for him to know we were human beings.
"Convinced of this fact, he took our rope and gave us every
assistance possible, proved a good host and assisted us
with getting out of the country.
"And such a country. Hills! Hills! But we are out and the first
train for Indianapolis 7 o'clock Wednesday morning will carry
Fisher said he saw in the papers that Leo Stevens intimated
some of the balloons he made were tampered with at the
Speedway. Fisher denied it and spoke of the people he
called to get the balloons and inspect them.
Fisher also talked about how they came down for water in
Shackle Island and took on 5 gallons with the aid of others
who held the ropes and got them the water. They also
stopped in Ashland City, once again not getting out of the
basket nor the basket touching the ground. So he think there
stops were not landings. He also noted that Ashland City
was further from Indianapolis than Tennessee City where they
He talked also about a scary situation, "We shot up 14,000
feet and over with such rapidity that I expected the gas to
explode any minute. Ordinarily we would have to throw out
about forty pounds of ballast. The gas congealed, and it
came out of the bag like white smoke. Then we would spin
around and around. It was some spinning, and I thought our
time had come. When we weren't spinning or cutting some
other caper, we would shoot down, but as rapidly we would
"Our teeth were chattering and we almost froze to death,
although we put on our overcoats and everything around us we
had in the balloon in an effort to keep warm This continued
practically all night."
June 8 - John Berry said he expected the prize as he
believed he went further than the balloon "New York", driven
by A. Holland Forbes, and eliminating the "Indiana", driven
by Carl Fisher, which he maintains is disqualified.
Berry, who piloted the balloon "University City", tonight
stated that he had won the distance record in the
Indianapolis balloon races by covering a distance 375
miles in clean, straight ballooning.
Berry and P.J. McCullough, his aid, landed on Freestone
Mountain, one of the Lookout Mountain range,
in Alabama, at 7 o'clock Sunday night, after being in the
air a total of 26 hours 35 minutes.
The "New York" is said to have alighted in the same
general circle as the "University City", but probably a few
miles nearer the starting point than the "St. Louis" balloon.
Berry said, "If we had landed two hours sooner than we did
we would have been fifty miles farther south. We were being
driven rapidly north. But I refrained from landing in the hope
that the wind would turn favorably. When I saw that there was
no chance in the wind I decided to land and release my gas.
I could have stayed up many hours longer, but I believe that
we would eventually have been driven back in the vicinity of
The first race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was not
a automobile or motorcycle race, but rather a balloon race.
of St. Louis, the
aeronaut who would
pilot the "St. Louis".
|Cortland F. Bishop of New York
A. Holland Forbes of New York was
internationally known as a balloonist. In October,
1909, accompanied by Max C. Fleischmann of
Cincinnati, he won the Lahm Cup offered by the
Aero Club of America for the longest flight made
in the United States during the year. The balloon,
The "New York", covered 731 miles in 19 1/4
On at least two occasions Mr Forbes had narrow
escapes from balloons. (See above.)
Vice-president of the Aero Club of America, He
was head of the contest committee in charge of
St. Louis III
110,000 cu ft
A small army of workmen were at the speedway rushing
to get it in shape for the spectators. Stands to hold 6,000
people were erected. The speedway itself was something
for the spectators to enjoy seeing as it had been completed
enough for the visitors to see what it would like when
completed - the finest automobile speed course in the world.
The balloons were of various sizes and colors - from Dark
brown, pure white and different shades of brown and yellow
that help identify the balloons. They were also festooned
with large flags and pennants.
The gas poured into them over night and guards watched
over the balloons
The gates opened at 12:30 p.m. and the Big Four trains was
run to the course every 20 minutes.
Every aero club in the country sent delegations and all the
leading aeronauts of the country attended.
The pilots hoped for a north-east wind. Major H.B. Hersey,
the U.S. weather expert from Washington and the local
official W.T. Blythe, spent all day on Friday studying the
weather indications and then received reports till late in the
night from Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo. They
announced the winds would take the balloons east. Hersey
said, "The wind is the motor for this kind of a balloon and as
in the case of an automobile the driver should know all about
this motor power."
Like today's weathermen, they were wrong, and the balloons
would all sail south.
June 1 - A. Holland Forbes, acting president of the
Aero Club of American, would pilot the balloon "New
York". He was perhaps the best known aeronaut in the
world. He received international attention In the 1907
International balloon races in Berlin when he and his
aid had a miraculous escape from death.
Forbes was predicted to win as he had a special
balloon material thought to give him a big advantage
over all the others.
After arriving in Indy this night, Forbes visited the
speedway and witnessed two night ascensions by Carl
Fisher and C.A. Coey.
The next night Fisher would go up again and stay up
past midnight, satisfying one of the conditions on
earning a license.
Capt. Clifford B. Harmon
Aug 14, 1908 - Captain Lovelace of the NY Aero Club
had been giving balloon demonstrations in London.
The balloon was being filled and a great crowd had
gathered to watch the work. When the balloon was nearly
full, a bystander lighted a match, in violation of warning
posted near the balloon.
Instantly there was a huge explosion that rocked the ground
and blew out hundreds of windows. A fireball engulfed
scores who were standing near the balloon. The crowd
panicked and many were hurt in the scramble for the gates.
Miss Blanche Hill, 18, secretary for Captain Lovelace, was
burned to a cinder. Another man employed by Captain
Lovelace was also killed.
A week prior, Captain Lovelace had climbed up the rope
covering to adjust a tangled rope. He fell through a rent in
the bag and was nearly dead from asphyxiation when taken
New York, 10-15-1908 - Stricken by meningitis induced by
excessive motoering, Cortland Field Bishop, president of
the Aero Club of America, was declared to be dying in a
sanatorium at Aux Les Baine. He had been in Europe
attending the various flights recently made.
Pilot A. Holland Forbes quickly cut the ropes holding 39
bags of sand while his aid Augustus C. Post, began
throwing everything out of the basket. After 2000 feet, the
remainder of the envelope was transformed into a sort of
parachute at the top of the net and the descent of the
balloon slowed greatly. They crashed through the roof of
a house, terrifying the man inside. The two men narrowly
escaped death and had only minor injuries.
Later in the race, the balloon Montanes also burst at a
high altitude and the crew miraculously survived.
The balloon "America II" was decorated with the stars
and stripes. It was piloted by James C. McCoy,
accompanied by Lieut. Voghmann.
By day three there were missing balloons. Six came
down in the South Sea and were found and rescued.
The missing Spanish balloon Castilla dropped into the
ocean six miles out the morning of Oct 14th and was
rescued by a fishing boat. Fourteen German torpedo-
boats and twent fishing smacks were sent in search in
the North Sea. Previously the balloon St. Louis was
rescued from the Black Sea. The pilot of the German
Busley balloon thought he could make it across the North
Sea. One hundred miles later the wind started to push
them north toward the artic and they thought they were
doomed. They threw off everything to lighten the balloon,
even their clothes, but knew they were not going to reach
the English Channel. When they spotted a steamship, they
signalled them with lights and descended. The wind blew
them and the balloon far from the ship, but it sent out a
rescue boat that eventually caught them atter 90 minutes.
They were wet and cold. The Swiss Helvetia eventually
came down in the sea near Norway and were rescued by
a fishing boat right before they sank. They estimated
they'd gone 775 miles. One balloon was never found, the
pilots lost to the sea.
The race was finally decided and the winner was the
English balloon Banshee which landed on the coast of
Denmark, piloted by John Dunville.
The English won the cup race, but the 1909 International
Race was held in Zurich Switzerland, since starting the
race in England might be a repeat of the balloons landing
in the ocean. It was won by the America II balloon, which
landed north of Warsaw Poland. It rained at the start and
almost continuously until the finish, making it impossible to
|1908 International Race in Berlin Germany
|Zurich International Race Medal
26 hours 35 minutes
26 hours 30 minutes
35 hours 12 minutes
11 hours 40 minutes
18 hours 30 minutes
2 hours 45 minutes
St Louis III
Ever since an American won the first international balloon
race, ballooning was becoming more popular in the United
States, growing exponentially each year.
While popular on the coast, the long distance races needed
to be started from the heartland to avoid pilots getting lost at
sea. St. Louis had been chosen to host the International race
whenever America was the host country. The American
Aero Club wished to begin holding a national contest to help
prepare and choose entrants for the international race.
Carl Fisher was a wealthy business man in Indianapolis
who owned the Fisher Automobile Co. Like many rich men
interested in automobiles, he also became interested in
In October of 1908, he arranged for G.L. Bumbaugh to bring
his 40,000 cubic foot balloon, the "Columbia" to Indy. It was
filled at the Indianapolis Gas Company. Fisher also
arranged to have four fast cars on hand which would race the
balloon. A crowd gathered to watch the start. The drivers
hoped to prove that transportation by car could be as fast as
that of the balloon. Fisher, meanwhile, was going up in the
balloon for a lesson in aeronautics. This was his third flight.
His enthusiasm for the sport led him to purchase a new
balloon, the same size as the "Columbia", from Bumbaugh's
Fisher was also one of the founders of the Indianapolis Motor
Speedway, which was preparing to open in 1909. This led
to Indianapolis being selected as the host city for the new
annual National Balloon Championship.
|The "University City" Balloon
Won the Race
DISTANCE / TIME
Charles J. Glidden of Boston was the
official time keeper. He represnted the
Aero Club of New England, was an
international pilot and had made 28
The balloons were not released at the
same time, but in 5-minute increments, to
prevent them from colliding in mid-air.
C.A. Coey's balloon - "Chicago"
was the largest balloon in the world
with a capacity of 110,000 cubic
feet, standing as tall as an 8-story
building. He was competing in the
handicap race because his balloon
was too big to fit the rules for the
In this photo, men are attaching the "Chicago" balloon
to the basket. In the background is the "Cleveland"