History of the Grandstand: The Centennial Balloon Race

The Grandstand has been the host to a wide range of events in the City of Yorkton. One of the unique ones took place in 1967, as Yorkton hosted the Centennial Balloon race. The July 19, 1967 edition of the Yorkton Enterprise reported on the early stages of the balloon race, which commenced at 11:45 a.m. with the balloons filled with helium and taking off in a north-easterly direction. The race is determined by distance travelled. The winner was Ernest Krauer of Switzerland, who travelled 18 miles and landed near Saltcoats. Albert van den Bemden of Belgium landed 11.5 miles from the starting point. Mrs. Nini Boesman of Holland travelled 10.5 miles, and Fred Dolder in the Canadian balloon travelled a total of 9.5 miles.
The next week, Dick DeRyk suggested that ballooning might be the next big thing, and what follows is his column on the event.

Yorkton, and in fact Canada, was introduced to the sport of ballooning last week. We had ample opportunity and took advantage of it to talk to the European pilots involved, and learned much about ballooning, as well as hearing stories of their experiences.
Belgian pilot Albert van den Bemden, who finished second in the Yorkton race, comes from a noted family of balloon pilots and balloon builders.

He was one of three sons, who together with their father, made up the largest ballooning family in the world. His father, during his life time, made a total of 67 balloons. Albert is a salesman for a rubber company, and also owns a balloon-building business.
It takes about seven weeks to build a balloon, and it is all done by hand. He builds the entire balloon, even to the rope netting and rings that hold it together. The actual balloon part is made of rubber or a synthetic.

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The rubber is cut in narrow pointed ovals to give the balloon a rounded shape and then joined together. Although most are round, Albert’s “personal” balloon, as he calls it, is almost pear shaped.

Balloons are inflated with a gas, in Canada helium was used. Helium is not available in Europe, so they use hydrogen, which is much more dangerous because of the explosive quality.

Albert’s personal preference is hydrogen, he says, because it is lighter and escapes faster when the pilot wants to descend.

The balloons are weighted with bags of sand. When they take off, some of this sand is thrown overboard to lighten the load, and this continues until the pilot finds a suitable wind current which he thinks will take him the greatest distance, or in the direction he wants to travel. Direction is entirely dependent on the wind, the pilots have no means of controlling it.

To lower the balloon, a valve is opened which lets some of the gas escape. When the time comes to land, they let enough gas escape to get down to ground level, then pull a cord which opens a large panel on the side of the balloon and lets all the gas escape, collapsing the balloon.

When the racing is over, work has to be done to mend the rip panel. Albert and his son Pierre, also a balloon builder, perform this task. First the seams are taped, then sewn with a special stitch for added security.

And when the time comes to move on, the huge balloons which tower over 70 feet when inflated are folded into a neat package only a yard square.

In the Yorkton races, a number of guests went up, including Wilf Gardiner, minister in charge of centennial events, Allan Bailey, alderman of the city of Yorkton, and radio newsman Garry Mack and Murray Mehling.

It was a unique experience for them, but one they seemed to enjoy immensely. According to Murray Mehling, you feel entirely free when up there. You don’t feel the wind because you are moving with it, and the only way you can tell you are actually moving is by watching the balloon’s shadow on the ground.

Oddly enough, all the sounds made on the grounds, such as cars and turkeys at a farm, are clearly heard high in the air. They were also properly initiated as balloonists. This, according to tradition, was done in the air by pouring champagne over their heads.

Much work went into deciding the winner of the Yorkton race. Each of the pilots carried a map which they marked their route as they went along. Then, as they landed, their point of touchdown had to be confirmed with the farmer in whose field they landed. The maps then went back to headquarters and the exact distances were computed.

Dutch navigator John Boesman recalled an incident Wednesday night of  a landing he made. He had been flying for a day and a night, and at midnight in a lashing storm, had to come down in Germany. He landed in what appeared to be a botanical garden, and was proceeding to pack up his balloon when two men came running to him.

They informed him that he had to come immediately and see the man in charge. He was lead to an office, where a man informed him that all this fuss was made because he had landed in the garden of a lunatic asylum.

His hosts offered to put him up for the night, which John gracefully accepted.

The next morning, early, he went out to finish packing his balloon, but was met by a guard at the gate.

The guard inquired who he was, and he gave his name. He was then asked if he was new in the institute, because the guard said he did not recall seeing him before.

John stated that he was indeed new, he had landed the previous night in a balloon. To which the guard knowingly nodded his head and said, “I expected that answer. You better go back inside.”

Albert also recounted a story of a landing. On this occasion, he was hovering over a field, and was soon approached by a farmer. He shouted down, “Where am I?” to which the man replied “There, in the basket.”

Those who associated with the visiting balloonist found them charming, friendly and interesting people. They had a wealth of stories and facts, and were always most willing to share them. Their enthusiasm was seemingly boundless.

They, and their sponsors, are to be thanked for introducing Canada to this sport. Many who saw the race expressed the wish to go up in a balloon, and, who knows, this may have started something.

© Copyright Yorkton This Week

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