Hot air ballooning’s international Gordon Bennett Cup returns to Poland after 85 years
For the first time in 85-years, a fleet of hot-air balloons will fill Polish skies as part of the international Gordon Bennett Cup.
Founded in 1906 by the American newspaper tycoon Gordon Bennett Jr., the competition is regarded as the oldest and most prestigious hot-air balloon event in the world and will take place this year in Toruń.
First held in Paris, and watched by over 200,000 spectators, the competition has stuck by the same set of rules since its inception – the balloon that flies the furthest from the start point, wins.
In this edition, fifteen teams will compete with France, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Poland and the United States all represented.
Set to be paraded around the Old Town tonight, the teams will then launch at intervals from the city’s airport on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Allowed to fly in whichever direction they wish, the only constraints facing the competitors will be a ban on landing in water and from entering aerospace belonging to certain countries - in 1995, the ballooning community was left reeling when two American pilots were killed after being shot down by an attack helicopter after straying into Belarussian airspace.
According to the organizers, “physical resistance, mental strength, strong morale and an incredible knowledge of the winds and weather” are the key to lifting the cup.
The current holders, Laurent Sciboz and Nicolas Tieche from Switzerland, claimed the trophy after covering 1,774 kilometres. However, their efforts pale when compared to the record – set in 2005 – of 3,400 kilometres.
Originally scheduled to take place in Wroclaw last year, the event was postponed due to the pandemic and moved this year to Toruń instead – a fitting choice given that Poland’s 1st Balloon Battalion was headquartered here during the inter-war years.
Accompanied by a 40-strong balloon fiesta, for Poles it has been a long-awaited event – hosting it previously in 1934, 1935 and 1936, Poland had been slated to hold the competition in 1939. Cancelled due to the outbreak of war, they were next handed the honour of hosting in 1983 but again had to cede it, this time due to Martial Law.
Having won the competition six times before, Poland’s most recent triumph was recorded in 2018. On that occasion, Mateusz Rękas and Jacek Bogdański decided to hover for a full day above their take-off spot and wait until the wind changed in their favour. When finally it did, the duo covered a winning distance of 1,145 kilometres.
Held for the 64th time, the competition is steeped in history. Founded at a time when hot-air balloons captivated the world, the tournament was the brainchild of Gordon Bennett Jr., a playboy newspaper publisher who was rarely out of the headlines.
Synonymous with scandal, Bennett spent much of his life living on a 300-foot yacht moored in the Mediterranean having been pressured to leave America after turning up blind drunk to his fiancee’s father’s New Year’s Eve party.
Mistaking the fireplace for the toilet, Bennett proceeded to urinate into it in front of horrified onlookers. In fact, so outrageous was his behaviour that his name was later adopted by the British as an expression of shock.
Credited also with introducing polo to the United States, as well as funding Henry Morton Stanley’s trip to Africa to find David Livingstone and organizing the world’s first major automobile race, such was his global reach that today curiosity seekers will even be able to find a street named after him in Warsaw: ulica Jamesa Gordona Bennetta.
Reflecting Bennett’s passions, this weekend’s balloon race will also feature a vintage car rally and, even, a replica of the balloon flown by the Montgolfier brothers.
As for the competitors themselves, it’s anticipated they will be airborne for three days and nights in their open caskets.
Guided by ground crews of strategists and meteorologists, the teams will then reconvene in Toruń on either the 27th or 29th (depending on how the race pans out) for the prize-giving and closing ceremony.