Don Felix(1) won his chance to participate in the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon-Bennett hot-air balloon competition(2) during the war in Africa. That was his reward for preventing a Spanish army reconnaissance balloon from falling onto the enemy grounds. On September 23th 1923, he and Captain Penaranda were at Solbosch, close to Brussels. Everything was ready for the next edition of this prestigious competition.
La Coupe Aéronautique Gordon-Bennett is the most important ballooning competition in the world. It was first celebrated in 1906.
That day the weather was awful. It had been raining all week. The strong wind generated by a looming storm was menacing the unfolding of the race. They stood by “Polar”, a magnificent hot-air balloon of 294 kilograms and with an envelope volume of 1,220 m3.
At the starting line, 15 hot-air balloons from six different countries were ready: France, USA, England, Switzerland, Belgium and Spain. The Italian and the Polish teams had renounced to take part in the race at the last minute due to the weather conditions. There had already been two accidents even before the start of the competition. The pulling generated by the wind ripped off the envelope of an American balloon. Another American balloon wrecked the basket of the Belgian team.
At 4:00 AM, in the middle of a terrible storm, the race finally began. “Polar” took off under a heavy fall of hail and gusty winds. Barely 30 km after taking off, the weather worsened. The Spanish balloonists decided to find a landing place. Not far from the town Hayst-op-den-Berg, they began the standard descending procedures. Only 100 meters above the ground, a farmer grabbed the brake rope to help them to stop, but a strong gust of wind forced him to let go.
All of a sudden, the balloon climbed up to 1,200 meters. Don Felix kept his hands in his pockets. He wanted to make sure he wouldn’t touch the metal cables that tied the basket to the envelope. While they were in the middle of a cloud, a lightning struck the vessel. He turned around and saw his friend collapsing in the basket. He lay motionless with his eyes wide opened. They were at more than 1,000 meters above the ground and the envelope had caught fire. Within seconds, he decided to pull the vent line and let the air out. Right afterwards, miraculously, the empty envelope took the shape of a makeshift parachute and began falling, fast, out of control…
When they saw the hot-air balloon falling, the farmers of the nearby town ran towards it. They found the two brave Spaniards buried under the sandbags, the net, the envelope and other gear of the balloon. Don Felix cried in his broken French: “aidez mon ami, aidez-le” – Help my friend, help him -. Nothing could be done. Captain Penaranda was dead. He lay lifeless, his face covered with blood, on one side of the basket. Don Felix couldn’t move either. He had broken the femurs of both legs.
That day, besides the Spaniard, four more aeronauts died during the competition: two Americans flying the balloon “US Army” and two Swiss men with the “Geneve”. In both cases, lightning struck them and killed them. Furthermore, five pilots had been injured and two more had to be rescued on the high seas. For the Gordon-Bennett competition, that day was the most tragic day ever.
Fearless Don Felix survived his wounds and married soon afterwards. They had 4 sons and 3 daughters. One of them was my mother. Don Felix was my grandfather. We called him Papa-Felix.
(1) Historical facts obtained from the book “El General Félix Gómez-Guillamón. Ingeniero, Aerostero, Geógrafo, Científico y Escritor” written by Luis Utrilla Navarro.
(2) The Coupe Aéronautique Gordon-Bennett is the most important ballooning competition in the world. It was first celebrated in Paris in 1906, with an audience of 200,000 people.
(3) Video: Gordon Bennett Ballooning Cup 1923