Fisher's Firsthand Account - 1909 Balloon Race

This article is nothing short of fantastic. Written by Indianapolis Motor Speedway Founder and President Carl Fisher, it is a lengthy feature printed in the Indianapolis Star Father's Day Sunday edition on June 20, 1909. Fisher provides a first-hand account of his participation in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's first competition of any kind, the June 5 national balloon championship. His ride with his ballooning mentor, Captain George L. Bumbaugh, was purely harrowing. Twice their balloon Indiana was sucked into a swirling vortex of violently unstable air, soaring as much as 14,000 feet into frigid atmospheric heights which dangerously congealed the gas that floated their airship. This is a compelling piece that provides excellent insights.
Fisher had first shared some of the details in this article during a long-distance telephone report he filed with the Indianapolis Star on June 9. Initially their ascent was pleasant and somewhat uneventful. They could see the New York of A. Holland Forbes some distance ahead of them as he had started earlier. Fisher describes the Speedway from the vantage point of hundreds of feet and rising. He noted the grand vista of the track and the people and automobiles scurrying to follow them - but falling away in the distance, slowed by winding roads and each other. Forbes was rising to 7,000 feet but Fisher and Bumbaugh caught a good wind current at 3,000 feet and remained there.
Up until 6:30 all the competitors in the national race were in sight of one another. Fisher and Bumbaugh slowly rose to 8,000 feet in an effort to stay ahead of University City which had started later but was catching them. They ate what Fisher said would be their only undisturbed meal together and as night fell they enjoyed a pleasant stillness in the dark having time to absorb the wonder of nature and a unique perspective so few people even today have experienced. This pleasantry was interrupted when passing over the hills of Brown County at 10 PM an angry farmer feeling threatened by the large orb in the sky he did not recognize opened fire with his rifle. This continued in serial fashion as they drifted out of the range of one farmer another one would commence shooting. Around 1 AM they spotted Forbes again.
Fisher discusses the use of sand in managing ballast to ensure a stable altitude - especially as the sun rises heating the gas in the balloon and enhancing its lifting power. This responsibility did not deter him from stealing a few moments to marvel at the first strands of sunlight piercing the blackness over the horizon. The light outlined the edges of clouds producing a sensation in Fisher he said was worth risking his life to witness. About this time they spotted the Hoosier of pilot Captain Thoma Baldwin but had lost sight of all the other balloons. By 6 AM they were crossing the Ohio River and there made what Fisher deemed their first mistake. Seeking a northwest current they scattered bits of paper overboard to detect the direction of winds. They found the current they were looking for and descended to hitch a ride. It was a relatively fast stream of air but died out after about 40 miles leaving them in frustrating stillness.
Descending to 6,000 feet they picked up a new current - but one that forced them to backtrack, effectively going in reverse and losing distance credit for the race. After finding a better situation 2,000 feet higher they continued on until about noon on Sunday when they found they were back to the spot when they sought the northwest current. It was a waste of six hours.
That afternoon they discovered their water cans had previously been used to store oil. Fisher estimates that in the blazing sun above the clouds the temperature for much of the day had soared to 110 degrees. The fleecy clouds below them had only served to reflect the light back into their balloon and intensify the heat. Desperate for hydration they descended when they spied the tiny community of Schackle Island. They hovered above the ground extending buckets with ropes to helpful strangers who filled them with water.  Hoisting the containers back to their basket they then ascended to 600 feet where only to begin their terrifying ordeal. This stop and another one later created controversy over whether or not the Indiana should be disqualified.
It was at this point the two men encountered meteorological conditions that even the more experienced Bumbaugh, with over 300 ascensions, had never endured before. Fisher described "air eddies" that sucked them upward in a straight line at a rate he estimated as 800 feet per minute. Fisher, observing Bumbaugh, could see he was worried and pleaded with him to tell him what was wrong. Bumbaugh confessed he had never confronted such a challenge. The men stared at their instruments and could only adjust the gas volume in an attempt to abate the climb. Shivering they clamored for their coats. Finally, at 14,000 feet they began to descend - but only slowly. After getting close enough to the surface to see and recognize homes and rooftops they began to calm their nerves. Their peace was short lived as the Indiana began to spin and launch into another sharp ascent directly upward at speed. This time they only climbed to 9,000 feet before they began another slow descent. Using their 450-foot drag rope to drop into treetops they drifted at a low altitude for some time to hopefully pass beyond the turbulent conditions.
By the next morning, they needed more water and decided they should land. Passing over what Fisher called a "colored plantation" they shouted to some workers who reluctantly agreed to pull them down with the drag rope. This landing Fisher reports was in Island City, Tennessee, but earlier reports called it Ashland, Tennessee. Despite the fact that Fisher admits he crawled out of the Indiana's basket to curl up under a tree and smoke a cigar at a safe distance from the balloon. Fisher and Bumbaugh decided to ascend yet again continuing on until just before nightfall. They landed in a mountainous area near Tennessee City on a farm owned by a Mr. Burgess. Burgess and some neighbors helped pull the balloon under control and to the ground.

FisherReport062009.pdf4.44 MB