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November 15, 2017

An Unexpected Aerial Visitor

An Unexpected Aerial Visitor

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

In the early days of aviation, balloon racing was a popular sport.  Unlike today’s hot-air balloons, they were hydrogen filled, a practice that continued until the Hindenburg disaster in 1937.  They appeared often in central Indiana because Carl Fisher used these races as a way of promoting the new Indianapolis Motor Speedway that he helped to found.  In September of 1910, Hamilton County accidentally became involved.

September 17 was the national balloon championship race, the three leaders of which would qualify for the Gordon–Bennett international race at St. Louis.  The main balloons were members of the Aero Club of America, the official organizing body.  These were large balloons, with 78,000 to 80,000 cubic feet of gas.  The goal was simply to fly as far as possible before landing.  One newspaper had a sub-headline that said, “Pilots Hope for Breeze to Send Them Toward Old Mexico or Canada”.

Much of the public was interested in the “free-for-all”, a race for smaller balloons that were not members of the Aero Club.  The winner of this race was to get a diamond studded cup.  The smallest balloon in the free-for-all was the “Luzerne” flown by Dr. L. E. Custer of Dayton, Ohio, which had 24,000 cubic feet of hydrogen.  In all, thirteen balloons enter the two races.

The Indiana Historical Society has a photograph of the balloons lined up and ready to start here.  The “Luzerne” can be seen on the left, below the balloon labeled “Drifter”.  The “Luzerne” is only partially inflated with a few letters of its name visible.  A close look at the photo will show the pipelines bringing in hydrogen gas.  These may have been the ones installed by the Indianapolis Gas Company in 1909 for the first race.  Seeing people walking casually around large pipes filled with hydrogen gas is would be considered pretty frightening today.

The first balloon to launch was the “Drifter” at 3:58.  It was the only one of the four entries in the free-for-all that was not disqualified for missing its start time.  The first of the large balloons to launch was the “America II” which left at 4:56.  The “Luzerne” took off at 5:08 and was the fifth to leave the grounds.  It was too small for a full crew, so only Dr. Custer was aboard.  It sailed from the Speedway on a breeze headed northeast.  By the time the balloons reached Mallott Park (where 52nd Street crossed the Nickel Plate Railroad), the “Luzerne” was the highest.

The weatherman had said that there would be favorable conditions for the race – he was wrong.  Soon the weather changed and rain began falling.  Custer had been in a bad storm in May, when a balloon race had been part of the 500 mile auto race.  That time, as the balloon was being tossed around, Custer let out a rope to catch on something and stop.  However, what he managed to catch were telephone and electrical lines, which then knocked out power to half the city of Indianapolis.  Finally, he was able to crash to the ground unhurt.

This time, Custer didn’t want to fly when he couldn’t see the moon.  He slowly began to descend until he landed safely six and one half miles northeast of Noblesville.  Unfortunately the local papers are missing from that time, so we are unable to find out what the local reaction was.   One would think that large hydrogen balloons were not a common sight.

By the next day most of the other balloons had reached Lake Erie.  The race was covered by all of the major American newspapers, from Los Angeles to New York.  The “Drifter” was eventually declared the winner of the free-for-all.  The last of the large balloons landed in West Virginia on September 21.