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Published December 12. 2011 11:25AM

Years before the airplane emerged during the first decade of the 20th century, ballooning had been the one way to conquer flight.

Before ice hockey teams in the U.S. and Canada began competing for the Stanley Cup, aeronauts were competing in a balloon race with the winner receiving the Bennett Trophy.

In 1911, a writer for the Tamaqua Courier noted how balloon races, despite their slow-motion-like movement, had become very competitive between America and Canada.

"Ballooning up to a few years ago was comparatively a mild and conservative sport," he stated. "Devotees used to say that there had been but three or four fatalities in the history of the pursuit and those from avoidable causes. Ballooning seemed more or less of a pink tea and society kind of affair."

When the weather was favorable, he explained how the aeronauts would take their wives or sweethearts up for a balloon ride.

He compared the ballooning experience at some of the larger, well-known cities of the world, such as Paris, with being "much like any swell country club, with everyone on dress parade."

Given the "deadly fascinations of the aeroplane and dirigible," however, he said interest in ballooning had declined.

"The commonplace 50-mile balloon flight on a pleasant day has ceased to attract much more interest than a weekend automobile trip," he said.

Events such as the race for the Bennett Trophy pumped new energy into ballooning, causing one writer to compare the airborne adventurers to the vikings of old.

"It becomes evident that modern ballooning has entered on new stages of adventure," he stated. "The heroes of these episodes, like the aviators, are the modern counterparts of the vikings of old, who sailed uncharted seas in their fragile 10th century craft.

H. Percy Shearman, president of the Williams College Aeronautical Society, was one of those modern adventurers. In September 1911, he made a 200-mile balloon flight, one of the longest in New England history.

His flights were well reported. After leaving Pittsfield, Mass., for Canada, Shearman's balloon ran into a "very cold air current" which was accompanied by a severe rainstorm which soon changed to hail.

"Feeling the effects of the exposure, Shearman several times tried to descend but was unable to deflate the bag," The New York Times reported. "His strength was nearly exhausted when he finally resorted to his knife."

Shearman climbed through the ropes and slashed the silken bag with his blade before falling back unconscious into the basket. Fortunately, the balloon dropped gently to the ground and Shearman lived to fly another day.

A year earlier, aviators Alan Hawley and Augustus Post became American heroes after their harrowing adventure in the Gordon Bennett International Balloon Race of 1910.

Before becoming interested in aeronautics, Hawley, a New Jersey native, was a pioneer in the fledgling automobile fraternity, becoming a founding member of the Automobile Club of America.

He learned to pilot a balloon in 1905 and 1906, earning Pilot's Certificate No. 7 in 1907.

Hawley and Augustus Post left the St. Louis Aero Club grounds on Oct. 17, 1910, in a rubber balloon filled with hydrogen gas.

On Oct. 19, a storm forced them to land in the middle of the wilderness in Quebec, Canada. They walked for three days before coming across and resting in a trapper's hut, which was not occupied at the time.

When the four French Canadian trappers returned, they led the two men back to civilization where they were able to send telegrams announcing that they had survived and were safe.

"As one reviews the history of the 1,170-mile journey made by Hawley and Post one year ago for the cup, it becomes evident that modern ballooning has entered new stages of adventure," the Courier stated in an opinion the following October.

In May 1916, Hawley became the first passenger to fly in an airplane from New York to Washington, D.C. He made the flight in a military plane and delivered petitions to Congress and President Wilson, urging the training of 2,000 aviators.

At that time the number of military aviators was limited to 60 by law, which was considered sufficient for the U.S. Army. As a result of Hawley's dramatic flight, however, President Wilson authorized the creation of the Aerial Reserve in 1916, which gave pilots time to organize and train for America's eventual entrance into World War I.

In the Great War, a number of American aviators, including Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, would distinguish themselves, flying their canvas and wood biplanes against the likes of Manfred von Richtofen, Germany's famous Red Baron, and his Flying Circus.

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