On April 29, 1926, nine hot air balloons took off from Little Rock’s airport (which was actually just an airfield at the time) in a national race to win the Litchfield Trophy. In addition to the trophy, the winner would be on the American team in an international balloon race in Belgium.
The New York Times coverage noted that the weather conditions were ideal as the balloons took off in five minute intervals between 5:00pm and 5:30pm. The test balloon (akin to a pace car in a car race) was the Arkansas Gazette‘s Skylark. It took off at 4:25 and headed in the direction of the northeast, which was the desired direction.
The nine balloons, in order of liftoff were: the US Army from Phillips Field in Maryland; the US Army from McCook Field in Ohio; the Goodyear Southern California; the Detroit; the Goodyear IV (whose pilot Ward T. Van Orman had won the 1924 and 1925 contests); US Army from Scott Field; a balloon piloted by a Danish pilot Svend A. U. Rasmussen; US Army balloon from Langley Field in Virginia; and the Akron National Aeronautic Association balloon.
The pilots carried provisions for 48 hours and were equipped for sea flying. Each had a radio and loud speaker. KTHS radio of Hot Springs (a forerunner to today’s KTHV TV station) was broadcasting the location of each balloon. As they left the Arkansas radio station’s range, there was a network of other stations which would do the same.
It was expected that the race would last between eighteen and thirty-six hours. The last balloon aloft was Van Orman for the third year. He lasted approximately 31 hours and landed near Chesapeake Bay.
Though no headcount was given, the New York Times called the viewing audience “the largest crowd ever assembled in Little Rock.”
Many thanks to Brian Lang of the Arkansas Arts Center for giving me the tip on this.