FORT KENT, Maine — When it comes to international competition, it’s hard to beat the Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett in simplicity of rules.

The basic — and only — winning goal in the gas-powered balloon race is to fly farthest from the launch site.

Starting Saturday night in Geneva, Switzerland, a Presque Isle native will attempt to do just that.

“The historic aspect of this race is enough alone for me to want to participate,” Samuel Canders, who now lives in Rhode Island, said in an e-mail from Germany. “If you love aviation, why not participate in the oldest aviation race in the world?”

The Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett was created in 1906 by James Gordon Bennett, an American media tycoon and adventurer who wanted to stimulate technical development in aeronautics.

The first race included 16 balloons that took off from the center of Paris and was won by two Americans, Lt. Frank Lahm of the United States Army and Henry Hersey.

This year 16 teams are competing, with three from the United States. Canders and teammate Andy Clayton, flying with a rented German balloon, are Team USA 3 and will launch in 15th position.

“This gives us an advantage as we will be able to see the wind effects on the previous balloons,” Canders said.

By early Saturday afternoon EST, everything was running according to plan.

“Everybody has their balloon up and we are waiting for the launch time,” Canders said. “The first balloon should be off by 6 p.m. and all the others will follow in about five-minute intervals.”

Participants must qualify to enter the race, with the Balloon Federation of America, Gas Division, having the final say on who represents the U,S.

“Every year there is a national race called the America’s Challenge [and] the top three pilots are usually the ones that go to represent the U.S,” Canders said. “The pilot is then allowed to nominate the other pilot and they can fly as long as they are rated, [and] Andy Cayton selected me to fly with him.”

Canders has been flying since 1993, when he took lessons with Bill’s Flying Service in Presque Isle.

After graduating from Washburn High School in 1995, he attended Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona and earned a degree in aeronautical science.

Canders learned to fly helicopters in the Army and currently flies C-130s with the Air National Guard in Rhode Island.

“Balloons came about as a college bet with a classmate,” Canders said. “I jumped out of a hot air balloon in college — I was a skydiver then — and ended up betting him I would fly [a balloon] across the country before I turned 30.”

Two months before his 30th birthday Canders made the attempt with Cayton in an expedition that was dubbed “The Savanna Six” and flew for 63 hours from California to Nebraska.

For the Gordon Bennett, Canders and Cayton hope to spend at least 90 hours aloft in their quest for the record.

“The basket we will both be in is about three feet by four feet, with a small bench,” Canders said. “Everything we need to survive will be in this small basket [and] there is a panel that will fold down outside the basket that allows you to lay down on the bench and have your feet stick outside of the basket.”

Canders and Cayton will take turns flying and sleeping.

“The record duration aloft for this race is 90 hours,” Canders said. “Andy and I will do our best to stay up as long as we can to get the greatest distance to win the race.”

As for the one question often wondered but seldom asked?

“Ah, the bathroom question,” Canders said. “No, there is not one. Use a bucket and your imagination and don’t be looking up when we fly over.”

Beyond the race, for Canders the Coupe has a very important component.

“I really would like to emphasize the charitable giving aspect of this project,” Canders said. “Please take time to consider making a contribution to The Children’s Miracle Network [and] the money raised during this flight will be used to fund hospital projects in Maine.”

Donations may be made through the Web site, and anyone donating is eligible to win items donated from the race flight.

“Balloons are simply amazing,” Canders said. “Big, floating objects that are able to carry pilots and passengers with the wind instead of through the wind — this is the simplest and purist form of flight.”

Canders’ race progress can be followed at

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.