Accessibility links

Breaking News

Widow Of Slain Balloonist Still Seeking Answers From Belarus

The balloon piloted by Alan Fraenckel and John Stuart-Jervis (left) moments before the start of the Gordon Bennett Cup balloon race in Switzerland in 1995.
Almost 14 years have passed since Belarusian soldiers aboard a helicopter gunship killed her husband. But Caroline Stuart-Jervis is still seeking answers, let alone an apology, regarding his death.

John Stuart-Jervis was slain while flying his gas balloon over Belarus during the 1995 Gordon Bennett Cup, the world's most prestigious balloon race, in a shooting incident that sparked one of the first diplomatic spats between Washington and Minsk.

Caroline Stuart-Jervis recalls that her husband and his co-pilot, Alan Fraenckel -- both U.S. citizens -- had been particularly excited about that year's race.

"They took off at night. There are pictures of them in which you can see a U.S. flag draped over the side and a sign saying they were part of the Gordon Bennett race," she says. "They were quite excited because it was the first time that they were able to fly over some of these newly formed countries. These countries had fallen away after the breakup [of the Soviet Union] and were all available to fly over."

'Shot Them Out Of The Air'

The British-born balloonist had made a career of airborne adventure, serving as a Royal Navy fighter pilot before moving on to commercial air shipping, parachuting, and work as a flight instructor.

Three days into the Gordon Bennett race -- which kicked off in Switzerland -- the pair had covered much of Eastern Europe and stood a good chance of winning the cup.

John Stuart-Jervis
Tragedy hit a few hours after crossing into Belarus.

"Apparently there was a military base there, which was not marked on any maps. Nobody had any idea it was there," Stuart-Jervis says. "What happened was that a helicopter came up, a military helicopter, and literally shot them out of the air."

The balloon crashed from more than 2,000 meters onto the forest floor, instantly killing 68-year-old Stuart-Jervis and 55-year-old Fraenckel.

But the reason behind the September 12, 1995, shooting remains a mystery.

Race organizers say the pilots had permission to fly over Belarusian airspace. The black box retrieved from the balloon, however, confirmed Minsk's claim that Stuart-Jervis and Fraenckel had failed to contact Belarusian air traffic controllers as required.

Caroline Stuart-Jervis believes the pilots were simply asleep at the time their balloon entered Belarus.

Decision Defended

Former Belarusian Air Force commander Valery Kastenka, the man who gave the order to shoot, defended his decision, saying the balloonists failed to respond to radio calls and warning shots, leading him to mistake the balloon for an unmanned spying device.

But according to Vasil Zdanyuk, a Belarusian journalist who interviewed Kastenka shortly after the incident, the deaths could easily have been avoided.

Caroline and John on their wedding day in 1959
"The race organizers notified [Belarusian] flight controllers. But flight controllers are civilians, and there was no communication at all with the armed forces," Zdanyuk says. "Nobody told the military that balloons were going to fly over the country. That's how the tragedy happened."

In the days following the tragedy, independent Belarusian newspapers printed lengthy reports that squarely pinned the blame on their country's army.

Crowds gathered at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk to pay tribute to the slain pilots, and a group of democratic activists in Byaroza, a city close to the crash site, began work to set up a stone monument bearing the inscription: "Forgive Us."

But media outlets controlled by the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka merely glossed over the pilots' deaths.

'Contradictory' Response

Lukashenka, then only one year into his first term as president, was erratic in his own response.

"At the time, the government's political course, including its foreign politics, was not yet fully shaped," says Valery Karbalevich, a political analyst based in Minsk. "Lukashenka’s reaction was very contradictory. At first, he said that it was a mistake, that Belarus didn't shoot the balloon down, that it was downed by mistake. Then he began saying the balloon had been on a reconnaissance flight to spy on our industrial and military installations."

The U.S. State Department was quick to take up the case, slamming Minsk's actions as "mockery."

But its efforts to seek redress for the deaths met mounting resistance from Minsk, as relations with Lukashenka -- whom Washington has since branded "Europe's last dictator" -- went from bad to worse.

Lukashenka’s reaction was very contradictory. At first, he said that it was... downed by mistake. Then he began saying the balloon had been on a reconnaissance flight to spy on our industrial and military installations.
Caroline Stuart-Jervis says that from early on, the State Department made it clear to her that chances of reparation were slim.

"As late as 2005, they said that they still had it on the docket, that they reminded the [Belarusian] government at every chance they got, but that the relations between the two countries were very bad," she says. "We didn't give them any aid; there was no carrot we could dangle in front of them."

Tensions between Washington and Minsk dipped to a new low last year with the U.S. ambassador's expulsion from Belarus.

And the State Department is engaged in a fresh dispute with Belarus over the continued detention of an American lawyer, Emanuel Zeltser, who was sentenced to three years in prison after a Belarusian court found him guilty of industrial espionage. Zeltser, who denies the charges, began a hunger strike earlier this month to prompt Belarusian authorities to review his case.

In recent months, however, Lukashenka has taken steps toward a reconciliation with the West, releasing political prisoners and loosening some media restrictions.

Reports of a possible diplomatic rapprochement between the United States and Belarus have given Caroline Stuart-Jervis fresh hope.

She has carefully collected every document related to her husband's death. And despite the odds, she never completely gave up hope of adding one last document to her thick folder -- a letter of apology from President Lukashenka.

RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report

See comments (1)

This forum has been closed.