A Brief History of Hot Air Ballooning

When you go ballooning, you are experiencing man’s first ever successful method of flight!

As balloonists, we love to impart our knowledge on hot air balloons – man’s earliest attempt at flight.

All else superseded: airships, gliders, aeroplanes, helicopters, and even space travel.

Much similar to space travel, the earliest balloon passengers were not human, but were three animals – a sheep, a duck and a rooster! Many years later during the infamous space race, the Russians and Americans used comparable strategies. They sent dogs and chimpanzees into space to test the survival possibilities for humans. Some things never change, it would seem!

The notorious sheep, duck and rooster seemingly survived their experiences on the 19th of September 1783. This iconic moment declared flight safe for human life. It’s hard to imagine the reaction of locals as the balloon descended from the sky, landed safely and three farmyard animals casually jumped out!

Having proven his theory, the designer of the first balloon, Pilatre de Rozier, began the process of building a man-carrying version. He approached two paper-makers, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier to aid him. The brothers were the ideal craftsmen for the project as the earliest balloons were made of paper.

Following the completed construction of the balloon the stage was set – on the 21st of November 1783 the very first manned flight took place in Paris, France. The two pilots were Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes. The two daring men flew for around 20 minutes, covering 5 miles. They landed safely and received medals for their valiant efforts.

And brave they were! Note that this balloon was made of a material not dissimilar to paper, whilst the air inside was heated by an open fire burning straw. It does not seem like a sensible combination! Burning hot embers were rising up into the balloon and scorching the paper envelope as it climbed across Paris, threatening to set light to the whole aircraft. After calculating the risk involved the two pilots extinguished the open flame, sending the balloon into descent. Eventually they landed on the outskirts of Paris in between two windmills.

You will be pleased to note that technology has come a long way since. Nowadays our balloons are remarkably safe and efficient. The envelopes are made of lightweight nylon fabrics, accompanied by powerful and responsive propane burners, and sophisticated baskets. Such designs give pilots the ability to control their height with incredible accuracy. We have come a long way since the original Montgolfier Aerostat.

However, some things will never change! We still can not steer at all! The balloon’s direction and speed are dictated by the wind. Therefore, every flight is a new adventure for the pilot and ground crew. It is certainly not a routine experience, and landing in the same place twice is particularly unusual!

Below is a timeline of notable events in the history of ballooning:

  • 1783 Nov – Man’s first taste of flight ever. Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis de Arlandes launch from Paris, landing 5 miles away. Both men survive the experience.
  • 1783 Dec – First flight by a gas balloon, which is much different to a hot air balloon. The gas balloon was a sealed bag pumped full of hydrogen (which is lighter than air). The last thing they needed was any heat!
  • 1785 – Pilatre de Rozier and Pierre Romain become the first casualties of air travel during their Channel crossing attempt. They only made it as far as Pas de Calais on the French coast before crashing.
  • 1804 – Joseph Gay-Lussac ascends to a record breaking 20,000ft in a gas balloon. Gas balloons become much more popular than hot air balloons as they can stay aloft for many hours or even days at a time.
  • 1861-65 – Gas balloons are used in the American Civil War in order to observe the movement of troops and guide artillery fire, a gloomy foreshadowing of the barrage balloons to be used above the trenches during the Great War.
  • 1870 – Around 100 civilians and 2 million items of mail escape from Paris during the Prussian siege of the city in gas balloons. The flights were often in dangerous conditions at night and covered remarkable distances in search of safe ground.
  • 1931 – August Piccard smashed the altitude record for a gas balloon, reaching heights of 52,000ft. Auguste flew inside a pressurised capsule rather than a basket. This allowed him to undertake various scientific experiments – similar to the International Space Station nowadays.
  • 1960 – Ed Yost, an American, flies with a nylon balloon and propane burners. This marks the birth of the modern hot air balloon.
  • 1978 – Double Eagle II, a balloon filled with helium, successfully crosses the Atlantic in 137 hours. The first ever balloon to undertake such a task. Helium was chosen over hydrogen for its non-flammable properties.
  • 1987 – Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson fly a hot air balloon across the Atlantic in a mere 33 hours. However, they eventually crash back down to earth in the Irish Sea requiring rescue from the Royal Navy.
  • 1999 – Bertrand Piccard (descendant of Auguste) and Brian Jones successfully circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon without landing. The first ever aircraft to complete such a feat! They accomplished the task in around 22 days. The balloon was a combination of helium and hot air cells.