As the oldest successful form of human-carrying flight technology, the ingenious application of basic scientific principles for hot air balloons have transcended from the centuries-old creations to use for recreation and sport today. Festivals and competitions have spawned a wide array of contraptions from inventive forms of advertising to some of the most bizarre and crazy designs in the form of hot dogs, funky animals, weird monsters, ‘fearsome’ dragons, and even space shuttles.
The first clearly recorded instance of balloon passengers were not humans, but a sheep, a duck and a chicken on an 8-minute flight over France on September 19 1783, in the Montgolfier brothers’ first demonstration flight for King Louis XVI, proving that humans would be able to breathe at these higher elevations.
The 2 Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Etienne, first began experimenting with paper vessels elevated by heated air, and after a couple years of experimentation they developed a hot air balloon similar in design to the ones used today, but with one major difference — they were powered by burning straw, manure and other material in an attached fire pit instead of propane. After experimenting with unmanned balloons and flights with animals, the first tethered balloon flight with humans on board was on October 19, 1783 with scientist Jean-François Pilatre de Rozier, the manufacture manager, Jean-Baptiste Réveillon and Giroud de Villette, at the Folie Titon in Paris.
The first manned free flight with human passengers was made by the physics professor Jean-François Pilatre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes, a major in the infantry, on November 21 1783, in Paris, France, in a hot air balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers. King Louis XVI had originally decreed that condemned criminals would be the first pilots, but de Rozier and Marquis Francois d’Arlandes successfully petitioned for the honor.
Modern hot air balloons with an onboard heat source were pioneered by Ed Yost in the early 1950’s with his first successful flight on October 22, 1960. He began designing and building hot air balloons for the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) which wanted the balloons for short-range transport of small loads. Refining the Montgolfier brothers’ concept, he designed the propane burner system, new envelope material, the modern light-bulb-style envelope shape we see today, a new inflation system, and many safety features. The ONR lost interest in hot air balloons in the early 1960’s, so Yost began selling his balloons as sporting equipment. Over the years, others have jumped the bandwagon, continually modifying the concept with new materials, safety features, creative envelope shapes, and even baskets that can hold up to 20 passengers.
The first modern day hot air balloon to be built in the UK was the Bristol Belle in 1967. Today there are some 7,500 hot air balloons operating in the U.S. Unmanned hot air balloons were popular in Chinese history. During the Three Kingdoms era from 220 to 280 AD, Zhuge Liang of the Shu Han kingdom used airborne lanterns — known as Kongming lanterns — for military signaling. There is also some speculation that hot air balloons could have been used by people of the Nazca culture of Peru some 1500 years ago as a tool for designing the famous Nazca ground figures and lines. The first documented balloon flight in Europe was by the Portuguese priest Bartolomeu de Gusmão. On August 8 1709, in Lisbon, Bartolomeu de Gusmao managed to lift a small balloon made of paper full of hot air about 13 feet (4 meters) in front of King John V and the Portuguese court.
Hot air balloons can fly to extremely high altitudes. Vijaypat Singhania set the world altitude record for highest hot air balloon flight, reaching 68,986 feet (21,027 meters) on November 26 2005. Setting out from downtown Bombay, India, he landed 149 miles (240 kilometers) south in Panchale. The previous record of 64,997 feet (19,811 meters) had been set by Per Lindstrand on June 6 1988 in Plano, Texas. As with all registered aircraft, oxygen is needed for all crew and passengers for any flight that reaches and exceeds an altitude of 12,500 feet (3,810 meters).
The Virgin Pacific Flyer balloon completed the longest flight in a hot air balloon on January 15 1991, when Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson flew 4,767 miles (7,671 kilometers) from Japan to Northern Canada. With a volume of 2.6 million cubic feet (74,000 cubic meters), the balloon envelope was the largest ever built for a hot air craft. Designed to fly in the trans-oceanic jet streams the Pacific Flyer recorded the highest ground speed for a manned balloon at 245 mph (394 km/h).
The longest duration hot air balloon flight ever made is 50 hours and 38 minutes by Michio Kanda and Hirosuke Tekezawa of Japan on January 2 1997. The largest manufacturer of hot air balloons in the world is Cameron Balloons of Bristol, England, who also own Lindstrand Balloons of Oswestry, England. Aerostar International Inc. of Sioux Falls, South Dakota was North America’s largest balloon manufacturer and a close second in world manufacturing before ceasing to build balloons in January 2007. Cameron Balloons, Lindstrand Balloons and another English balloon manufacturing company, Thunder and Colt (since acquired by Cameron), have been the main innovators and developers of special shaped balloons.
Balloon tours are a multi-million dollar business, and it’s even become fashionable for the uber-rich to build high-tech balloons for trips around the world. Balloon races and festivals are now popular international sports aviation events held annually in many places throughout the year, featuring hot air balloons of all shapes, sizes and colors, attracting hundreds of balloon pilots and thousands of spectators from around the world. Visit the Hot Air Balloon website to find one near you.