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History of Ballooning

On November 21, 1783 the first free flight carrying a human occurred in Paris, France in a hot air balloon made of paper and silk made by the Montgolfier brothers. The balloon carried two men, Francois Pilatrê de Rozier and Francois Laurent, Marquis of Arlanders. They stood on a circular platform attached to the bottom of the balloon.  They hand-fed the fire through openings on either side of the balloon’s skirt.  The balloon reached an altitude of at least 500 feet and traveled about 5½ miles before landing safely 25 minutes later. Legend says when they landed in the farming and vineyard area near Paris the pilots gave bottles of champagne to the startled farmers and peasants to calm their fears of demons appearing from the heavens, but that cannot be confirmed. 

On December 1, 1783, just ten days after the first hot air balloon ride, the first gas balloon was launched by physicist Jacques Alexander Charles and Nicholas Louis Robert.  This flight too started in Paris, France.  The flight lasted 2½ hours and covered a distance of 25 miles.  The gas used in the balloon was hydrogen, a lighter than air gas that had been developed by an Englishman, Henry Cavendish in 1776, by using a combination of sulphuric acid and iron filings. 

Gas balloons soon became the preferred mode of air travel.  The balloon shown at left is the Royal Vauxhall Balloon typical of gas balloons which were flown in the 1830’s and 1840’s.  Unlike hot air balloons, gas balloons did not depend upon fire to get them aloft and stay up and therefore they were able to stay up longer and their altitude could be controlled somewhat easier with the use of ballasts. Gas balloons continued to be the primary mode of air travel until the invention of the fixed wing aircraft  by the Wright brothers in America in 1903. However, it was expensive to and time consuming to inflate a gas balloon so flying was not something just anyone could afford.  Hot air balloons, however, had no dependable heat source, so hot air ballooning was not very practical.

In these early days of ballooning, crossing the English Channel was considered the first step to long distance flying.  In 1785 Pilatre de Rozier, one of the men from the first balloon flight, and a man named Romain attempted to cross the channel in a balloon which was an experimental system using both hydrogen and hot air compartments. Unfortunately this volatile mixture of highly flammable hydrogen with fire caused the balloon to explode thirty minutes after lift off and both men were killed. The first successful crossing of the English Channel was accomplished later the same year by French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries using a gas balloon.  The balloon is shown at left flying over France after crossing the channel.

The first manned flight of a balloon in America occurred January 9, 1793.  It was a hydrogen gas balloon piloted by the same Frenchman who was the first to cross the English Channel, Jean-Pierre Blanchard.  This flight ascended from a prison yard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  He ascended to about 5,800 feet and he made a successful landing in Gloucester County, in New Jersey.  George Washington observed the launch.

Airships, often called blimps, began to be built in the early 1900’s.  They were inflated by hydrogen gas to keep them aloft.  Airships are cigar shaped balloons, some of which have a rigid frame to maintain their shape.  They had engines with propellers as well as flaps to control the direction and speed of flight. The Van Zeppelin was the first large airship built.  It was 420 feet long and could travel 600 miles in 2 days. One of the first such ships in the U.S. was built in 1904.  These large ships became the first commercial airliners. Many were made for military uses but others had luxurious cabins for seating passengers.  By 1936 airships had become more common.  The most famous airship was the Hindenburg built in Germany in 1936.  It was 803 feet long and 135 feet wide and contained 7 million cubic feet of gas.  It had luxurious passenger areas.

On May 6, 1937 the Hindenburg caught fire and burned in less that one minute while attempting to dock in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Of the 97 persons on board 35 were killed. Such ships had exemplary safety records until the spectacular demise of this famous ship.  After that the use of such airships began to wane.  Other disasters with hydrogen filled airships caused them to gradually be phased out.  Hydrogen was considered too dangerous and the new helium gas was very expensive and it was not widely available outside the United States. 

In 1960 Paul E. (Ed) Yost and 3 others formed Raven Industries in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and developed the modern hot air balloon and the propane gas burner which made sustained flight possible.  On October 22, 1960 Yost piloted the maiden flight of the new balloon on a flight lasting 25 minutes and traveling 3 miles.  The balloon was 40 feet in diameter with a volume of 30,000 cubic feet. This made modern sport hot air ballooning possible. Yost and Don Piccard, an experienced gas balloon pilot, together did much to promote new system.  In 1963 Yost and Piccard, flying “The Channel Champ”, became the first to fly a hot air balloon across the English Channel thereby proving the practicality hot air ballooning.  Tracy Barnes also contributed to the success of the new balloon with his work on a parachute rip system and improved burners and baskets. Their work was also supplemented by many other pioneer balloonist/innovators.

By 1963 Sport ballooning had grown enough so that the first U. S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship event was held in Kalamazoo, Michigan under the auspices of the Balloon Federation of America.  The 1963 event is shown in photo (i) at left.  In 1964 the Nationals were held in Nevada where it remained for 3 years.  In 1967-1969 no Nationals were held.  In 1970 the preliminaries for the Nationals were held in Indianola, Iowa with the final event at the State Fair grounds in Des Moines, Iowa.  The National championships remained in Indianola for 18 years.  (See photo j)  Beginning in 1989 the Nationals have moved around to various parts of the country.  That same year the National Balloon Classic was born to take its place in Indianola. Many local ballooning clubs now hold events all over the United States.  As the technology of burners and balloon envelop construction improved ballooning continued to grow in popularity.  Most sport ballooning today is with hot air balloons.  Gas ballooning has it followers as well, but inflating a gas balloon takes longer and the high price of helium continues make it too expensive for most.

Balloons using a combination of helium and hot air are now used for many long distance flights such as the around the world flight of Steve Fossett in his balloon, “Bud Light Spirit of Freedom”(shown at left) on June 19, 2002.  This balloon was a hybrid hot air and gas balloon with two separate Helium gas cells and one hot air cell.  Inflated, the balloon stood 180 feet tall with a diameter of 108 feet.  Fossett launched from Northam, Western Australia in a seventh and successful attempt to be the first person to circumnavigate the globe solo in a balloon.  Fourteen days, 19 hours and 51 minutes later he landed in the eastern Australian Outback. 

Gas balloons, such as NASA’s Ultra-Long Duration Balloon shown at left, provide greatly enhanced scientific research.  Such balloons are used like satellites to study deep space and the Earth, but at a fraction of the cost of a satellite.  NASA balloons are made of a thin polyethylene material about the same thickness as an ordinary sandwich wrap.  In size they range up to 40 million cubic feet in volume and 600 feet in diameter and taller than a 60-story building.  When the experiment is complete, a radio command is sent from a ground station to separate the scientific payload from the balloon and a parachute opens and it floats back to the ground.  The balloon envelope collapses and falls to the Earth.

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