On November 21, 1783 the first free flight carrying a human occurred in Paris, France. It was in a hot air balloon made of paper and silk made by the Montgolfier brothers. The balloon carried two men, Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent, Marquis of d’ Arlanders. They stood on a circular platform attached to the bottom of the balloon. The fire was hand-fed 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. Tradition says that upon landing the pilots gave bottles of champagne to the startled farmers and peasants in order to calm their fears of demons appearing from the heavens. However, research shows that in actuality they landed in a deserted farming and vineyard area near Paris with no witnesses.
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 also started in Paris, France. The flight lasted 2½ hours and covered a distance of 25 miles. The gas used in the balloon was hydrogen, which is 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. Balloons such as 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 Therefore they were able to stay up longer and their altitude could be controlled somewhat easier with the use of ballast. Gas balloons continued to be the primary mode of air travel until the invention of the powered and controlled airplane by the Wright brothers in America in 1903. However, it was expensive and time consuming to inflate a gas balloon so flying was not something just anyone could afford.
In the 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 had 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 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 with 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 Graf 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 (see above) 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. After the Hindenburg disaster helium-filled military ships were about the only airships to fly. Hydrogen was considered too dangerous. The new helium gas was very expensive and was not widely available outside the United States.
Modern hot-air ballooning was born October 22, 1960 when Paul E. (Ed) Yost piloted the maiden flight of a balloon employing a new envelope and a new propane burner system which he developed. The flight lasted 25 minutes and traveled 3 miles (see photo above). The balloon was 40 feet in diameter with a volume of 30,000 cubic feet. For this accomplishment Yost is known as the father of modern hot-air ballooning. Soon, Yost’s company, Raven Industries, was making balloons for sale. By the mid 1960’s there were 3 balloon makers in the U.S.; Raven, Semco and Piccard, with Barnes coming soon after. Together, Yost and Don Piccard, an experienced gas balloon pilot, did much to promote hot air ballooning. Tracy Barnes also contributed to the early success of the hot air balloon with his work on baskets, parachute rip systems and more effective burners.
By 1963 sport ballooning had grown enough so that the first U. S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship event was held in Kalamazoo, Michigan. 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. Then in 1971 the National Championship event moved to Indianola, Iowa where it remained for 18 years. Since that time the Nationals have moved around to various parts of the country. Many local ballooning clubs now hold events all over the United States. As the technology of burners and balloon envelope construction improved ballooning continued to grow in popularity. Most sport ballooning today (see photo above) is done with hot air balloons. Gas ballooning has its followers as well, but inflating a gas balloon takes much longer and the price of helium continues to make gas ballooning more expensive than hot air ballooning.
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” 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 above right, 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 to as tall as 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.
A new breed of balloon called spherical helium airship, capable of serving as low-hanging satellites, are expected to become a useful weapon for national defense and also revolutionize communications technology.
Whether for recreational, scientific, military or communications needs, modern adaptations of ballooning for purposes undreamed of only a few years ago promise to carry ballooning far into the future.