The History of Hot Air Balloons
Experimentation and The Early Years
The Montgolfiers were a big family, to say the least - but two of their sixteen children really stood out: Joseph, born in August 1740 and Etienne, five years his junior. Neither showed any great enthusiasm for the family paper-manufacturing trade. Joseph certainly didn't lack imagination. Observing the sky, he concluded that after all he could very easily make a cloud himself: so he got some paper from the factory, made an envelope, filled it with steam - and saw his idea collapse in a mass of sodden paper. Etienne wasn't about to be left out: it was probably his scientific reading that gave him the idea of making a bag float in the air with gas obtained from sulfuric acid and iron filings. Another failure. But then in November 1782, working indoors, Joseph managed to get a taffeta envelope filled with hot air to rise to the ceiling. He summoned his brother: "Get in a stock of taffeta and rope and you'll see one of the most astonishing sights in the whole world!" It was time for serious scientific experiments to begin.
To the amazement of a group of spectators, the Montgolfier brothers soon managed to send a sort of giant paper bag some thirty meters (100 ft) up in the air, using gas obtained by burning a mixture of wet straw and chopped wool. Joseph and Etienne decided to push things further, via a "machine" for taking people into the air - an "aerostat" they called it. "Seraphina", to use their private name for this strange contrivance, was to be a 12-meter (40 ft) envelope made of wrapping fabric lined with paper, with its multiple sections held together by some 2000 buttons. A totally hare-brained idea, according to their critics. After the preliminary tryouts, the first public experiment was scheduled for Annonay on 4 June 1783, just happening to coincide with a meeting of the area's most influential people.
The town square in Annonay was packed, with people struggling to get a look at the balloon spread out on the ground and tied to wooden posts. The fire was lit and the envelope began to fill; some of the spectators became uneasy, not least because of the horrible smell given off by the burning mixture of straw and wool. Under a menacing sky and with the wind beginning to rise, it took several men to hold the enormous balloon down until the order was given to let go. Seraphina took off and a few minutes later was no more than a dot in the sky, some 2000 meters (6500 ft) up. The "aerostat" began to drift and gradually descend, since the hot air was escaping little by little. Rushing after it the local people found it in the middle of a vineyard two kilometers (a mile and a quarter) from where it had taken off.
News of the experiment traveled fast. Soon all Paris was talking balloons and the Montgolfiers even had a competitor in the capital. On August 26, the physicist Jacques Charles sent up a hydrogen balloon from the Champ de Mars: it came to earth in a village 16 kilometers (10 miles) away, where terrified locals attacked this monster from the skies. However the first "accompanied" flight - with a sheep, a rooster and a duck on board - was organized by the Montgolfiers on September 19, from the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. And finally, on November 21, Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes climbed into a Montgolfier balloon for the first manned flight. Even Benjamin Franklin was lost for words. The hot-air balloon had been born and on January 19, 1784 the people of Lyon had their chance to admire the invention that began the conquest of space.
Although these early crude balloons were a far cry from today's high-tech contraptions, the science of ballooning and sending humans aloft had begun. In the years to follow, humans had access to the skies like never before, and with the advent of hydrogen ballooning, even the sky seemed to offer no limit. What follows is a brief outline of milestones in ballooning history:
1785--The First Balloon Across the English Channel: In the early days of ballooning, crossing the English Channel is considered the first step to long distance ballooning. Pilatre de Rozier, the world's first balloonist, is killed in his attempt to cross the channel. De Rozier's experimental system consists of a hydrogen balloon and a hot air balloon tied together. Tragically, the craft explodes half an hour after takeoff. This double balloon helium/hot air system, however, remains among the most successful designs for long distance ballooning. This same year, French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries become the first to fly across the English Channel.
1793 -- The First Balloon Flight in North America: A 45-minute flight from Philadelphia to Gloucester County, New Jersey is made by Jean Pierre Blanchard on January 9. George Washington is present to see the balloon launch.
1794-1945 -- Balloons Used in Wars: From the U.S. Civil War, through World Wars I and II balloons are used as tools for warfare, for transportation, surveying, and communication.
1932 -- The First Manned Balloon Flight to the Stratosphere and First use of a Pressurized Capsule for a Balloon Flight: On August 18, Auguste Piccard, a Swiss Scientist, soars into the stratosphere in his balloon, 'FNRS,' and sets a new altitude record of 52,498 feet. Over the next few years, altitude records continue to be set, almost monthly, in the push to reach ever higher into the stratosphere.
1935 -- New Altitude Record is Set and Remains for 20 Years: Explorer II, a helium gas balloon, sets the altitude record at 72,395 feet, or 13.7 miles, with two crew members on board. For the first time in history, it is proven that humans can travel and survive in a pressurized chamber at extremely high altitudes. This flight sets a milestone for aviation and paves the way for future space travel and the concept of manned flight in space. The highly publicized flight is also able to carry live radio broadcasts from the balloon.
1960 -- Altitude Record and Highest Parachute Jump: Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger jumps from a balloon at 102,800 feet on August 16th and sets a world high altitude parachute jump (where he breaks the sound barrier with his body) and freefall record that still stands today.
1961 -- Current Official Altitude Record Set: Commander Malcolm Ross and Lieutenant Commander Victor A. Prather of the U.S. Navy ascend to 113,739.9 feet in 'Lee Lewis Memorial,' a polyethylene balloon. They land in the Gulf of Mexico where, with his pressure suit filling with water, and unable to stay afloat, Prather drowns.
1978 -- First Balloon to Cross the Atlantic: Double Eagle II, a helium balloon carrying Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman, becomes the first balloon to cross the Atlantic. A new duration record is set with a flight time of 137 hours.
1981 -- First Balloon to Cross the Pacific: Thirteen-story high Double Eagle V, piloted by Ben Abruzzo, Larry Newman, Ron Clark and Rocky Aoki of Japan, launches from Nagashimi, Japan on November 10 and and lands 84 hours, 31 minutes later in Mendocino National Forest in California. A new distance record is set at 5,768 miles.
1984 -- First Solo Transatlantic Balloon Flight: Joe Kittinger flies 3,535 miles from Caribou, Maine to Savona, Italy in his helium-filled balloon 'Rosie O'Grady's Balloon of Peace.'
1987 -- First Hot Air Balloon to Cross the Atlantic: Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson fly a distance of 2,900 miles in 33 hours and set a new record for hot air ballooning. The balloon, at the time, is the largest ever flown at 2.3 million cubic feet of capacity.
1988 -- Hot Air High Altitude Record: Per Lindstrand sets a solo world record of 65,000 feet for the greatest height ever reached by a hot air balloon.
1991 -- First Hot Air Balloon to Cross the Pacific: Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson become the first to traverse the Pacific by hot air balloon, reaching speeds in the jet stream of up to 245 mph, in their 'Otsuka Flyer,' which travels 6,700 miles in 46 hours. They fly from Japan to Arctic Canada and break the world distance record.
1992 -- Duration Record Set: Richard Abruzzo, son of previous record-breaker Ben Abruzzo, and Troy Bradley, makes his own around-the-world bid with his 'Odyssey' project, fly 144 hours, 16 minutes from Bangor, Maine to Morocco in a De Rozier balloon.
1995 -- First Solo Transpacific Balloon Flight: February 14-17, Steve Fossett, another around-the-world contender with his Solo Challenger project, launches from Seoul, Korea and flies 4 long days to Mendham, Saskatchawan, Canada.
1999 -- First Around the world Flight: March 21, 1999, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones in the Breitling Orbiter 3 makes a perfect landing Sunday, March 21st in the south-east of Egypt, at 06.00 GMT (Lat. 26.9N / Long. 28.21E). It has been flying for 19 days, 21 hours, and 55 minutes, and has beaten all previous records of duration and distance.