A Brief History of Hot Air Ballooning

When you go ballooning, you are embarking on an
adventure that traces man’s earliest attempts to fly!

As balloonists, we are always proud to remind people that hot air balloons were man’s first taste of flight.

Everything else followed: airships, gliders, aeroplanes, helicopters, and even the space shuttle!

Just as in space travel, the earliest balloon passengers were not even human, but were three farmyard animals – a sheep, a duck and a rooster! Centuries later, in the decades of the space race, the Russians and Americans used similar tactics, sending dogs and chimpanzees to test the possibilities of safe space flight for humans. Some things never change, it would seem!

The First ‘Passenger’ Flight In 1783

The reactions of the famous sheep, duck and rooster are not recorded, but they clearly survived the experience which took place on the 19th of September 1783. I love to imagine the double-take of locals as this balloon descended from the sky, landed, and then three farmyard animals casually hopped out!

Having proven the principle, Pilatre de Rozier, the designer of this first balloon (called ‘Aerostat Reveillon’) decided to have a man-carrying version built by the Montgolfier brothers. Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier were paper-makers, and considering that these early balloons were made of paper, the two brothers were the ideal contractors to employ.

So it was that on the 21st of November 1783 the very first manned flight took place in Paris, France. The pilots were Pilatre De Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes. These two brave men flew for about 20 minutes and travelled some 5 miles, landing safely and receiving medals and awards for their efforts.

And brave they were! Remember that this balloon was basically made of paper, whilst the air inside was heated by an open fire burning straw! Not a great combination. Hot embers were floating up into the balloon and scorching the paper as it flew over Paris, threatening to set the whole contraption alight. Eventually, afraid of the risk, the two men extinguished the fire and thus the balloon descended, landing between two windmills on the outskirts of the city.

Today, you’ll be pleased to learn that we have advanced the design of those early hot air balloons to a point where the craft are incredibly safe and efficient. Lightweight nylon fabrics, powerful and controllable propane burners, responsive designs that allow the balloon to rise and descend at the pilot’s command, and comfortable baskets to carry the passengers have all refined that original Montgolfier Aerostat.

Of course, some things haven’t changed: we still can’t steer at all! The balloon floats along with the breeze at exactly the same speed as the wind. Consequently, every flight is still a little adventure, and is certainly never a routine experience. We hardly ever land in the same place twice!

See below a timeline of notable events in the history of ballooning.

  • 1783 November 21  – first manned flight of any kind of aircraft. On board: Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis de Arlandes, launching from Paris and travelling about 5 miles.
  • 1783 December 1 – first flight by a GAS balloon, as distinct from a HOT AIR balloon. The GAS balloon was lifted by hydrogen (which is lighter than air) in a sealed bag, and of course did not need any heat (in fact, the last thing you want in a hydrogen balloon is fire!)
  • 1785 June – Pilatre de Rozier and Pierre Romain become the first fatalities in an air accident when their balloon crashes at the Pas de Calais. They were trying to make a flight across the English Channel, but failed to even make the coast.
  • 1804 – Joseph Gay-Lussac flies to 20,000ft in a GAS balloon. The GAS balloon becomes much more popular than the HOT AIR balloon because it can be kept airborne for many hours, or even days!
  • GAS balloons are used in the American civil war for observing troop movements and guiding artillery, in an eerie precursor to the barrage balloons (again hydrogen gas filled) used by observers above the trenches of the Great War.
  • 1870 – During the Prussian siege of Paris, about 100 people and 2 million items of mail escape the city in a selection of GAS balloons! Their flights were often at night in dangerous conditions, and covered terrific distances to find safe havens.
  • 1931 – Auguste Piccard sets an altitude record of 52,000 ft in a GAS balloon. Auguste travelled inside a pressurised capsule whilst carrying out various scientific experiments – just like modern astronauts in the International Space Station.
  • 1960 October 10 – American, Ed Yost, heralds the beginning of modern hot air ballooning when he flies a balloon using nylon fabrics and propane burners. The modern balloon is born!
  • 1978 – Double Eagle II, a helium filled balloon, makes the first successful balloon crossing of the Atlantic, taking 137 hours. Helium was much safer than using hydrogen because it is a non-flammable gas.
  • 1987 – Per Lindstrand & Richard Branson fly a HOT AIR balloon across the Atlantic in just 33 hours, eventually crashing into the Irish Sea and being rescued by the Royal Navy.
  • 1999 – Bertrand Piccard (descendant of Auguste) and Brian Jones make the first circumnavigation of the globe, without landing, of any aircraft! The balloon is a combination of helium and hot air cells, and takes almost 22 days to make the journey.