The History of Hot Air Ballooning
The first clearly recorded instance of a balloon carrying passengers using hot air to generate buoyancy was built by brothers
Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier in Annonay, France. After experimenting with unmanned balloons and flights
with animals, the first tethered balloon flight with humans on board took place on October 19, 1783 with the scientist Jean-François
Pilâtre de Rozier, the manufacture manager, Jean-Baptiste Réveillon and Giroud de Villette, at the Folie Titon in Paris.
The first free flight with human passengers was on November 21,1783. King Louis XVI had originally decreed that condemned
criminals would be the first pilots, but de Rozier, along with Marquis Francois d'Arlandes, successfully petitioned for
Hot Air Balloons
The first modern hot air balloon was designed and built in 1960 by Ed Yost. He made the first free flight of such an aircraft
in Bruning, Nebraska on October 22, 1960. Initially equipped with a plastic envelope and kerosene fuel, Yost's designs rapidly
moved onto using a modified propane powered "weed burner" to heat the air and lightweight nylon fabric for the envelope
Today, hot air balloons are used primarily for recreation. There are some 7,500 hot air balloons operating
in the United States. Since piloting a balloon requires some effort (licensing and purchase of equipment), many people opt
to purchase a balloon flight from a company offering balloon rides. Balloon rides are available in many locations
around the world and are especially popular in tourist areas. Balloon festivals are a great way to see hot air balloons
close up, and are an enjoyable family outing. Balloon festivals usually include other activities like live entertainment,
amusement rides, etc.
Hot air balloons are able to fly to extremely high altitudes. On November 26 2005, Vijaypat Singhania set
the world altitude record for highest hot air balloon flight, reaching 21,290 meters (69,852 feet). He took off from downtown
Bombay, India and landed 240 km (150 miles) south in Panchale. The previous record of 19,811 meters (64,980 ft) had been
set by Per Lindstrand on June 6, 1988 in Plano, Texas. However, like all registered aircraft, oxygen is needed for all crew
and passengers for any flight that reaches and exceeds an altitude of 12,500 feet.
On January 15, 1991, a balloon carrying Per Lindstrand (born in Sweden, but resident in the UK), and Richard
Branson of the UK flew from Japan to Northern Canada, completing 7,671.91 km. This record was shattered on March 21, 1999
when the Breitling Orbiter 3 touched down in Egypt, having circumnavigated the globe and set records for duration (19 days,
21 hours and 55 minutes) and distance (46,759 km).
With a volume of 74,000 m³ (2,600,000 ft³), the balloon envelope was the largest ever built for a hot air
craft. Designed to fly in the trans-oceanic jetstreams the Pacific Flyer recorded the highest ground speed for a manned
balloon at 245 mph (394 km/h).
Most hot air balloon launches are made during the cooler hours of the day, at dawn or two to three hours before sunset.
At these times of day, the winds are typically light making for easier launch and landing of the balloon. Flying at these
times also avoids thermals, which are vertical air currents caused by ground heating that make it more difficult to control
the balloon. In the extreme, the downdrafts associated with strong thermals can exceed the ability of a balloon to climb
and can thus force a balloon into the ground.
Before a safe hot air balloon flight can begin, the pilot must check the weather and select a suitable take-off point. The
current and forecast weather must have sufficient visibility for the pilot to see and avoid obstructions (little or no fog
or low clouds) and sufficiently slow winds to allow take off and landing (less than 5 or 10 mph depending on skill and experience
of pilot, passengers, and ground crew).
The take-off point must be large enough to lay out and inflate the envelope and clear of obstructions such
as power lines and poles, trees, and buildings to allow lift-off under the predicted wind conditions. Finally, the take-off
point must be situated such that the predicted winds will move the balloon in the direction of suitable landing sites. Taking
off from a location that is directly up wind of a hazard, such as a large body of water, a large metropolitan area, or a
large uninterrupted forest, without sufficient fuel to pass over the hazard is not safe.
The next step in a hot air balloon flight is unpacking the balloon from its carrying bag, laying it out on the ground, and
connecting it to the basket and burner. A fan, often gasoline-powered, is used to blow cold (outside) air into the envelope.
The cold air partially inflates the balloon to establish its basic shape before the burner flame is aimed into the mouth
heating the air inside. A crew member stationed opposite the mouth, holds a rope (crown line) tied to the apex (crown) of
the envelope. The "crown-man" role is twofold: one is to prevent the envelope from excessive sway, and two is to prevent
the envelope from rising before it is sufficiently buoyant. Once the balloon is upright, pilot and passengers climb into
the basket. When the pilot is ready for launch, more heat is directed into the envelope and the balloon lifts off.
The crew then pack up inflation equipment and follow the balloon with the retrieve vehicle (also called
a chase vehicle).
During the flight, the pilot's only ability to steer the balloon is the ability to climb or descend into wind currents going
different directions. Thus, it is important for the pilot to determine what direction the wind is blowing at altitudes other
than the balloon's altitude. To do this, the pilot uses a variety of techniques. For example, to determine wind directions
beneath the balloon a pilot might simply spit or release a squirt of shaving cream and watch this indicator as it falls
to determine where possible turns are (and their speed). Pilots are also looking for other visual clues such as flags on
flagpoles, smoke coming from chimneys, etc. To determine wind directions above the balloon, the pilot will obtain a weather
forecast prior to the flight which includes upper level wind forecasts. The pilot will also send up a helium pilot balloon,
known as a met-balloon in the UK and pibal in the USA, prior to launch to get information about what the wind is actually
doing. Another way to determine actual wind directions is to watch other hot air balloons, which are the equivalent of a
The inside of a hot air balloon's envelope, seen from the gondola. The direction of flight depends on the wind, but the
altitude of the balloon can be controlled by changing the temperature of the air inside the envelope. The pilot may open
one or more burner blast valves to increase the temperature inside the envelope, thereby increasing lift, and thus ascend
or slow or stop a descent. The pilot may also open a vent, if the envelope is so equipped, to let hot air escape, decreasing
the temperature inside the envelope, thereby decreasing lift, and thus descend or slow or stop an ascent. Unless the pilot
intervenes, the air inside the envelope will slowly cool, by seepage or by contact with cooler outside air, and slowly provide
One of the tricks involved in flying a balloon is learning to deal with the delayed response. To slow or stop a descent
requires the pilot to open a burner blast valve. This sends hot combustion exhaust through the mouth into the envelope where
it expands and forces some cooler air out of the mouth. This lightens the total weight of the system and increases its buoyancy,
but not immediately. From the time that the burner is lit until the balloon slows or stops its descent can take 30 seconds
or more, depending on its rate of descent, how cold it has become, and how powerful the burner. This delay requires a great
deal of anticipation on the part of the pilot.
The ability to change direction with altitude is called steerage. In the ideal case, in the northern hemisphere, wind direction
turns to the right with an increase in altitude. This is due to the Coriolis effect. Winds spiral clockwise, when seen from
above, out of a high pressure system and counter clockwise into a low pressure system. However, air traveling close to the
ground will tend to move in more of a straight line from high to low pressure due to drag with the ground. Thus, a pilot
may hope to find a turn to the left during the descent to landing. In the southern hemisphere, the direction of the spirals
are reversed. In reality, interaction with an uneven terrain may lessen or completely eliminate this phenomenon.
The burner is designed to create enough heat to warm up the balloon quickly. It is most efficient only when wide open. There
is no good way to maintain the exact temperature required to maintain equilibrium.
Add to that the fact that when a hot air balloon is not actively being heated, it is cooling off. This means
that it is in perfect equilibrium only momentarily. The rest of the time it is either too warm or too cool and so either
climbing or descending.
These two facts together mean that under most conditions level flight is anything but. The goal of the pilot
is to light the burner at the right interval and for the right duration (a few seconds) to keep the balloon slowly drifting
up and down about the desired altitude.
An exception is made when flying close to the ground, as in an approach to a landing. Then the burner may
be lit for very short bursts at a much higher frequency, thus sacrificing efficiency for accuracy.
While it is certainly possible to enjoy the sport of hot air ballooning without a chase vehicle, returning from the landing
site by foot, bicycle, or hitch hiking, many balloonists opt to be followed by their ground crew in some sort of chase vehicle.
Crew at the landing site can aid with the landing itself, by catching a drop line and guiding the balloon into a tight space;
with extracting the balloon system from a remote location, such as deep in a farmer's field; and with packing up all the
There are two primary options in chase systems: with a trailer or without. A trailer can provide a lot more
room but at the cost of being more difficult to maneuver, especially when turning around in tight locations. A pickup truck
or van by itself can be a lot more maneuverable but at the cost of squeezing all the equipment, crew, pilot, and passengers
into a single vehicle. Many chase vehicles are fitted with a cargo liftgate to aid in loading heavy equipment into the cargo
space (the envelope itself can weigh 250 lbs or more).
Communication between the balloon and chase vehicle can be accomplished by two-way radio, mobile phone,
or even shouting, when they are close enough together.
Most pilots try to perform as smooth a landing as possible. This becomes difficult if the air at ground level is moving
at more than 5 mph or so. If the balloon is moving at this speed or more when it contacts the ground, the basket (which
usually does not have wheels of any kind on the bottom) may drag for a bit or even tip over. Even the presence of ground
crew may not help much. The combined weight (for an average passenger-carrying system as calculated above) can easily exceed
the weight of a large automobile. (It is best not to be on the downwind side of a landing balloon to avoid being pinned
between it and a hard place.) Pilots can improve the situation by landing in a spot protected from the wind, such as behind
a line of trees or in a small valley.
Once the balloon has landed, the envelope is deflated and detached from the basket. The envelope is then
packed into its carrying bag. The burner and the basket may be separated and all components are packed into the retrieve
In competition, the pilots need to be able to read different wind directions at different altitudes. Balloon competitions
are often called "races" but they're most often a test of accuracy, not speed. For most competitive balloon flights, the
goal is to fly as close as possible to one or more exact points called "targets". Once a pilot has directed the balloon
as close as possible to a target, a weighted marker with an identifying number written on it is dropped. The distance between
a pilot's marker and that target determines his or her score. During some competitive flights, pilots will be required to
fly to 5 or more targets before landing. To assist with navigation, topographic maps and GPS units are used. Another common
form of competition is the "Hare and Hound" race. The Hare balloon takes off a set amount of time before the Hound balloons
and typically flies with multiple altitude changes to make it more difficult for the chasing balloons to match its flight
path. After a set amount of flight time, the Hare will land and typically lay out a target cross for the Hounds to drop
their weighted markers near. As above, the distance between a pilot's marker and the target determines his or her score.
Some experienced pilots are able to take a flight in one direction then rise to a different altitude to
catch wind in a returning direction. With experience, luck, and the right conditions, some pilots are able to control a
precision landing at the destination. On rare occasions, they may be able to return to the launch site at the end of the
flight. This is sometimes called a box effect, when winds at altitude flow in the opposite direction of surface winds.
The ability to fly hot air balloons in the winter is limited mostly by the ability of the participants to withstand the
cold. The balloons themselves fly well in cold air. Because the temperature difference between inside and outside the balloon,
not the absolute inside temperature, determines the lift it develops, a much lower internal temperature is sufficient to
fly in cold weather.
However, if the liquid propane in the fuel tanks is too cold (0°C/32°F or less) it does not generate sufficient
vapor pressure to adequately feed the burner(s). This can be overcome by charging the fuel tanks with inert gas such as
nitrogen or by warming them, with electric heat tapes for example, and insulating them against the cold.
To see hot air balloons flying in winter, take a trip to Michigan and visit the
Battle Creek Holiday Balloon Fest. A festival that began in 1988 at
Kellogg's Cereal City USA. The festival has grown from 13 pilots the first year to now over 70 Hot Air Balloonist.
Sometimes, especially at balloon festivals or other special events, balloons will be flown while still tied to the ground
by ropes, referred to as tethers. This enables the pilot to provide shorts rides to many passengers instead of drifting
with the wind away from the event with just one load of passengers. There are a variety of tethering techniques, depending
on the balloon manufacturers instructions and current wind conditions. Tethers can be attached to the basket, burner support,
the top of the envelope, or any combination thereof. Even though tethered, a registered aircraft is considered to be flying
as soon as it leaves the ground, and is subject to all the appropriate rules and regulations.
Tethered balloons are sometimes inflated at night, an event called a "night glow" for the impressive
visual effects. At such events, pilots will usually operate the liquid valve known as the whisper burner (or sometimes called
the cow burner as it is designed to make a different sound when operating so as not to startle livestock) on the burner
creating a spectacular bright orange flame instead of the main valve which creates the more typical (and efficient) blue
There are many regular gatherings of balloons and balloonists around the world. Most of these events are held on an annual
basis. The festivities provide both a place for balloonists to interact as well as a venue for entertaining spectators.
Events range in size from a few balloons and no spectators to hundreds of balloons with hundreds of thousands of spectators.
One such event is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
Over the long history of ballooning, several traditions have developed.
A common tradition among balloonists is to have a champagne toast upon landing. Legend has it that early French aeronauts
carried champagne to appease angry or frightened spectators at the landing site. A champagne toast is now often included
in commercial sight-seeing flights.
Along with the champagne, a popular toast among balloonists is: "soft winds and gentle landings."
Many balloonists recite the Balloonist's Blessing (Anon, known as 'The Balloonists Prayer') with the champagne
The winds have welcomed you with softness
The sun has blessed you with its warm hands
You have flown so high and so well
That God has joined you in your laughter
and set you gently back into the loving arms of mother earth.
The information in The History of Hot Air Ballooning was obtained from Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia