Columbus Aeronauts

History of Ballooning

A Brief History of Hot Air Ballooning

1. A rooster, a duck, and a sheep were the first hot air balloon passengers.

In 1783, the first hot air balloon was set to fly over the heads of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the French court in Versailles. Like monkeys in space, this odd assortment of animals was chosen to test the effects of flight. Sheep, thought to be similar to people, would show the effects of altitude on a land dweller, while ducks and roosters, which could already fly (albeit at different heights), would act as controls in the experiment. The balloon flew on a tether for 8 minutes, rising 1500 feet into the air and traveling 2 miles before being brought safely to the ground. The animals were unharmed. 

2. The first pilots were almost condemned criminals.

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When it came time to choose a pilot for the first hot air balloon flight, Louis XVI didn’t want to be responsible for potential fatalities, so he figured: Hey, condemned criminals are going to die anyway, let’s have them fly the balloon. Luckily, he was talked out of the idea. Instead, scientist Jean-François Pilâtre De Rozier (above) and aristocrat François Laurent d’Arlandes were chosen to fly the balloon. On November 21, 1783, the men flew for 20 minutes, becoming the first people to experience sustained flight.

3. Champagne after flight originated to appease farmers.

As hot air balloons became a fad, French aristocracy soon learned that local farmers didn’t much like rich people setting balloons down on their land. The aristocracy said the peasants were afraid because they thought the balloons looked like dragons, but while the smoke that powered early balloons may have appeared dragon-like, it seems more likely that the farmers didn’t want hot air balloons crushing their crops. In any case, champagne smoothed things over, and a tradition was born.

4. There was even a balloon duel.

In 1808, two Frenchmen found themselves in a love-triangle with Mademoiselle Tirevit, a celebrated opera dancer, and took to the skies above Paris for a duel. While a crowd gathered below to watch what they thought was a balloon race, the men pulled out blunderbusses and aimed at each other’s balloons. Two shots were fired. One balloon was punctured and crashed to the buildings below, killing its occupants. The other man descended to the ground unharmed, and presumably gained Tirevit’s hand.

November 21, 1783 - The first recorded manned flight in a hot air balloon took place in Paris. Built from paper and silk by the Montgolfier brothers, this balloon was piloted on a 22-minute flight by two noblemen from the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. From the center of Paris they ascended 500 feet above the rooftops before eventually landing miles away in the vineyards. Local farmers were very suspicious of this fiery dragon descending from the sky. The pilots offered champagne to placate them and to celebrate the first human flight, a tradition carried on to this day.

First manned hydrogen balloon flight

December 1, 1783 - Only a few days later, professor Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers (Les Frères Robert) launched a new, manned hydrogen balloon from the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris, amid vast crowds and excitement. The balloon was held on ropes and led to its final launch place by four of the leading noblemen in France.

October 10, 1960 - The official birth date of the modern hot-air balloon. The first man-carrying free flight took place at Bruning, Nebraska, in the Raven prototype ‘modern’ hot–air balloon. The 30,000 cu ft envelope was constructed of a polyurethane coated nylon and the burner was propane powered. By 1963, the growing sport was able to sustain the first U.S. national championships. The balloons used for passenger flights today were developed in the United States during the 1960s and have two main technological advances: using rip–stop nylon, a very safe and reliable material for the envelope and running a LPG gas burner to heat the air in the envelope. Ballooning began as a sport with a few enthusiasts in the USA and England and spread to Australia in the 1970s. Today there are over 5,000 balloon pilots in the U.S. alone.

HOT AIR BALLOONS WERE USED FOR WAR RECONNAISSANCE

In 1794, during the Battle of Fleurus in the French Revolution, a balloon called Entreprenant was flown for aerial observation to suss out enemy positions during combat. The balloon, which was tethered, flew for 9 hours. During this time, the aeronaut wrote down the movement of Austrian troops and dropped the dispatches to the ground. It’s unclear whether the dispatches helped all that much—the generals were tactfully quiet on the matter—but the French did win the battle.