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 the honor.
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 material.
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
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 large met-balloon.
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 less lift.
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
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 equipment.
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 vehicle.
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 flame.
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