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Balloon History

Balloons - a background
A balloon is a type of AIRCRAFT that becomes airborne because of the buoyancy, or lift, supplied by a gas that is less dense than the air surrounding the balloon. (See ARCHIMEDES' PRINCIPLE; ATMOSPHERE.) The first public balloon flight was made by the MONTGOLFIER BROTHERS, Joseph and Etienne, at Annonay, France, on June 5, 1783. Made of linen and paper, this unmanned balloon had a volume of 660 cu m (23,308 cu ft) and was buoyed up by heated air. The balloon rose to an altitude of 1,800 m (5,906 ft) and flew 1.6 km (1 mi) from its starting point. On Nov. 21, 1783, Pilatre de Rozier and the marquis d'Arlandes used a Montgolfier balloon to make the first manned flight, from the center of Paris to the city's suburbs. On Aug. 27, 1783, French chemist J. A. C. CHARLES inflated a balloon with hydrogen and launched it on an unmanned flight from the Champ de Mars in Paris. In December of that year he and an assistant made the first manned flight in a hydrogen balloon, from Paris to the village of Nesle, 104 km (65 mi) to the north. Hydrogen was found to be superior to hot air for filling a balloon because hydrogen has inherent buoyancy, whereas the ability of hot air to supply lift decreases as the air cools. The preference for hydrogen lasted well into the 20th century, although coal gas was popular for a brief time in the 19th century because it was used for streetlights and was readily available. Helium, discovered in 1895, did not become commercially available until after 1918; it was also expensive and could not supply as much lift as hydrogen. The great advantage of helium, however, is its safety. Hydrogen is highly flammable and potentially explosive, but helium is not. Once launched, a balloon will rise until its average density exactly equals that of the surrounding atmosphere. In order to go higher, the pilot must discard some ballast (bags of sand are often used). To descend, the pilot releases some of the buoyant gas through a valve. When the balloon lands, a ripping panel is opened; this allows the remaining gas to escape so that the balloon will not be dragged over the ground. Toward the end of the 18th century a balloon craze swept Europe and the United States. On Jan. 9, 1783, at Philadelphia, Jean Pierre BLANCHARD made the first U.S. balloon flight. As late as the 1930s, balloon flights, races, and ascents in tethered balloons anchored by cables were popular events. MILITARY USE The balloon was used by the military soon after the first flight of the Montgolfiers. In the Battle of Fleurus between France and Austria (June 26, 1794), the French used a tethered balloon to observe the battlefield and direct artillery fire. A balloon corps, the world's first air force, was organized, and more balloons were built. The corps, however, soon fell into disuse and was abolished. When the Austrians besieged Venice in 1849, they used 200 small hot-air balloons to carry bombs that were released by preset controls. Because of unpredictable winds, however, the results of this first aerial bombing were negligible. Balloons were also used in the American Civil War (1861-65). Again, however, results were negligible. In the five-month-long siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), balloons were the only means of communication and transportation between Paris and the rest of France. Balloons launched from Paris carried mail, passengers, and homing pigeons for carrying messages back to Paris. The spherical balloon was excellent for free flight, but tethered spherical balloons were subject to bucking and rotation about their anchor cables. This made them unsuitable for military operations, for which a steady platform was required. By 1900, sausage-shaped balloons had been developed that combined the aerodynamics of the KITE with the aerostatics of the balloon. They foreshadowed the motorized AIRSHIP. Thousands of these kite balloons were used during World War I as observation posts and as aerial barrages (aprons of cables were suspended between the balloons to create hazards for enemy airplanes). Barrage balloons were also used during World War II. During the war the Japanese launched 9,000 balloons carrying bombs that they hoped would be blown across the Pacific Ocean to North America. Only about 300 are known to have reached North America, their bombs falling mostly in uninhabited areas. When the cold war developed between the United States and the USSR after 1948, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) launched camera-carrying balloons from Western Europe, which were then carried across the USSR, including Siberia, to the Pacific, where the camera packages were retrieved. Because the flight path of the balloons could not be controlled, the operation had little success. After 1956 the CIA's balloon effort was superseded by the deployment of the Lockheed U-2 photo-reconnaissance plane (see U-2) and later by a series of military spy satellites. TRANSCONTINENTAL CROSSING The great dream of 19th-century balloonists was intercontinental air travel. Because the prevailing wind in the Northern Hemisphere blows from west to east, the Atlantic crossing is easier from North America to Europe; thus most attempts have been eastward. John Wise, a 19th century American balloonist, detected a "constant current of wind" that, he was certain, would carry him across the ocean to Europe; but Wise was killed in a ballooning accident before he could make an attempt. Today, Wise's current of wind is known as the JET STREAM. In 1978, 1980, and 1981, respectively, the first transatlantic, transcontinental (North America), and transpacific flights were made, in helium balloons. In 1984 the first solo transatlantic flight was made. SPORT BALLOONING In the 1960s hot-air ballooning was revived as a sport. The Montgolfiers had to place their heat source on the ground; once they took off, the air cooled. Thus their flights were short. The recent development of a small, lightweight, propane burner, however, now allows the balloonist to carry the heat source aloft. New, tough, synthetic balloon fabrics have also been produced; this has lowered the cost and improved handling. The first hot-air-balloon crossing of the Atlantic was achieved in 1987. SCIENTIFIC USE Since the 1890s the main scientific use of balloons has been in meteorological research. Small pilot balloons are regularly launched and tracked to determine wind direction and velocity; other balloons containing packages of METEOROLOGICAL INSTRUMENTS record data from the upper atmosphere. Until the development in the 1930s of the RADIOSONDE, a small, inexpensive radio transmitter, it was necessary to retrieve these packages in order to obtain their data. Extremely high-altitude balloons are used by astronomers and physicists to detect cosmic rays and gamma rays arriving from outer space. These balloons are sometimes several hundred meters high, and their reusable instrument packages are returned to Earth by parachute. Development of very thin, tough balloon material such as Astrofilm E accelerated such balloon use in the 1980s. Richard K. Smith Bibliography: Crouch, T. D., The Eagle Aloft (1983); Kirschner, E. J., Aerospace Balloons (1985); Lawler, B. P., With a Light Heart (1988); Maran, S. P., "Little Missions, Big Returns," Astronomy, January 1989. Rolt, L. T. C., The Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning (1966).


An Englishman, Henry Cavendish, using a combination of sulphuric acid and iron,
discovers hydrogen.


Jaçques Charles launches The Globe, an unmanned hydrogen balloon, which traveled 15 miles and reached an altitude of 3000 feet. The balloon landed in Gonesse where the locals attacked the balloon with pitchforks, destroying it.

September 19th, 1783

A sheep, a duck and a rooster become the first passengers in a hot air balloon. The Montgolfier brothers, Jaçques Etienne and Joseph Michel, launched a balloon made of paper and cloth after Louis XVI had decreed that the first flight should be flown with animals. The balloon rose to about 6000 feet, and landed safely.

November 21st, 1783

The first recorded manned flight in a hot air balloon takes place in Paris. Built from
paper and silk by the Montgolfier brothers, this balloon was piloted on a 22 minute
flight by Jean François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis François-Laurent d'Arlandes. From the center of Paris they ascended 500 feet above the roof tops before eventually landing about 6 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 flight, a tradition carried on by balloonists to this day.

December 1st, 1783

The first manned gas balloon is launched by Jaçques Alexander Charles and Nicholas
Louis Robert. Starting in Paris, the flight lasted 2 1/2 hours and covered a distance of
25 miles. Upon landing, Robert stepped out of the basket, which caused the balloon to rise again, this time to about 9000 feet. Charles later landed safely. Today, in France, gas balloons are known as Charliers and hot air balloons are known as Montgolfiers.

January 19th, 1784

In Lyon, France, the only recorded flight by Joseph Montgolfier is made in a balloon that had a cubic capacity of over 700,000 cubic feet. This would equate to a passenger capacity of around 30 people! It was one of the largest balloons ever made. The flight only lasted 20 minutes due to a rip in the fabric.

September 15th, 1784

An Italian, Vincenzo Lunardi, makes the first balloon flight in England. The 18,000 cubic foot balloon flew from the Artillery grounds at Moorfields and landed in Long Mead, near Ware. His passengers included a dog, a cat and a pigeon (in a cage).

November 30th, 1784

Launching their balloon from Rhedarium Garden, London, another Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Blanchard and an American, John Jeffries, make their first flight. On January 7th, 1785 the same team of Blanchard and Jeffries became the first to fly across the English Channel.

June 15th, 1785

The first casualties from ballooning occur when a hybrid gas/hot-air balloon piloted by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and his passenger, one M. Romaine catches fire and explodes while attempting an English Channel crossing. Today, hybrid balloons (using a combination of gas and hot air lift) are known as "Roziers"

January 9th, 1793

The first flight of a balloon in America occurs in Philadelphia from the Walnut Street
Prison Yard and is piloted by Jean Pierre Blanchard. Blanchard had also flown the first ascents in Germany, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland.

Early 1800's

American aeronauts, including Charles Durant, Thaddeus Lowe, John La Mountain,
Rufus Wells and John Wise continue to design, construct and fly both gas and hot air balloons.


Jaçques Garnerin celebrates Napoleon's coronation by launching an unmanned balloon, ablaze with lights from the city of Paris. Unfortunately, it crashed into a statue of Nero outside of Rome, which was considered a personal insult by Napoleon. During this same time frame, Joseph Gay-Lussac flew to about 20,000 feet and recorded scientific observations of the atmosphere. 1861
Tethered gas balloons are used by both sides during the American Civil War for observation of troop movements. Balloons had been used for this purpose as early as 1794 in France.


Balloons are used to carry refugees and mail out of Paris during the siege of that city
by Prusso-German forces. One hundred people escape, along with over 2 million letters.

July, 1897

Swedish aeronaut Salomon Andree makes an attempt to reach the North Pole in a
balloon named Eagle. A message sent by carrier pigeon on the third day was the only news. Thirty three years later, the remains of the crew were discovered by Norwegian explorers.


James Gordon Bennett, a New York newspaper owner, sponsors a silver trophy for a
long distance international balloon race. The first race started in Paris, and was won by an American, Frank Lahm, who landed after 22 hours in Yorkshire, England. By the terms of the race, the winner's country was the host for the next year's race, which was held in St. Louis in 1907. Twenty six races were held between 1906 and 1938, in six different nations. The race was revived in 1979 and continues today as the premier gas balloon race in the world.


Auguste Piccard invents the airtight cabin, based on the bathysphere, enabling him and an assistant to ascend to 51,775 feet. In 1932 he flew to 53,152 feet to study cosmic rays.

October 3, 1934

Jeannette Piccard, pilots a balloon with her husband Jean (Auguste's twin brother) aboard to 57,579 feet for cosmic ray studies and lands safely.

November 11, 1935

A. W. Stephens and O. A. Anderson reach a height of over 74,000 feet in a huge (3.7 million cubic feet) helium balloon Explorer II. They launch from the "stratobowl" in South Dakota, later to be the scene of the first successful modern hot air balloon flight.
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.


Don Piccard, son of Jean and Jeannette Piccard, used a military surplus Japanese gas balloon for what was probably the first post-war free balloon flight, ushering in the modern era of ballooning. Mr. Piccard made his first balloon flight in 1933.


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.


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.


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.


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.'


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.


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.


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.


Duration Record Set: Richard Abruzzo, son of previous record-breaker Ben Abruzzo,
and Troy Bradley, now currently making 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.


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.