13 Soaring Facts About Hot Air Balloons
Hot air balloons are pretty to look at, but they also have a lot of history behind them.
Animals were the first to ride a hot air balloon
More than a century before the Wright brothers’ flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier launched an unmanned 500-pound balloon over Annonay, France, that stayed aloft for about ten minutes. The year was 1783, and King Louis XVI soon wanted a demonstration. So the Montgolfiers sent up a sheep, a duck, and a rooster as the king, the queen (Marie Antoinette), and 130,000 other people witnessed the historic flight over Versailles. The animals landed safely.
France was the hub for ballooning
France became the epicenter of ballooning, and Americans in Paris, including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay, jumped on the bandwagon. “Travelers may hereafter literally pass from country to country on the wings of the wind,” wrote Jay, who took time out from negotiating the Treaty of Paris to watch a flight. Check out these breathtaking shots of hot air balloons.
Ballooning is still a big spectator sport
The largest event in the United States, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, attracted almost 900,000 people over nine days in 2018. A meteorological phenomenon known as the Albuquerque Box—predictable wind patterns that let pilots land close to where they launched—have made the area a ballooning hot spot. These ungraceful Macy's parade mistakes make balloons seem hilarious, too.
The balloon is first filled with cold air
Commonly made from heat-resistant nylon or polyester, the colorful, usually 80-foot-tall “balloon” part—called the envelope—is laid out on the ground preflight to be partially filled with cold air. Then, to create the lift required for takeoff, the air is heated by propane burners attached below the mouth of the envelope.
The highest flight
The highest anyone has ever flown in a hot-air balloon is 68,986 feet, nearly twice the cruising altitude of commercial airliners. At those heights, the people in the basket need to wear oxygen masks.
The first pass of the Pacific
Another record: On January 17, 1991, entrepreneur Richard Branson and Swedish engineer Per Lindstrand became the first “aeronauts” (that’s the official term) to cross the Pacific Ocean. They set off from Japan and traveled more than 4,700 miles in about 46 hours. There was no cheering crowd to greet them, however: The men landed on a frozen lake in the Yukon and had to be airlifted out.
They are hard to steer
Distance records are all the more remarkable because, unlike airplanes, balloons are very hard to steer. The wind at 100 feet might be going east, while the wind at 200 feet might be going west, says Becky Wigeland, curator of the National Balloon Museum in Indianola, Iowa. “So you just keep going up and down until you get the wind that you want. That’s all you can do,” she says.
Pilots still do crazy stunts
That doesn’t stop balloon pilots from doing some crazy stunts. One of their favorite games is called Hare and Hound. One balloon (the hare) launches first. Then all the other balloons (the hounds) chase the hare. When the hare lands, the hounds try to land as close as they can to their prey. Taking a hot air balloon ride is something a lot of people have on their bucket list, make sure you also add these one-of-a-kind adventures to yours.
The most famous balloon hunt happened during the Civil War
An aeronaut named Thaddeus Lowe convinced President Abraham Lincoln of the merits of hot-air balloon reconnaissance over the First Battle of Bull Run. Lowe went on to command the Union Balloon Corps, with mixed results. The Confederate Army’s attempts to burst his balloons earned Lowe the title of “the most shot-at man in the war.”
Few accidents happen
It’s no surprise Lowe survived; flying in a hot-air balloon is very safe. Since 1964, the National Transportation Safety Board has investigated 799 accidents involving balloons in the United States. Of those, 73 resulted in fatal injuries.
The greatest balloon faux pas actually took place in a movie
Remember when Dorothy piles into one at the end of The Wizard of Oz to fly home to Kansas? The writing on the envelope reads “State Fair Omaha”—which is in Nebraska. To be fair, novelist Timothy Schaffert has pointed out that in L. Frank Baum’s novel, the wizard came from Omaha.
Balloons seem to inspire creative flights of fancy
For instance, a story in the April 13, 1844, edition of the New York Sun had an intriguing headline: “ASTOUNDING NEWS! THE ATLANTIC CROSSED IN THREE DAYS! SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF MR. MONCK MASON’S FLYING MACHINE!!!” The tale of the balloon that crossed an ocean before safely landing near Charleston, South Carolina, riveted readers. The problem: The story was fake news, written by an ambitious journalist. His name: Edgar Allan Poe.
The reactions that hot-air balloons engender have led to a fizzy tradition
Back in 19th-century France, balloons would terrify the locals, so pilots packed champagne to appease people where they landed. Something similar happened one Sunday morning this past June, when balloonist Mark Stodolski unexpectedly landed in the backyard of a homeowner in Stow, Massachusetts. “Oh, do you mind?” Stodolski asked the surprised man, according to the Boston Globe. “No, you’re cool,” he replied. Stodolski handed a bottle of champagne to the man, who then went back to bed. Now, check out the most famous invention from every state.