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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.

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Hot air balloon flying over spectacular Cappadociamuratart/Shutterstock

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.

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Eiffel Tower with Hot Air BalloonRoger Siljander/Shutterstock

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.

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hot air balloon festivalMin C. Chiu/Shutterstock

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. 

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hot air balloonBAHADIR ARAL AVCI/Shutterstock

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.

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Hot Air Balloon at sunriseHailin Chen/Shutterstock

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.

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Hot air balloon over ocean and clouds blue skyBusiness stock/Shutterstock

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.

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The great tourist attraction of Cappadocia - balloon flight. Cappadocia is known around the world as one of the best places to fly with hot air balloons. Goreme, Cappadocia, TurkeyOlena Tur/Shutterstock

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.

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Colorful hot air balloon early in the morning in HungaryBarat Roland/Shutterstock

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.

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Hot air balloon flying over rock landscape at Cappadocia TurkeyTatiana Popova/Shutterstock

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.”

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A burner with its super hot flame light up the inside of a colorful hot air balloon as it is inflated for an early morning flight.Tami Freed/Shutterstock

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.

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Balloon & Kite Festival-Grants Pass,

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.

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hot air balloons in the skyAnnette Shaff/Shutterstock

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.

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Balloons Nature Parks wichai Deewong/Shutterstock

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.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Jen McCaffery
Jen McCaffery is an associate editor for Reader’s Digest. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Prevention, Rhode Island Monthly, and other publications and websites. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s growing veggies or trying to figure out the way home from assorted trails.