What are the interesting facts behind hot air balloons?

Up, up and away: what’s behind the most colourful way to float through the sky is how I look at it. I have been fascinated with the hot air balloon. A simple enough idea that allows you to float away to a new place. But there is more to this simple thought. 

  1. In 1783, French brothers JosephMichel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier launched an unmanned 225-kilogram balloon that stayed aloft for about ten minutes. 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.

2. Following the flight, Rozier became the Charles Lindbergh of his day. Two years later, he decided to break another record by crossing the English Channel in a new kind of balloon, one that was half hot air, half hydrogen. Sadly, 30 minutes after taking off, the balloon exploded. Rozier and his co-pilot were killed, giving him an unfortunate new record: the first person to fly in a balloon, and the first person to die in one.

3. France became the epicentre of ballooning, and Americans in Paris, including statesmen Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay, jumped on the bandwagon. “Travellers 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.

4. Ballooning is still a big spectator sport. The largest balloon event in the world, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, in New Mexico, USA attracted almost 900,000 people over nine days in 2018. Festivals are held across the world, including in France, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Taiwan.

5. Commonly made from heat-resistant nylon or polyester, the colourful, usually 25-metre-tall ‘balloon’ part – called the envelope – is laid out on the ground 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.

6. The highest anyone has ever flown in a hot-air balloon is 21,027 metres, nearly twice the cruising altitude of commercial airliners. At those heights, the people in the basket need oxygen masks. Another record: in 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 travelled more than 7672 kilometres in about 46 hours. There was no cheering crowd to greet them, however: The men landed on a frozen lake in the Yukon in north-western Canada, and had to be airlifted out.

7. Distance records are all the more remarkable because, unlike aeroplanes, balloons are very hard to steer. The wind at 30 metres might be going east, while the wind at 60 metres might be going west, says Becky Wigeland, curator of the National Balloon Museum in 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.

8. That doesn’t stop balloon pilots from doing some crazy stunts. One of their favourite 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.

9. The most famous balloon hunt happened during the American Civil War. An aeronaut named Thaddeus Lowe convinced President Abraham Lincoln of the merits of hot-air balloon reconnaissance. 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’.

10 It’s no surprise Lowe survived; flying in a hot-air balloon is very safe. The odds of an accident being fatal are close to the impressive safety record of air transport.

11. The world’s deadliest hotair balloon accident occurred near Luxor in Egypt in 2013, when a balloon caught fire, killing 19 people. In 2016, 16 people died after a balloon ran into powerlines and caught fire in Texas. Before then, Alice Springs in Central Australia was the scene of the deadliest accident, when in 1989 two balloons collided mid-air, and killed 13 people. In 2012, a hot air balloon struck power lines near Carterton, New Zealand, and exploded, crashing to the ground. All 11 people on board were killed.

12. 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.

13. The 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.

14. The reactions that 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 in June last year, when balloonist Mark Stodolski unexpectedly landed in the backyard of a Massachusetts homeowner. “Oh, do you mind?” Stodolski asked the surprised man. “No, you’re cool,” he replied. Stodolski handed a bottle of champagne to the man, who then went back to bed.

So have you flown in a hot air balloon? What’s your thoughts?

Check out my related post: How did a man from China beat the airline system?

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