The Chinese are recorded as being the first to make use of lighter than air technology with small unmanned hot air ballooons which are know as Kongming Lanterns or sky lanterns. These were developed around the 3rd century by originally used as military signalling devices but later became a tradition at Chinese festivals.Kongming Lanterns were made from oiled rice paper on a bamboo frame, the heat source used was a small candle made from a waxy, flammable material.
Hot Air Balloon History in Dispute
The claim for the first use of hot air balloons is hotly disputed. The Nazca Indians of Peru are thought to have used hot air balloons as an aid to creating the famous Nazca Line Drawings which were created in the period 700 B.C. to 200 A.D.
An 18th century issue of the newspaper ‘La Gaceta de Mexico‘ noted that in 1667, a citizen of Las Mendarios del Perro, Veracrus broke his leg in a fall following ascent in a strange device with fire.
The Portugese claim that a priest, Batholomeu Laurenco de Gasmao demonstrated a small working balloon model on the 3rd August 1709. He was subsequently awarded a Professor of Mathemetics by King John V of Portugal for his efforts.
There are also reports of pre-montgolfier balloons from Russia in 1731. A young military officer Kria Kutnoi is reported to have launched a primitive balloon from Ryazan, about 120 miles south of Moscow. It reputedly flew over a grove of birch trees crashing into the tower of a church in the neighbouring town. The ballon is said to have been made from hides and filled with evil smelling smoke.
The Montgolfier Brothers
French brothers, Jacques and Joseph Montgolfier were the local paper manufacturers in the town of Alchemy in Southern France. The brothers noticed that when they burnt paper the ashes floated up in to the air. They thought that the heat and smoke from the flame had a special lifting power and they set their minds to inventing a craft that could capture the heat and smoke and lift them off the ground. It is recorded that on the 4th June 1973 the first large scale balloon flight was launched by the Montgolfier Brothers from Annonay, France.It was reported in a Paris newspaper on the 10th of July as having been witnessed by many people.The report says that the balloon was ‘about 36 feet long and 16 feet high and about as high’, on landing about 7 – 8 minutes after takeoff the ‘globe’ was destroyed by peasant workers who believed it was the moon was falling from the sky.
A Sheep, a Duck and a Rooster
On the 19th Sept, 1783 the Montgolfier brothers successfully launched their first load carrying hot air balloon balloon made of paper and cloth. To inflate the craft they burned a combination of straw, chopped wool and dried horse manure underneath the balloon. As the straw burned it released heat that helped the balloon float. The wool and manure made lots of smoke and helped keep the burning flame low, which lessened the risk of setting the balloon alight. The brothers were too nervous to try out their invention themselves so they sent a sheep, a duck and a rooster to see what would happen. The balloon floated up into the sky and landed safely eight minutes later.
Once the Montgolfier brothers realised what they had achieved they approached the King of France to see if he would view their invention, with two people on board instead of farm yard animals. King Louis XVI agreed.
The First Manned Flight
On the 21st November 1783, a hot air balloon was launched in Paris for all to see. On board were two close frinds of the Montgolfier brothers, Pilatre de Rozier and Francious Laurent. The balloon was successfully launched and rose about 500 feet / 150 metres above the rooftops of Paris, after a flight lasting about 25 minutes the flight eventually landing a few miles away in some vineyards.
Benjamin Franklin is noted to have been present at the launch and met with the Montgolfier Brothers later in the day to sign a witness report that was submitted to the Academy of Science.
The Birth of a Tradition
As the hot air balloon landed in the vineyard, local farmers raced towards it with pitchforks, ready to attack this strange object from the skies. To prevent the balloon being destroyed by the farmers Pilatre and Francious offered them a bottle of fine french champagne, as thanks for allowing them to land in the field. Today, in memory of that first flight it is common to drink champagne after a balloon ride.
The Origin of a Word
The word ‘pilot’ is derived from ‘Pilatre’, the name of the first person to command an aerial vehicle.
Development of the modern hot air balloon
Ed Yost is credited with developing the modern, propane burning hot air balloon. His development work was conducted under a US military contract. In October 1955, Ed flew his first prototype of a kerosene powered tethered balloon. This balloon which was made of plastic film had several problems which he worked on until 22nd October when he made his first free flight in a propane powered hot air balloon from Bruning Nebraska USA. This first flight is reported to have lasted for 1 hour 35 minutes. Ed continued to refine his design and in 1963 made the first crossing of the English Channel in a hot air balloon.
The First Balloon Flights in Australia
Joseph Dean, a british wire maker by profession made the first balloon ascent in Australia on the 1st February 1858 from Melbourne’s Cremorne Gardens. The flight lasted 44 minutes and landed gently in Collingwood. This flight was followed up two weeks later on the 15th February with a flight by the balloons maker, Charles Brown. It was intended that Brown make the first flight but by a quirk of good luck for Dean the ground staff who were restraining the balloon during inflation allowed the balloon to rise whilst Dean was aboard. These first flights were made in a gas (hydrogen) balloon.
The first manned hot air balloon flight was made many years later on the 4th July 1962 from Parkes NSW. The pilot was Terry McCormack, a student from St John’s College of the University of Sydney. McCormack was the founder and first president of Australia’s first balloon Club, the Aerostat Society of Australia. The balloon he flew was built by the society members from Mylar film held together with a fibreglass re-inforced adhesive tape. It was called Archimedes and had a volume of around 18,000 ft3 / 800 m3.
Sadly McCormack was also one of the first people to be killed in a hot air balloon in Australia when in November 1975, the ‘New Endeavour’ was caught in turbulence during an afternoon flight and deflated at low level crashing to the ground killing both McCormack and his passenger.Hot Air Balloon History – History of Hot Air Balloons – Brisbane Hot Air Ballooning – Technical Data content credited to Mr Steve Griffin