Since Man emerged from the primordial soup, he has wanted to take to the air. Every ancient society has its myths and legends about the dream of flight. Indian scripts recount tales of the chariots of the gods; the Egyptians had flying boats. Birdmen were a popular theory and flapping wings are the obvious route to take but we’re not built like birds. Leonardo da Vinci produced elaborate designs for a variety of flying machines. As in everything, the simple option proved a winner and in fact the first humans to fly successfully were balloonists.

But who were the first balloonists? Some have suggested that the ancient Nazca people of South America actually constructed smoke balloons and the Chinese tell of flying folk who lived by the sea. There is some evidence that a Portuguese monk invented an airship in 1685 and flew it before the Court of Lisbon but the story is muddled.

In 1783, the year that England lost its North American colonies, two French brothers were watching the smoke rise up the chimney from their fireplace. Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier came from a family of papermakers. They noticed that pieces of paper on the fire were carried out of the flames and up the chimney. They concluded that smoke had lifting properties and built a ‘receiver’ to catch the rising smoke – the first balloon.

Their experiments grew bigger and bigger until in June 1783 they went public with a 112ft circumference balloon heated by a brazier. This aerostat rose to 1,000ft.

At about the same time, Professor Jacques Charles was working on the theory that a recently discovered gas, hydrogen, could be used to lift a balloon if the envelope could be made gas-tight. His first offering, just 13ft in diameter, took to the air in August 1783 and flew 15 miles before being attacked by terrified villagers as it came down to land.

In September, the Montgolfiers sent aloft a duck, a cockerel and a sheep who flew free for eight minutes. On landing, the cockerel was found to have sustained an injury and it was initially thought that the rarified air at height had proved as dangerous as feared. It turned out, however, that an eyewitness had seen the sheep tread on the bird as the craft took off.

All France went mad for balloons. The brothers were feted; honours and prizes were heaped upon them. Yet there were some doubters. Benjamin Franklin was present at one of the ascents when somebody asked him what use these machines could have. He famously replied: “Of what use is a new-born baby?”

In October, Pilatre de Rozier ascended safely in a tethered hot air balloon and, one month later, after persuading King Louis XVI to give his permission, took to the air with one Marquis d’Arlandes for the first manned free flight which took them five miles and lasted 25 minutes. Just a few days later, Professor Charles took off in his gas balloon and flew for more than three hours. This form of balloon had obvious advantages – sharing a craft with an open fire was not altogether safe, and the Charliere model proved more popular than the Montgolfiere for almost two centuries.

Pilatre de Rozier thought he would combine both ideas with a spherical hydrogen balloon above a cylindrical envelope heated by a brazier. He believed the fire below would compensate for the loss of hydrogen and enable him to cross the Channel. Unfortunately all he discovered was that hydrogen and fire don’t mix, and he did not live to tell the tale.

So it was with hydrogen balloons that 19th century aeronauts took to the skies. Ballast was carried in the form of sandbags, and grappling hooks and ropes adorned the wicker  baskets. Balloons appeared at country fairs for the entertainment of the masses, were used in warfare for observation and became a recreational thrill for the wealthy. In 1901, the Aero Club (later the Royal Aero Club) was founded to cater for private balloonists with a field set aside at the Hurlingham Club for the inflation of balloons. The Gordon Bennett Races began in 1906, sponsored by that gentleman, owner of the New York Herald, who offered an annual cash prize.

It was not until the 1950s and 60s, when the US Office of Naval Research paid for research into a hot-air balloon system, that Ed Yost came up with the modern propane burner used today. The merits of this easily transportable system over the relatively expensive gas balloon meant that it soon became popular.

Today, the delights of ballooning are open to all. Rides operators take up to 16 passengers in an extended basket for pleasure flights all over Britain and the world. Sports balloonist compete in competitions across the globe – even the Gordon Bennett Race is still fiercely fought, one of the few times in the year that gas balloons are filled (although the gas used is usually helium now). Record breakers can’t resist the challenge of going higher and further. Others go ballooning simply because they can. Why? Because every balloon flight is an adventure. The countryside is fascinating from the air. The pilot must accept every whim of the wind and work with it to find a suitable landing place. Sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it’s fast. In faster conditions, skill and judgement must be honed and quick decisions are essential.

A flight for just two passengers (and the pilot!) is quite rare these days, and this is most often done with advertising balloons for corporate entertainment for a special experience. The use of special shape balloons began in the 80's and reached a peak in the 90's, but because of the massive growth of the internet, advertising budgets were diverted and now special shape balloons are quite rare. Lets hope they make a come back soon! 

The crew’s job is to find the balloon and visit the farmer, before helping to pack things away and transport the pilot to a nearby hostelry. A much-ignored tradition is that a first time passenger should provide a bottle of champagne. In Germany and America it is popular to hold an initiation ceremony in which – in its most extreme versions - the first time flyers have the ends of their hair set alight and extinguished with champagne!

The connection between balloonists and bubbly is said to date back to that first manned flight in France. The pilots, on landing, were mindful that Professor Charles’ unmanned balloon had been attacked with pitchforks, so they gave the gathering locals bottles of champagne to appease them.

Landing etiquette today is very similar and many current balloonists got involved after a balloon landed on their fields. Ballooning attracts all sorts and can be made to fit most pockets. If you’re interested in finding out more, ring Liz Meek on 01622 858956 or email




History of hot air ballooning

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