History reveals that man has always wanted to fly. Early cave drawings show man attempting to fly with wings. It wasn’t until the curiosity of two brothers named Joseph and Etienne Montgolifier would flight for man be possible.
Joseph and Etienne were in the paper manufacturing business, and developed a new paper which was a combination of paper and silk. When they watched paper burn they noticed that little pieces of unburned paper and ashes would rise into the air. They were very fascinated by this phenomenon. They decided if they could capture this air man would be able to use this to fly.
At first they thought that most of this “magical power” came from smoke. Then they discovered if they captured the smoke in just the right way within small bags, the bags would eventually rise into the air. Later they figured out if they made a large “bag” containing enough of this “magical power,” it could ascend high into the sky lifting considerable weight. At that time they didn’t realize why heated air made a “Balloon” rise into the sky. We now know that when air is heated it becomes less dense inside the balloon than the air outside the balloon allowing it to rise.
The first hot air balloon flight was conducted by the Montgolfier brothers from Annonay, France on June 5, 1783. The envelope was made of linen and paper. The unmanned balloon had a volume of 23,308 cubic feet and the air within was heated from a fire on the ground. The first passengers were actually a pig, duck, and rooster. The Montgolfier balloon flew 1 mile from the starting point. On November 21, 1783, Pilatre de Rozier and Marquis d’Arlandes made the first manned flight in a Montgolfier balloon from the center of Paris to the city’s suburbs.
Also in 1783, on August 27th, a French chemist Jacques Charles invented a different type of balloon that used hydrogen to get its lift. Hydrogen had just been discovered several years before and was very explosive. These gas balloons competed very effectively with hot air balloons for many years.
Eventually, the Irish added a toast for hot air ballooning that reads as follows:
“The winds have welcomed us with softness. The sun has blessed us with its warm hands. We have flown so high and so well that God has set us gently back into the loving arms of mother earth.”
Basically there were very few advances to ballooning for about 150 years. People then became interested in fixed wing aircraft (airplanes). The rebirth of ballooning occurred in 1960. Gas ballooning was expensive and the balloons were hard to control. Ed Yost developed basic techniques that made hot air ballooning practical. He built a balloon made of nylon and heated the air inside the balloon with a propane burner. Even though the balloon was primitive, Ed Yost is considered to be the father of modern day ballooning.
One of the most important improvements to hot air balloons is the parachute valve, sometimes called the deflation vent, located at the top of the balloon. Yost’s balloon used a rip vent, a seal which could not be resealed and let all of the air escape at once. Then Tracy Barnes of The Balloon Works developed the parachute valve, that when pulled down by a line would let some of the air out of the balloon. The remaining air inside of the balloon caused the valve to push back upward and reseal itself in the top of the balloon when the line was released. This allowed pilots to open and close the valve during the flight if necessary to control their altitude and land with air remaining in the balloon.
Today, most balloon baskets are made of rattan wicker. Balloon baskets come in two main shapes: rectangular or triangular. In addition to carrying the passengers and pilot, the basket also contains the propane tanks, burner, and instruments. One instrument that shows the vertical speed up or down is called the Variometer. The second instrument that shows the temperature at the top of the balloon and the ambient temperature is the digital temperature gauge. The third instrument is the Altimeter which tells how high the balloon is above sea level.
There have been recent improvements in fabrics used to manufacture balloons. Taffeta has replaced nylon in many cases because of its ability to withstand higher temperatures. Both taffeta and nylon fabrics are treated with a coating to better contain the heat and provide ultraviolet protection. All fabrics used in balloons are certified by the FAA for use.
All of these improvements along with good pilot training have made hot air ballooning one of the safest forms of air travel.