Although China, France and Italy were the countries most active in hot air ballooning’s formative years, Britain has more than played its part in the history of ballooning, and helped it become the safe, popular and vastly enjoyable pastime it is today.
As an island nation cut off from mainland Europe, Britain has always been fascinated by aviation, and its geography and climate lends itself well to setting to the skies. We have a lot of windy weather in this country, which is ideal for propelling balloons, and the lush, green scenery experienced while in the skies means it’s not surprising that Brits through the years have always been attracted to the idea of hot air ballooning.
Early ballooning in Britain
Scotland was the first part of Britain to take up ballooning, with brave Forfarshire aviation enthusiast James Tytler giving it a shot in 1784. He had mixed success in his aerial ventures of that year, with his flights ranging from getting just a couple of feet off the ground, to soaring 350 feet into the air, to his balloon leaving without him in the basket.
The first piloted balloon flight in England took place in London that same year. The English, however, were not so confident about the safety of ballooning, so it was left to Italian aeronaut Vicenzo Lunardi to show how it was done. He had a few helpers as well, in the form of a dog, a caged pigeon and a seemingly airsick cat that was reportedly “handed out” to the crowd from the balloon – although whether the poor feline would have found this a preferable alternative to airsickness is questionable!
Into the 1800s
Two notable English balloonists active in the 19th Century were James Sadler and Charles Green. Sadler was the first Englishman to fly in a hot air balloon, taking in the skies of Oxfordshire, Surrey and Lancashire over the years, but his life was sadly touched by tragedy when his son fell from a balloon. Green, meanwhile, seemed to mimic Lunardi’s fondness for taking animals in balloons, and is rumoured to have flown with such creatures as a pony and a bull in his basket.
The Bristol Belle
Britain’s first hot air balloon to resemble anything like what we see in the skies today was 1967’s Bristol Belle. After the modern balloon was designed by American Ed Yost in the 1950s, a group of UK Gliding Club members from Bristol followed suit and built the Belle.
It had one or two teething problems in its early days, but was gracefully in the skies by July 1967. Three years later, it was being used not only to wow crowds, but for practical purposes, as it shipped mail to Malta after launching from the HMS Ark Royal.
One member of the team behind the Belle was Don Cameron, who today owns Bristol-based Cameron Balloons, which has grown to become the world’s biggest hot air balloon manufacturer. In 2001, Cameron was given an honorary degree by the University of the West of England as the West Country city continues to take pride in its ballooning heritage.