The five biggest milestones in the history of hot air ballooning

Hot air ballooning, whether considered as a hobby, a sport or both, has a long and fascinating history in which to delve. With this in mind, here are some of the biggest milestones.

Europe’s first successful balloon launch

As long ago as 3BC, the Chinese are thought to have used small rice paper balloons for signalling or to carry messages, powered by simple burners such as candles. Balloons did not take off in Europe until much later. In fact, it was 1709 when Europe’s first officially recorded hot air balloon flight took place in Portugal. The Portuguese king, along with his courtiers, observed in wonder as the priest Bartolomeu de Gusmão managed to launch a tiny hot air balloon. Even though the balloon only travelled a few metres above the floor it caused a sensation, as such a demonstration had not been seen in Europe before. Sadly, reports that de Gusmão himself later flew in a balloon cannot be confirmed, but manned flights would take place before the end of the century.

The first flight with living passengers

In 1783, a tethered hot air balloon was successfully flown, carrying a cargo consisting of three farm animals – a duck, a sheep and a chicken. This project was the work of the Montgolfier brothers, who lived in the Ardèche area of France. As paper manufacturers, they had, for a long time, noticed the behaviour of burning paper and its tendency to lift into the air. This inspired them to experiment with paper and fabric to create hot air balloons.

The first untethered manned flight

Also in 1783, which was a great year in hot air ballooning history, the first manned flight in an untethered balloon was achieved. Two men, a professor known as Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes, flew for several miles over Paris, spending almost half an hour in the air. Their balloon had been constructed by the Montgolfier brothers.

First manned flight in Britain

British balloon enthusiasts took some time to catch up with all that was happening in Europe, but, particularly around Bristol, a number of experimental flights took place. A number of unmanned balloons were released into the skies in the Bristol area and, finally, Vincenzo Lunardi carried out Britain’s first manned trip in a hot air balloon, taking off from London in 1784. Bristol has continued to be one of the UK’s foremost locations for ballooning activity.

Invention of the portable burner

After the first manned flights, experimentation led to experts finding that hydrogen gas balloons flew better than their hot air counterparts. Finally, in the 1960s, the American Edward Yoast came up with a design for a portable burner that could reheat the air inside a balloon’s envelope during a flight. Previously, it had been possible to heat balloons only once, at the beginning of a flight, using fires on the ground. Portable burners transformed the popularity of hot air balloons, making them the most common option for all but long flights.

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