While history usually associates the Wright Brothers with fostering the beginnings of human aviation, the actual first human-crewed hot air balloon flights preceded the invention of the first airplane by more than a century.
Long before the Wright Brothers began tinkering with the idea of machine-powered flight in their Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop, the Montgolfier brothers were developing lighter-than-air aviation in France. Their first hot air balloon designs were intended eventually to transport people safely through the air to distant locations.
The Montgolfiers performed the first hot air balloon demonstration at the Palace of Versailles on September 19, 1783. The balloon’s passenger compartment carried a duck, sheep, and a rooster and flew about two miles, reaching a height of about 2000 feet before descending back to Earth after eight minutes because of a tear in the balloon fabric.
Using the Montgolfier design, the first-ever untethered human ascension took off on November 23, 1783. Constructed primarily of paper and silk, the hot air balloon supported a circular platform at its base to accommodate the two voyagers, Francois Pilatrê de Rozier and Francois Laurent, plus the burner and fuel needed to heat the air within the balloon.
Lifted by the warm air from the wood-burning fire at the base, the balloon flew five-and-one-half miles in about 25 minutes, reaching a maximum altitude of about 500 feet.
Only ten days later, on December 1, 1783, two other French balloonists, Jacques Charles and Nicholas Robert, “revolutionized” the art of ballooning by introducing hydrogen to their balloons to create the “lighter-than-air” quality of the balloon. This second landmark flight, also originating in Paris, flew for 2 ½ hours for around 25 miles.
Early Gas vs. Hot Air Balloons
Gas balloons filled with hydrogen were considered more efficient in those early days since they did not require a continuous fire. The lightest of all elements, Hydrogen could keep the balloons aloft longer while the altitude was more easily adjustable.
Following those initial pioneering flights, the new breed of aviators tackled new and more significant challenges, hoping to set records.
Following some tragic failures by others, balloonists Jean Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries became the first gas balloonists to cross the English Channel, traveling west to east guided by the prevailing wind currents.
The first documented human-crewed balloon flight launch in the United States occurred in Philadelphia in 1793 with George Washington in attendance. The craft landed in Gloucester County, New Jersey, about 30 miles away, after reaching an altitude of 5,800 feet.
Ballooning in the 19th Century
Gas balloons became the primary mode of air travel during the 1800s, although the cost and time required to fill the balloons sufficiently were prohibitive for most people.
At the time, hot air-powered ballooning was not considered practical since no safe and efficient controllable heat-producing device was available to manage the lift and altitude changes required to take off and land at a designated location.
Airships of the 1900s
The first genuinely commercial, passenger-carrying hydrogen-filled airships appeared in the early 1900s. Known as dirigibles or blimps, these cigar-shaped balloons carried a passenger compartment known as a “gondola” and were used for both commercial and military applications.
Eventually, after the famous disaster of the Hindenburg in 1937 following a transatlantic passenger flight, the popularity of those highly flammable hydrogen-filled balloons began to wane.
Safe and Dependable Hot Air Balloon Flights
As gas-filled balloons began disappearing, the modern hot air balloon operated with propane gas burners became the primary option.
In 1960, Paul E. Yost and his team from Raven Industries from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, engineered a balloon and burner combination that could keep the balloon aloft indefinitely and allowed the pilot to control altitude easily by heating and cooling the air within the balloon.
Subsequently, NASA created sophisticated versions that can reach altitudes sufficient to act as satellites to study elements of outer space and the Earth itself.
Today, the technology and safety of hot air ballooning have progressed to a point where flights for recreation are commonplace worldwide.
Balloons Above the Valley
Today, professional hot air balloon companies like Balloon Above the Valley of Napa Valley, California, operate safe and memorable excursions everywhere. These flights allow guests to enjoy panoramic views and experience a sense of freedom and quiet as they drift peacefully above the vineyards and wineries of beautiful Napa Valley.
To learn more or make a reservation for your morning Napa Valley hot air balloon flight, visit the Balloons Above the Valley website.
Want to know more about how a hot air balloon works? Read more here
Original Blog Posted: 8/31/18
Reserve your Hot Air Balloon Flight
You may also reserve your morning hot air balloon flight for yourself or your group by contacting Balloons Above the Valley reservationists.