The history of and frequently asked questions about hot air balloons....
It is now more than two hundred years since the first balloon took to the skies. The Montgolfier brothers, two paper makers from the southern French town of Annonay, were intrigued by the way smoke rises above a fire. They decided to capture its lifting powers with small paper and cotton balloons and, while they were mistaken in their faith in the smoke itself (or 'Phlogiston' as it was referred to at the time), they succeeded in creating the world's first hot-air balloon.
On June 5, 1783 they were ready to demonstrate their discovery to the townspeople of Annonay and a small unmanned balloon was inflated over a fire of straw faggots and then released to fly high above the town square. For their next experiment they sent a sheep, a duck and a cockerel aloft for a flight of fifteen minutes. When these pioneering creatures returned unscathed they decided it was time for a man to take to the skies.
For such an experiment to take place required the permission of the King himself and Louis, concerned by the possible risk to one of his subjects, decreed that two convicts should make the ascent. (If they survived they would be granted a royal pardon, and if they didn't...) The Montgolfier brothers were dismayed by this proposal and after much discussion with the court officials persuaded the king to relent and on 21 November 1783 a brightly decorated balloon rose above an ecstatic Parisian crowd bearing aloft the first aeronauts – the first humans to fly – Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes.
Heat for the balloon was generated by a straw fire carried in a brazier slung beneath its mouth and the two men were carried in a narrow gallery encircling it. However as the balloon was only made of paper and cotton they spent much of their time either tending the flames or dabbing out little fires from the smoldering embers with wet sponges fixed on to the end of long sticks. However the Duke d'Arlandes was unable to ignore the splendor of the panorama unfolding down below them, but de Rozier soon reminded him of their plight. 'If you look at the river in that fashion you will be likely to bathe in it soon!' Yet despite the many hazards the balloon landed safely after a flight of thirty minutes.
What are balloons made of?
The envelope is made of nylon and the basket is made of wicker. The envelope is coated with a material that helps to seal the air inside. Advancements in fabric technology and proper care provides a lifespan of about 10 to 15 years for most modern evelopes. Baskets can last much longer if maintained.
What kind of fuel is used for the burners?
To heat the air, the burners are fueled by liquid propane - just like a gas grill. Most sport balloons carry 30 to 40 gallons of propane. Depending on the passenger weight, ambient temperature, and flying conditions, that amount of fuel will typically last for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
How big are hot air balloons?
Balloons range in size from 20,000 to 315,000 cubic feet and can be as tall as 90 feet. They weigh between 50 pounds and well over 1,000 pounds. The typical sport balloon is about 77,000 to 90,000 cubic feet and can take two passengers plus the pilot.
How do you steer a balloon?
While a pilot does not have direct left or right controls, finding different wind directions at different altitudes will allow the aircraft to change speed and direction. A balloon has a vent at the top which allows the balloon to descend rapidly. Not using the burners will allow a more gradual ascent, at least initially. Pilots spend considerable time before a flight reviewing wind forecasts and planning the flight path. However, since a balloon travels with the wind, and forecasts are not always accurate, balloons may fly a path other than originally planned.
Do you need a license to fly a balloon?
Yes, hot air balloon pilots are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration after meeting training and hours requirements. They must pass a written and flight test in order to receive their license.