Ballooning is the earliest and perhaps the purest form of flying.
To look at its origins we have to go back to 1783 and to the small town of Annonay in the south of France, home of paper manufacturers the Montgolfier brothers.
They constructed a, frankly, flimsy craft made of paper and cotton. By accident, they managed to capture the lifting properties of what they called ‘phlogiston’, believing that smoke held the key to lift. What in fact lifted their craft was the heat generated by burning faggots of straw!
After an initial test with what would almost certainly have been a very confused sheep, duck and cockerel in September, humans first took to the skies on 21st November 1783.
Upon hearing the news, a whole host of institutions across Europe immediately set out to outdo the Montgolfiers.
First up was Professor Charles of Paris, who just ten days after the Montgolfier flight, set off his hydrogen-filled balloon. Gas-filled balloons were a much more attractive option than hot air at this point. Hot air balloons were larger, hot air was much less efficient as a lifting method and they were a lot more prone to, well, setting on fire!
As such it was no surprise that gas ballooning dominated the lighter-than-air landscape for almost two centuries from this point.
It was thanks to the US Navy that hot air ballooning staged an unlikely comeback in the late 1950s. They were exploring whether balloons could be used as a way of rescuing downed fighter pilots and, more excitingly, deploying US spies behind enemy lines!
Whilst testing this they developed lightweight fabrics and an airtight ‘envelope’ (the balloon part of a balloon), using propane as an efficient and safe source of generating the heat needed to lift the balloon.
Since then, hot air ballooning has thrived, surpassing gas ballooning to become the most popular form of lighter-than-air aviation.
1783 – September
The first ever hot air balloon flight with a duck, sheep and cockerel in command.
1783 – November
Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes flew from Paris in a genuine ‘hot air’ balloon created out of paper-lined cloth by wealthy brothers and papermakers Jacques Étienne and Joseph Michel Montgolfier. This was the first ever manned hot air balloon flight.
1784 – First balloon flight in the UK
Scottish aviator James Tyler became the first person to fly in a hot air balloon in the UK, from Edinburgh. Shortly afterwards he was pipped to the post of being the first person to fly over England, by an Italian diplomat – Vincenzo Lunardi.
1870 – Balloons go to war!
Hot air balloons were first used for military observation during the Franco-Prussian War. Rather excitingly, during this conflict a French Minister had to jump out of a balloon and perform a commando roll over the middle of Paris! Balloons would go on to be used for enemy observation by both sides in the First World War.
1906 – The Inception of the Gordon Bennett Race
American millionaire sportsman and owner of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, founded the Gordon Bennett Balloon Trophy Race with a simple aim: to fly as far away as possible from the start line. The first race saw a group of Hydrogen gas balloons launch from Paris on 30th September 1906. After pausing for the First World War, and then ending in 1938, the Race was resurrected in 1979 and now takes place every year. The current reigning champions are the Swiss team of Laurent Sciboz and Nicolas Tieche, who flew a distance of 1,774.76 kilometres. The furthest distance ever flown in a Gordon Bennett was by the Belgian team of Bob Berben and Benoît Siméons, who flew a staggering 3,400.39km from the start line in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Gordon Bennett race launched from the UK in 2010.
1960 – Modern hot air ballooning is born
Ed Yost, an American inventor from Bristow, Iowa, is regarded as the father of the modern hot air balloon, after inventing a propane burner to propel hot air into the balloon. On 22 October 1960, Yost made the first ever free flight of a modern hot air balloon from Bruning, Nebraska. The rest is history…
1965 – The British Balloon and Airship Club is born
The BBAC springs into life in 1965 to provide a home for lighter-than-air enthusiasts in the UK.
1967 – First modern hot air balloon in Western Europe
BBAC President Don Cameron was part of a team that built the first modern hot air balloon in Western Europe, Bristol Belle, launching from Weston-on-the-Green in Oxfordshire in 1967.
There is now a global community of thousands of pilots, with the UK one of the leading figures in the industry with close to 1,000 pilots, two of the leading balloon manufacturers in the world and dozens of hot air balloon festivals.
The UK also has a thriving passenger rides industry, with thousands of people each year now taking pleasure flights, often accompanied by champagne.
There is also a thriving competition ballooning market, with the UK producing some of the best competition pilots in recent years.
We invite you to join our wonderful global community.
Ballooning World Records
Altitude Flight Record:
On 26th November, 2005 Vijaypat Singhania set the world altitude record for highest hot air balloon flight, reaching 21,290m (69,850ft). He launched from downtown Bombay, India and landed 240km (150 miles) south in Panchale.
Largest Mass Balloon Ascent:
The largest ever mass balloon ascent took place in Lorraine, France in 2017. As part of the Lorraine Mondial Air Ballons Festival (known in the ballooning world simple as Metz), 456 balloons lifted off from the ‘Grande Ligne’ (Great Line) as part of the same ascent, beating the previous record held by the very same event in its previous edition in 2015. The record was matched at the 2019 event and organisers will no doubt hope to beat it again at the next event in 2021!
The Oldest Person to Fly in a Hot Air Balloon:
Emma Carol was 109 years old when she flew for an hour in a hot air balloon in 1895. Her record still stands.
Circumnavigating the World in a Balloon:
The first two people to circumnavigate the world were Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard in March 1999. They took off from Bertrand’s home country, Switzerland, and landed in Morocco after flying for 21 days. Since then, it became the challenge to circumnavigate the world by balloon on a solo attempt. Only two people have circumnavigated the world in a balloon solo. American Steve Fossett was the first person to do this in 2002, taking off in Western Australia and landing in Queensland, Australia thirteen days and twelve hours later. The record holder is Fedor Konyukhov, a Russian Orthodox Priest, who in July 2016 took off in Northam, Western Australia and landed back eleven days later, flying over his launch site in his hybrid hot-air helium balloon, constructed in the UK by Cameron Balloons. Fedor now plans to travel in a balloon into the stratosphere.
Flying over the Atlantic in a Balloon:
Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand became the first people to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon in 1987, taking off from Sugarloaf, Maine and landing in Limavady in Northern Ireland. The 3,075-mile journey took 31 hours and 41 minutes.