Hot air balloons predate all other forms of manned aircraft by more than a hundred years. They were invented, tested and eventually operated by men (and sometimes women) of great courage and ingenuity, whose efforts helped, quite literally, to propel civilisation upward into the sky.
Everyone has an idea of what a balloon is and how it works. A balloon contains air which is heated so that it rises into the air, carrying with it whatever cargo might be attached. Usually, this comes in the form of a basket in which a pilot and some passengers can stand in.
Some people might even know a great deal about the history of this iconic piece of technology. But there are some elements of the balloon and its origins which might surprise even aficionados. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the stranger facts about hot-air balloons.
1. Hot air balloons were first tested on animals
One of the more widely-known (but no less bizarre for being so) facts about the hot-air balloons is that its first test-pilots were a trio of farm animals – a rooster, a duck and a sheep named Montauciel (which means, appropriately enough, “climb-to-the-sky” in French). It was thought that Montauciel, being a land animal, would be able to simulate the effects flight would have on a human. His two companions, meanwhile, would serve as controls.
The experiment was performed in the royal palace of Versailles, in front of an expectant crowd including King Louis XVI and Mary Antoinette – a decade before they were to lose their heads. The flight was a resounding success, with all three occupants ascending fifteen-hundred feet in the air for ten minutes before descending unharmed. The world of ballooning (and of manned flight in general) owes a great deal to these three animal pioneers – their success paved the way to those that followed.
2. Hot air balloons were going to be tested on criminals
Obviously, once animals had successfully gone up into the air, the next logical step was to move to human trials. But King Louis was not about to let just anyone go up in the air. He suggested that condemned criminals, being the most expendable sorts of people, should be the first to test the new contraption.
The balloon’s co-inventor, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, along with the Marquis François d’Arlandes, objected to this – though not for moral reasons. It was important that at least one of the balloon’s pilots knew how to operate the balloon and few qualified people were willing to voluntarily put themselves into a small, inescapable space with a hardened criminal. Move over, they wanted the honour for themselves. The king was eventually won over and the two men successfully performed the first manned hot-air balloon flight in 1783.
3. The first man up on the balloon was also the first man to die in one
Unfortunately for Francois, his tenure as a hot-air balloon pilot was short-lived. A couple of years after his successful test flight, he decided to move onto more ambitious projects. He designed a balloon which, he claimed, would be able to cross the English Channel. His claim proved unsuccessful and fatally so unfortunately.
The new balloon stayed afloat by using a mixture of hydrogen and heated air. Francois’ mistake was to underestimate the explosive potential of the former of these two gasses – particularly when heated by the latter. Thus, midway across his voyage, his craft exploded, killing everyone on board.
4. The first balloonists to successfully cross the English Channel did so without any trousers.
The world of ballooning was undeterred by the tragedy and the next attempt to cross the channel in a balloon proved a successful one. It did, however, come at a cost – midway across the channel, the two pilots realised that they were losing height. They needed to discard everything aboard – the anchors they were carrying, the oars with which they hoped to steer the craft through the air, a propeller and even their trousers. When they arrived at the other end, to the amusement of onlookers, they emerged wearing only their underwear – but the trip was a success, all the same.
5. A duel has taken place between balloonists
By 1808, duelling was still a widely-practiced means of resolving disputes between men who, for whatever reason, had besmirched one another’s reputation. But one particular duel of that year was a little different than the others – mainly due to the height at which it took place.
Two Parisian gentlemen were arguing over the affections of a celebrated dancer and decided the best way to resolve the dispute was to get into balloons, float high above the streets of Paris and float high into the air. Onlookers could see that some form of competition was to follow, but most of them imagined that some sort of race was about to take place. To everyone’s great surprise, the two men produced blunderbusses and began to shoot at one another, until one balloon was punctured and fell to earth, killing its occupants. What took place thereafter between the victor and the woman is unclear.
6. Balloons were used for reconnaissance
A balloon was used for a long time as a means of looking over great distances. This is particularly useful during wartime, for spying enemy movements from afar. During the French revolution, a balloon was tethered to the French position by an enormous, long rope. Its occupants would take note of the movements of the Austrian forces in the neighbouring valleys, take notes and drop them down for the French Generals to read.
It is unclear the extent to which the balloons contributed to French military success though and the balloons were dispensed with in subsequent campaigns. This practice has since fallen into obsolescence: of course, there are now easier ways of discovering your enemy’s movements – and far easier ways of blowing up a distant enemy spy-balloon, should one appear over the horizon.
7. The world record for highest hot-air balloon trip is 70,000 feet
The world record for highest balloon trip is held by a Google executive called Alan Eustace, who ascended more than one-hundred and thirty-five thousand feet into the air before falling to Earth, and thereby smashed the previous record famously set by Felix Baumgartner in 2012.
These records, however, were set using helium-balloons rather than traditional hot-air balloons. The record for a hot-air balloon is a great deal lower, at a mere seventy-thousand feet. It was reached in 2005 by an Indian named Vijaypat Singhania and has yet to be broken.
8. Post-balloon champagne began as a peace offering
Every balloonist knows of the post-flight champagne tradition; once the flight is over and done with, and the balloon is packed away, it’s time to uncork a bottle of bubbly and celebrate. But few people know of the origins of this bizarre practice.
When hot-air ballooning first came about, it was hugely popular with the French upper-classes. It was less so, however, with the French agriculture industry. Farmers across France suddenly had to contend with aristocrats sailing over their land, setting down wherever the wind took them and terrifying the livestock.
Champagne was thus shared between the pilots and any onlooker who might have gathered at the landing site. A few glasses, it transpired, were enough to smooth any tensions – and thus a longstanding tradition was born.
9. The air within a hot-air balloon can be hot enough to boil water
It may come as no surprise that the air inside a balloon can get hot – it can even exceed a hundred degrees! It is this limitation which prevented hot-air balloons from gaining popularity until very recently – the materials just could not handle temperatures that high for long periods of time and durability was a big problem. In a modern balloon, the envelope (the material which forms the outer shell of the balloon itself) is made of sheets of material which can withstand temperatures more than twice as hot. This advance has contributed, perhaps more than any other, to the popularity of the hot-air balloon exceeding that of its gas-propelled cousins.
10. Early balloons could be dangerous to those below
When balloons were becoming popular during the first half of the 20th century, they posed an unexpected health risk to the onlookers below. Physicians would, wherever a balloon fair passed by, be inundated with injuries – not as a result of falling debris or malfunction in the balloon, but by cricks in the necks of people who spent so much time looking upward! Doctors would, in many cases, end up prescribing ointment used to soothe lame horses.
The problem came to a head during the career of the Allen family, who would perform spectacularly dangerous acrobatics while suspended from the bottom of a ‘smoke balloon’ – a balloon filled with hot smoke and then shot up into the air – only to parachute to safety afterwards. They all emerged unharmed from their escapades – unlike the stiff-necked onlookers below.