Heading towards the skies has always fascinated mankind. And hot air ballooning has played a big part in it throughout history. In its early stages long distance and high altitude ballooning were dominated by helium and gas filled balloons with a slow progression from crossing the English Channel to crossing the Atlantic, the Pacific and finally non-stop around the world.
On the 19th September 1783 Pilatre De Rozier, a scientist, launched the first hot air balloon called ‘Aerostat Reveillon’. The passengers were a sheep, a duck and a rooster and the balloon stayed in the air for a grand total of 15 minutes before crashing back to the ground in front of an audience of 130,000 people. But hey, the start was made! He even got his face on a stamp for this achievement.
The first manned attempt came about 2 months later on the 21st November, with a balloon made by 2 French brothers, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier. The balloon was launched from the centre of Paris and flew for a period of 20 minutes. The birth of hot air ballooning.
Just 2 years later in 1785 a French balloonist, Jean Pierre Blanchard, and his American co pilot, John Jefferies, became the first to fly across the English Channel, which in the early days of ballooning, was considered the first step to long distance ballooning.
Unfortunately, this same year Pilatre de Rozier (the world’s first balloonist) was killed in his attempt at crossing the channel. His balloon exploded half an hour after takeoff due to the experimental design of using a hydrogen balloon and hot air balloon tied together.
The next major pivotal point in balloon history was on January 7th 1793. Jean Pierre Blanchard became the first to fly a hot air balloon in North America. George Washington was even present to see the balloon launch.
REACHING THE STRATOSPHERE
Now a large jump in time, of over 100 years: In August of 1932 Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard was the first to achieve a manned flight to the Stratosphere. He reached a height of 52,498 feet, setting the world’s altitude record. Over the next couple of years, altitude records continued to be set and broken every couple of months – the race was on to see who would reach the highest point.
In 1935 a new altitude record was set and it remained at this level for the next 20 years. The balloon Explorer 2, a gas helium model reached an altitude of 72,395 feet (13.7 miles)! For the first time in history, it was proven that humans could survive in a pressurized chamber at extremely high altitudes. This flight set a milestone for aviation and helped pave the way for future space travel.
The Altitude record was famously set again in 1960 when Captain Joe Kittinger parachute jumped from the Excelsior 3 balloon that reached a height of 102,000 feet. The balloon broke the altitude record and Captain Kittinger, the high altitude parachute jump record.
In October 2012 this legendary record was broken by Felix Baumgartner in the highly publicized Red Bull Stratos – Mission to the Edge of Space. Baumgartner flew a helium balloon up to an altitude of 38,969m, jumped off, free fell down for 4 min. and 19 sec. in a pressurized suit, reached a speed of 1,357.64 km/h (843.6 mph), before landing safely with his specially designed parachute. [Full story and pics here]
THE ATLANTIC CHALLENGE
In 1978, the Double Eagle II became the first balloon to cross the Atlantic, another major benchmark in the History of Ballooning. After many unsuccessful attempts (see Herefor more detailed accounts) this mighty Ocean had finally been cracked. It was a helium filled model, carrying 3 passengers, Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman. They set the new flight duration record time at 137 hours.
THE PACIFIC CHALLENGE
The first Pacific crossing was achieved 3 years later in 1981. The Double Eagle V launched from Japan on November 10th and landed 84 hours later in Mendocino National Forest, California. The 4 pilots set a new distance record at 5,678 miles. Three years after this, in 1984, Captain Joe Kittinger – the same Kittinger that set the world altitude parachuting record at 102,800 ft. in 1960 – flew 3,535 miles on the first solo transatlantic balloon flight, setting yet another record.
FROM HELIUM & GAS TO HOT AIR BALLOONING
In 1987 Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand were the first to cross the Atlantic in a hotair balloon, rather than a helium/gas filled balloon. They flew a distance of 2,900 miles in a record breaking time of 33 hours. At the time, the envelope they used was the largest ever flown, at 2.3 million cubic feet of capacity. A year later, Per Lindstrand set yet another record, this time for the highest solo flight ever recorded in a hot air balloon at 65,000 feet
The great team of Richard Branson – the charismatic businessman who would later come to write more airspace history by founding Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic – and Per Lindstrand paired up again in 1991. They became the first to cross the Pacific in a hot air balloon as they travelled 6,700 miles in 47 hours, from Japan to Canada breaking the world distance record, travelling at speeds of up to 245 mph.
Four years later, Steve Fossett became the first to complete the Transpacific balloon route by himself, travelling from Korea and landing in Canada 4 days later.
It was only then that the world’s ballooning pioneers started setting their eyes on a non-stop around the world balloon circumnavigation.
1999 finally became the year in which the first, non-stop around the world flight was completed by Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones. Leaving from Switzerland and landing in Africa, they smashed all previous distance records, flying for 19 days, 21 hours and 55 minutes in their Breitling Orbiter 3.
Now in the 21st century more and stranger ballooning challenges and records are being created and broken. Cluster ballooning – where people fly a big set of very small balloons – being one of the most visually spectacular ones. Jonathan Trappe is the world’s leading expert in this. Among other things he cluster ballooned across the English Channel and he flew a real house using cluster balloons inspired by the Pixar animation movie Up!
Ballooning kicks indeed some serious ass!