One of the oldest dreams of man has always been flying, lift off the ground and, like birds, sailing through the air. Some even made great wings and jumped from heights; history provides numerous failed attempts, often tragic. The dream was not possible until the curiosity of the brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolifier showed new possibilities to human creativity.
Joseph and Etienne had a paper factory and one good day they developed a new model that was a mixture between paper and silk. When they saw the paper burning, they realized that the little bits and ashes tended to rise in the air, so they concluded that if they were able to capture this air that raised the paper, the man might be able to fly.
Anyway, although these French brothers are considered the creators of balloons, long time ago the Chinese implemented the hot air elevation principle, with the Kongming lanterns, used mainly for military signaling.
At the beginnings, Joseph and Etienne thought that most of this “magic power” discovered came from smoke. Then they realized that if they capture the smoke correctly, in little bags, these bags eventually would ascend. After attempts and testing, they started wondering that if they had a giant bag with enough of that “magical power”, it could rise to heaven, even loading considerable weight. The Montgolifier brothers did not know the real explanation of why balloons flies. Today we all know that when air is heated it becomes less dense inside the balloon than outside air, what makes it ascend.
In November of the same year, Pilatre de Rozier and Marquis d ‘Arlandes led the first manned flight in a Montgolfier balloon, from the center of Paris to the suburbs of the city. Also in that year, marked by the dream of flying, a French chemist, Professor Jacques Charles, created a different model of balloons, employing hydrogen, a recently discovered chemical element. Hydrogen balloons competed very effectively with hot air balloons for many years.
After this first phase of the balloons, there were not many advances in more than a century. On August, 1932, Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard was the first to achieve a manned flight to the stratosphere. It reached 52 498 feet, setting the new altitude record, that three years later will be broke by the Explorer 2 balloon, a model of helium which rose to more than 13 miles. The Explorer 2 marked a milestone in aeronautics, showing that humans can survive in a pressurized chamber at high altitude and helped pave the way for the future space travel.
For more than 20 years, this record was held, until 1960, when the American Captain Joe Kittinger reached a height of 102 000 feet, and as if that were small, he jumped from there in a parachute, establishing the record in that specialty as well. He broke the sound barrier with his own body!
But feats aside, it was in the same 1960 that balloon development acquired new approaches, when Ed Yost presented other basic techniques that simplified ballooning: the creation of a nylon envelope and the propane burner. Although this first balloon was still primitive, Yost is considered the father of modern balloon flights.
One of the major improvements in hot air balloons was the parachute vent, sometimes also called “deflation vent”, located on the top of the balloon. The old Yost aerostat used a rip vent, a seal that could not be closed again and let all the air escape at the same time. Then, Tracy Barnes, from The Balloon Works, developed the parachute vent, that once pushed by a the rope, let escape certain amount of air from the balloon and thus, the portion remaining on it makes the vent closes again, sealing the balloon at the top once the rope is released. This allowed the pilots to open and close the vent to control the flight altitude and land with an adequate amount of air in the balloon.
Moreover, the first Pacific crossing was achieved three years later, in 1981. The Double Eagle V launched from Japan on November 10, landed 84 hours later in the Mendocino National Forest, California. The 4 drivers this time set the record for traveled distance, with 5678 miles.
In 1987, Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand were the first to cross the Atlantic in a hot air balloon, instead of helium or gas. They flew a distance of 2900 miles in a record time of 33 hours. The envelope used was the largest ever used, with 2.3 million cubic feet of capacity. A year later, Per Lindstand set another new record, this time for the flight altitude ever recorded in a single hot air balloon, 65,000 feet. Later, in 1991, the Swiss and Britain couple became the first to cross the Pacific on a hot air balloon. They traveled 6700 miles in 47 hours from Japan to Canada, at speeds up to 245 mph.
Finally, in 1999, the first flight around the world was completed, by Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones. Starting from Switzerland and landing in Africa, this flight broke all previous records, in a journey of 19 days, 21 hours and 55 minutes.
Today, most balloons baskets are made of wicker rattan and come in two main forms: rectangular or triangular. In addition to passengers and the pilot, the basket also carries propane tanks, burners and instruments such as the variometer, to measure the vertical speed, temperature indicators and altimeter, which indicates the height of the balloon above sea level.
In recent years, some improvements have also been introduced to balloons manufacturing. By their ability to withstand higher temperatures, faffeta and other nylon fabrics are being used increasingly, with a coating to hold the heat better and provide UV protection.
These improvements, and the proper formation of good pilots, have made aerostatic balloons become one of the safest ways to travel through the air.