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The History of Hot Air Balloons

Gases / Insights

Each year, roughly 70 hot air balloons depart from Memorial Park in Colorado Springs at the Labor Day Lift Off for a sunrise and sunset spectacle. Hot air balloon rides are a bucket list item for many, hoping to float above the clouds and experience the landscape in a whole, new way. Hot air balloons have graced the skies as long as we can remember, but it took some innovators, experiments, and setbacks to become the thrilling ride we know today.


The First Flight

In 1783, Joseph Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, successful paper manufacturers, demonstrated their hot air balloon invention before a crowd of dignitaries in Annonay, France. The brothers experimented with lighter-than-air devices after seeing that heated air directed into a paper or fabric bag, made the bag rise. After their testing proved successful, they decided to introduce the invention to the public.

They made a balloon of silk, lined it with paper, and powered it by a fire of wool and damp straw. The balloon was 33 feet in diameter and was launched (with no passengers) from the marketplace in Annonay on June 4, 1783. It ascended to roughly 5,200 feet for 10 minutes and traveled more than a mile. When the King of France found out about this invention, the brothers planned for a royal demonstration. For this flight, they recruited Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, a successful wallpaper manufacturer. The 30-foot balloon was coated with a varnish of alum for fireproofing and decorated with golden flourishes, zodiac signs and suns, symbolizing the French monarch of the time, King Louis XVI.


Adding Passengers

There was concern about the effects of high altitude on humans, so the brothers decided to test it with three non-human passengers. The first passengers included a sheep (whose physiology was thought to be like a human’s), a duck (a bird who could fly), and a rooster (a bird that could not fly). They felt this covered all the bases. The balloon ascended on Sept. 19, 1783. The flight lasted for eight minutes and was witnessed by the King, Marie Antoinette, and a crowd of 130,000 people. It flew about two miles before safely landing.

At this point, the Montgolfiers’ felt confident testing the balloon with humans. On Oct. 15, 1783, the brothers launched a balloon on a tether with Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a chemistry and physics teacher, as the passenger. He stayed in the air for almost four minutes.  About a month later, on Nov. 21st, Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes, a French military officer, made the first free ascent in a hot air balloon. They flew from the center of Paris to the suburbs, about 5.5 miles in 25 minutes. This flight was witnessed by Benjamin Franklin, who also wrote about the exhilarating experience.


Civil War Balloons

During the Civil War, the United States commissioned hot air balloons to gather intelligence about Confederate activity. Thaddeus Lowe, who owned a commercial balloon ride company, approached President Abraham Lincoln about using his balloons to help the Union win the war. The Union Balloon Corps was then founded in June 1861. Thaddeus inflated his first balloon on the White House lawn and attached a 500-foot tether line and telegraph line that led into the White House press office. The balloon ascended to 500 feet and sent the first telegram by air. The Union Army Balloon Corps consisted of seven balloons. The two largest were the Union, the original balloon, and the Intrepid. Both were 32,000 cubic feet and could carry five people in the basket. The balloons were intentionally colorful and easily visible to intimidate Confederate troops.


Building Blimps

Airships, often called blimps, started gaining popularity in the early 1900’s.  They were inflated by hydrogen, had engines with propellers, and had flaps to control their direction and speed. The Van Zeppelin was the first large airship. It was 420 feet long and could travel 600 miles in two days. These large blimps became the first commercial airliners. While some were made for military use, others had cabins for seating passengers.  By 1936, airships had become more common. The most famous airship was the Hindenburg, built in Germany in 1936. It was 803 feet long, 135 feet wide, and contained seven million cubic feet of gas.

Sadly, on May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg caught fire and burned in less than one minute. Of the 97 passengers on board, 35 lost their lives. Prior to this disaster, these airships had very good safety records. However, following the Hindenburg disaster, other incidents with hydrogen filled airships caused them to be gradually phased out. Blimps decreased in popularity because hydrogen was considered too dangerous, and its safer counterpart, helium, was expensive and not widely available outside the United States.


Recent Gas Balloons

NASA uses gas balloons for space and earth exploration by way of super-pressure and zero-pressure balloons. These balloons, according to NASA, are large enough to fit 195 Goodyear blimps inside of them! Super-pressure balloons look like pumpkins and can fly 120,000 feet high for up to 100 days, while zero-pressure balloons operate from shorter ascents ranging anywhere between a couple of hours to 55 days. NASA balloons can help take measurements, collect data, and even explore new planets in the galaxy. The Balloon Program has hopes to expand exploration in the atmospheres of Mars and Venus, with the help of lifting gases. Both helium and hydrogen are considered lifting gases because they are lighter than air and when these gases are released into the atmosphere, they disappear into space. Since helium is a nonrenewable resource, helium capture has been a valuable practice.


Gases for the Rocky Mountain Region

Whether you’re in need of liquid propane for hot air balloon rides and festivals, or helium for weather and space balloons, Rocky Mountain Air can provide the stock of cryogenic gases necessary for your in-flight applications. Our team of cryogenic experts are well-trained in analyzing gas needs. RMA is a resource that offers flawless dependability to partners in the Rocky Mountain region and supplies propane and butane for businesses. Contact your local branch in Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska, Utah, or Wyoming today to speak to a representative. We look forward to serving you!

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