The History of Ballooning

I've put together a history section here for those of you who might enjoy. From time to time I update it given some of the e-mail I get from some readers and the current events regarding RTW flight. Please realize that I can't print a book with every detail. I have taken excerpts from several different sources including my own personal collection of ballooning related books. (I have a bunch that I'm always adding to but still lack many I've seen.) I have studied what I could from the Web and there are some pretty great versions out there too. Please enjoy yourself and if you have any questions, comments or anything you might think I might want to add, please correspond with me.

There is a story that Joseph Montgolfier was musing one day on the problem of how the French Army could possibly storm the British-held Rock of Gibraltar, which was impregnable by land and sea. He was seated in front of the fireplace where his wife had hung up her nightgown to dry. At one point the smoke and heat from the fire filled the gown with hot air and it billowed out and lifted up to the ceiling. Joseph suddenly realized that the British Forces might be overcome by attack from the air, and thus his quest to build a hot air balloon, with his brother Jacque's help, began.

In September of 1783 the Montgolfier brothers launched a trial balloon with a sheep, a duck and a cock on board. While the cock died from a broken neck on landing, the other animals survived, proving that it was possible to breathe up there in the sky. So plans were made to launch the first manned hot air balloon in the presence of the King of France. On November 21, 1783, Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d' Arlandes flew for 20 minutes plus, reaching a height of 3000 feet and a distance of about 8 km before landing. Shortly thereafter, on December 1, 1783, Professor Jacques Charles flew in his hydrogen gas filled balloon, proving that the unreliable hot air balloon was not the only mode of transport.

It was not until almost a year after the invention of the balloon that the English were convinced of man's conquest of the air. A number of attempts were made but they turned out so badly that people were skeptical of the craze for flying which had swept over France.

The first manned flight in the United Kingdom was made on September 14, 1784, Vincent Lunardi, a young Italian, an employee of the Italian Embassy in London. Launching from the Royal Artillery Grounds in front of a large crowd which included the Prince of Wales and many eminent statesmen, in a hydrogen balloon, brightly decorated, Lunardi ascended with a dog, a cat, and a pigeon, and traveled 24 miles. His friend George Biggin had planned to accompany him, but the impatience of the crowd forced Lunardi to make the attempt before the bag was completely inflated. The British were immediately captivated by the fad of ballooning and Lunardi became the most sought after person in London. Lunardi proceeded to launch many more times in the UK and Europe.

In 1785, de Rozier thought to experiment with a hybrid of the two types of balloon. Since each type had its advantages, would not a combination of the two be even better? But the balloon caught fire and exploded half an hour after takeoff, and de Rozier fell to his death.

The first manned flight in the United States was made on 9 January 1793 by Frenchman Jean Pierre-Francois Blanchard from near what is now Independence Square in downtown Philadelphia in the presence of President George Washington and Benjamin Franklin to what is now Deptford, New Jersey.

As the story is told, Blanchard could not speak English so he carried a letter from the President explaining his presence. (Could this be the first "Airmail"?) Remember, no one in America had ever seen man in flight. Blanchard had in his presence a bottle of Champagne with which to capture the attention of the land owner before he could destroy his balloon with a pitchfork! Thus the tradition came to America.

American, John Wise was active in American ballooning in the first half of the 19th century, and even attempted to fly across the Atlantic but was unsuccessfull. During the American Civil War, both the Union and the Confederate Armies made extensive use of tethered balloons for reconnaissance purposes.

John Wise, a professional balloonist from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, knew upper air currents in the Midwest blew from west to east. He believed that he could carry light mail and passengers in a balloon from the Midwest to the East Coast. The citizens of Lafayette, Indiana invited Wise to prove his theory. On August 16, 1859, thousands of people gathered to watch. An accident delayed the trip until August 17. Finally, Wise ascended with official U.S. Post Office mail--123 letters and 23 pamphlets. Wise's destination was New York City. He descended in Crawfordsville, Indiana. The U.S. Post Office issued a commemorative stamp on the centennial of the trip, August 17, 1959. Sources: Lafayette Journal and Courier, August 15, 1959; Richard B. Wetherill, "The First Official Air Mail," Indiana Magazine of History, 35:4 (December 1939), 390-99.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 saw Paris completely cut off from the outside world by the Prussian Army. Balloons were used by the Parisians to carry mail and dignitaries out of the city, providing the only contact they had with the outside world. The tremendous impact of ballooning in that war led to the formation of the Aero Club de France in 1898, founded to promote the development of manned flight.

In 1905, the Aero Clubs of nine nations met in Paris and formed the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the world's first organization created specifically to promote worldwide co-operation in the advancement of flight. Today, the FAI has 93 member countries and is responsible for regulating all international air sport competition and validates all world records for everything from balloons to aeroplanes, parachutists and even hang-gliders.

In 1906, the first Coup Gordon Bennett balloon race was held. The world's oldest air race, this competition rewarded the country whose balloon flew the greatest distance non-stop. The winning country would then hold the following year's race. In 1906 the first winner was America's Frank Lahm. The Coup Gordon Bennett has been held most years since then, except for during the World Wars and from 1946 to 1982.

In 1931, Auguste Piccard and Paul Kipfer made the first flight into the stratosphere from Switzerland, and in 1935 the US Army and the National Geographic Society sponsored another stratospheric flight from South Dakota, USA called the Explorer II.

Following the Second World War, ballooning suffered a loss of popularity. During the 1950's and 1960's most ballooning done was scientific in nature. Large plastic balloons were used to carry instrumentation up into the sky, and on August 16, 1960, US Air Force Captain Joseph W. Kittinger jumped out of a balloon at 102,800 feet altitude and holds that parachuting record to this day. Rocketing downward for 13 minutes, he falls at more than 600 miles per hour almost breaking the sound barrier with his body. The current absolute altitude record for balloons is held by Comdr. Malcolm D. Ross and Lt. Comdr. Victor A. Prather of the USA for an altitude of 34,668 metres (113,739.90 feet) in "Strato-Lab V." After launching from a U.S. Naval ship in the Gulf of Mexico upon landing, Prather drowns when his pressure suit fills with water.

Modern sport ballooning really began in 1960 when Raven Industries of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA developed the first modern hot air balloon which was first flown by Ed Yost. The sport grew slowly until the 1970's when Don Cameron in the UK and Sid Cutter in the USA founded small balloon rallies which have since grown into the largest ones on each continent. In fact, the American rally, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, is currently the largest gathering of balloons in the world.

In the late 1970's, however, Don Cameron of the United Kingdom decided to try flying this "roziere" type balloon again, only using non-flammable helium, and in 1978 almost made it across the Atlantic in such a balloon, the "Zanussi," proving that roziere balloons were not only possible, but practical. As a result most of the more recent round-the-world balloon attempts are using this roziere technology.

The first Atlantic crossing by balloon was August 12, 1978 when Americans Maxie Anderson, Ben Abruzzo and Larry Newman launched in Presque Isle, Maine and landed in Miserey, France in Double Eagle II. November 10-12, 1981 saw the first Trans-Pacific balloon crossing with Ron Clark, Rocky Aoki and Larry Newman in Double Eagle V. Nagashima, Japan to Covelo, California.

The first attempt to fly around the world in a balloon was made by Maxie Anderson and Don Ida starting in Luxor, Egypt on January 11, 1981. They were forced to land in India, and two later attempts in 1982 and 1983 were unsuccessful.

The first solo Trans-Atlantic flight was made by Joe W. Kittinger, flying "Rosie O'Grady", September 14-18, 1984 starting from Caribou, Maine and terminating Savona, Italy.

A younger Wm. G. (Bill) Scarberry, Jr. gets introduced to ballooning by I.V.Cunningham, a hot air balloonist from Milton, West Virginia's Fox Fire Camping Resort; October 4, 1989 Scarberry becomes licensed as a private pilot and by July 27, 1991 becomes a commercially rated LTA Free Balloon Pilot.

In March of 1988 John Petrehn tried to circle the globe from Argentina but his hybrid tandem three-balloon system was destroyed by high winds.

The world's largest balloon and airship museum was founded in 1989 by aeronauts Jacques W. Soukup and Kirk S. Thomas in the town of Tyndall, South Dakota. The 6th World Gas Balloon Championship and 1st World Roziere Balloon Championship were held there in 1990, and in 1992 the Soukup & Thomas International Balloon & Airship Museum was moved to the city of Mitchell,South Dakota. The museum has subsequently been designated as the official home of the FAI/CIA International Balloon and Airship Hall of Fame.

More recent attempts to fly around the world by balloon include the Earthwinds Hilton team led by Larry Newman, beginning in 1991 and ending in December 1994. This project envisioned an "anchor" balloon, filled with air, hanging below the gondola of the main balloon to eliminate the need for ballast. In 1993 the Odyssey Expedition team announced their intention to fly in the stratosphere around the world. Changes in sponsorship have seen the name change to the Dymocks Flyer and now Team RE/MAX which was scheduled to depart Australia on December 28, 1998. More on this further down the page.

The 1995-1996 season saw the Virgin Challenger roziere balloon, with pilots Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson of the UK, unable to launch from their site in Morocco due to bad weather, but on January 8, 1996, American Steve Fossett launched in his Solo Challenger roziere balloon from the Stratobowl in South Dakota but was forced to land in Canada three days later. In September of this same year Bill Scarberry purchased his first new balloon and named it "Cool Change", after a song by the Little River Band.

The 1996-1997 season saw three roziere balloons launch. Lindstrand and Branson's Virgin Challenger was able to launch on January 7,1997 from Marrakech, Morocco, but was forced down by technical problems the next day in Algeria. A new Swiss attempt, Bertrand Piccard's Breitling Orbiter, launched that winter but was forced down a few hours later due to a leaking fuel line in the gondola which caused kerosene fumes to overcome the crew. Steve Fossett's re-named Solo Spirit balloon launched from St. Louis, Missouri that January and flew for more than 6 days, landing in India. He set new world ballooning records for distance and duration and successfully made it halfway around the world.

The 1997-1998 season had four successful launches though the prize still remained out of grasp.
Virgin Global Challenger was the only balloon not to launch as the envelope broke away during inflation and was found damaged upon recovery in Algeria. Solo Spirit flew from St. Louis to Kazakstan and Breitling Orbiter 2 flew from Switzerland to Myanmar (Burma), taking the world balloon duration record. Two new entrants also launched. Americans Dick Rutan and Dave Melton launched from Albuquerque New Mexico in the Global Hilton balloon but were forced to parachute out due to structural tears in the bottom of the envelope gas cell only hours into their flight. The empty balloon landed later in a Texas farm field. American Kevin Uliassi launched his J. Renee balloon from Illinois, USA but had a similar structural problem and was forced to land early in his flight.

6 announced attempts to be the first to fly around the world during the 1998/1999 season.

Steve Fossett's Solo Spirit launched from Mendoza, Argentina August 7, 1998 and managed to fly all the way to the Pacific Ocean where on the 16th, a lightning strike in a thunderstorm caused his balloon to plummet from 29,000 feet into the ocean about 500 miles east of the Australian Coast. Fossett miraculously survived and was soon recovered at sea. He managed to set a new absolute distance record of 14,236 miles. Shortly after a media interview where Fossett stated that he would seriously have to reconsider transglobal ballooning he was contacted by Richard Branson and accepted a position with the ICO Global Challenger.
In December 1998, Per Lindstrand, Steve Fossett and Richard Branson navigated through a gauntlet: the "Desert Fox" attack on Iraq, narrowly missing Iranian airspace to the south and Russian airspace to the north. Then straying into unauthorized Chinese airspace, awaiting permission to continue and finally receiving it, it looked as though with increasing speeds to near 200 knots over the Pacific victory was imminent. Luck would not prove to be in their favor. A trough of air would stop the progress of the balloon and 10 miles north of Hawaii they would ditch. Crew recovery was well planned and there were no complications but the capsule is said to be at the bottom of the ocean. Another attempt was anounced by the Branson team for May, 1999 in the Southern Hemisphere.

Kevin Uliassi planned to launch from the North American continent with his balloon the J. Renee during the winter of 1998 but the ban on American and British registered aircraft in Chinese air space as a result of the ICO Global attempt and unsuitable weather patterns during this seasons window caused him to consider taking his attempt into the Southern Hemisphere.

Team RE/MAX threw in the towel after weather failed to cooperate with their launch from Australia in a 900' tall balloon planned to circumnavigate the earth from 130,000 feet MSL on the upper edge of the stratosphere. Another attempt the Spirit of Peace balloon, to be flown by US citizen and UK resident Jacques W. Soukup, US citizen Mark Sullivan and British subject Crispin J. Williams was planned but never got off the ground.

Another attempt was the Cable & Wireless attempt of Andy Elson and Colin Prescot. This attempt broke the duration record for flight within the atmosphere at 0600 GMT February 27, 1999 flying high above the west coast of India. Flight Terminated in the ocean 50 miles off the Japanese coast southwest of Tokyo.
Breitling Orbiter III, Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland and Brian Jones of Britain took off Monday March 1, 1999 from Chateau d'Oex in the Swiss Alps and as of March 14, 1999, 18:00 GMT unofficially broke Steve Fossett's distance record and Andy Elson's recent duration record. More importantly, they did it! Bertrand and Brian have now become the only balloonists to circumnavigate the globe with a non-stop, non-refueled flight. It has taken the Breitling team 20 days, 1 hour and 49 minutes to travel the 42,810 kms. On March 20, 1999, The Breitling Orbiter III, at 0954 (GMT) hours passed the "finishing line" of 9.27 degrees over Mauritania, North Africa, completing their "round the world balloon trip". They went on to land in Egypt.
Congratulations Bertrand and Brian on a job well done!

Following the pioneering round-the-world flight of Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones in the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon, the FAI has confirmed that it is planning to organize a Round-the-World Balloon Race, probably in 2002 in the northern hemisphere.

Since The Britling Orbiter III flight, Kevin Uliassi in his J. Renee mounted a serious solo attempt with a record breaking results. Feb. 22, 2000 Kevin launched from Nimtz Quarry, Loves Park, Illinois and flew to about 5 miles southeast of Pakokku, Myanmar. With his oxygen system proving unreliable, not wishing to risk oxygen deprivation, Kevin turned off all systems and landed the balloon safely. 13,246 miles in 10 days, 3 hours, 46 minutes, enough to claim the AM-13 and AM-14 World Duration records.

On March 18, 2000, Wm. G. (Bill) Scarberry, Jr. arrives in Nairobi, Kenya and in record time, only 4 weeks, is officially licensed as a commercially rated hot air balloon pilot by Kenya's DCA to fly up to a 310,000 cubic foot passenger carrying balloon to fly over the Masai Mara National Reserve and Conservation Area. During his 6 months tour he would fly the 180,000 the 260,000 the 310,000 and train in the 400,000 cubic foot Lindstrand balloons. Shown is the 310,000 cubic foot balloon named "Kathleen".

Early June of 2001 Steve Fossett's Solo Spirit prepared to launch from Kalgoorlie, Australia. Fossett was unable to escape the whims of nature Sunday evening (Australian time) when a wind gust tore his balloon envelope and ended his mission to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe solo. July 5, 2001, "Solo Spirit balloon repaired; Steve Fossett to try again" was the headline. An expert team of five led by Solo Spirit Engineer Andy Elson was flown to Kalgoorlie shortly after the aborted launch. "With the team's expertise, we've been successful in repairing the balloon, eliminating time to ship it back to the manufacturer in England, thus making possible another launch this season," pilot Fossett said. Persistent winds then forced a change of launch sites to Northam, Western Australia. Taking a brief break from preparations Fossett zipped across Australia in his private jet, setting a new unlimited (all aircraft) transcontinental record from Perth to Brisbane of 3 hours, eight minutes and 43 seconds -- an average speed of 704.52 mph. Finally August 4, 2001, Fossett's Solo Spirit balloon lifted off. The balloon landed near the Brazilian city of Bage at about 7 a.m. (8-17-01) CDT Friday. According to meteorologist Bob Rice the problem developed like this: A stalled cold front in the vicinity of Montevideo, extending east/southeast into the Atlantic, produced instabilities that led to thunderstorm cells along the eastern border of Argentina. While these cells had been expected to dissipate they failed to do so. The balloon managed to slide past a couple of them, but it finally drove into the rain and wind of a dissipating thunderhead and later into the fragments of another thunderstorm, which produced both snow and turbulence. He was in the air 12 days,12 hours. It marked the longest solo balloon trip ever, in terms of distance traveled and time spent in the air. He has flown more than 12,687 miles since taking off Aug. 4.

In June 19, 2002, Steve Fossett began his sixth attempt to circumnavigate the globe in the Solo Spirit balloon. He launched from Northam, Western Australia. 14 days, 19 hours and 51 minutes later Fossett's RTW quest came to a stunning finish at dawn as the Bud Light Spirit of Freedom landed smoothly near Lake Yamma Yamma, a dry lake bed in the Eastern Australian 0utback, 725 miles northwest of Sydney. Having traveled 20,602 miles (32,963 km) since his launch the American adventurer was ecstatic as he discussed this aviation milestone in a press conference scarcely 15 minutes after he emerged from his capsule. 'This was my most important objective in ballooning to complete the first solo round the world balloon flight,' said Fossett. 'I feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction. I've worked towards this goal for 10 years. This is the reason I took up ballooning.'" Fossett has donated the gondola of his balloon to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Congratulations Steve Fossett on a job well done!

On October 23, 2015, Wm. G. (Bill) Scarberry, Jr. finally topped the 1000 hour mark of actual flying time in his log book. Flying two sponsor ladies across Morgantown, West Virginia was the perfect place to do it as his first balloon festival was here, at the Mountaineer Balloon Festival in the third year of this festival. During that year he flew an Experimental Home Built, a Hot Air Airship with Marcel Fortin of Alum Creek, West Virginia. Bill Flew the LIFT part of the balloon and Marcel Drove it!

Updates on historic attempts will be posted as they become history.
Last Updated: December 30, 2015, 6:27 PM, GMT +5


These links below may still be usable.

Breitling Orbiter - Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones
Orbiter 3 - Brian Jones' own website
Solo Spirit - Steve Fossett

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Last Updated January 4, 2016. For more information contact: Bluner Bill