Text copyright © Katie Mohar. All rights reserved.
Before airplanes, before space ships, humans flew in hot air balloons. Nearly 250 years ago, the hot air balloon became the first technology to carry humans in flight.
Children dream about soaring through the air like birds. Kids love how balloons stimulate their imaginations, allowing them to travel vicariously through the sky. And Peter Pan proved that the fantasy of flight doesn’t disappear in adulthood.
Here’s the history of how persistence, courage and fortuitous weather launched the first hot air balloons. Plus, three places to visit in America to see ballooning in action.
Hot Air Balloon History Timeline
1783 – Brothers Jacques-Étienne and Joseph-Michel Montgolfier take the first human flight in a rudimentary hot air balloon over Paris, France. They flew five miles!
1785 – French inventor Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American physician-scientist Dr. John Jeffries board a hot air balloon to make the world’s first flight by air over the English Channel.
1793 – Blanchard pilots the first balloon flight in America, beginning in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and ending in New Jersey. The historic flight is observed from the ground by many prominent Americans, including President George Washington.
1804 – Blanchard marries Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant. She becomes the first female professional balloonist to pilot her own balloon. Marie is frequently commissioned by Napoleon for entertainment at events including his wedding and birthday. In 1811, when Napoleon’s son was born, Marie even flies over Paris while tossing birth announcements from her balloon!
If raining baby announcements sound silly, consider that Napoleon wanted to ambush the United Kingdom by crossing the English Channel with a balloon fleet. Apparently, Marie had the sense to dissuade Napoleon. She pointed out that balloons lack propulsion, are subject to the wind and that the English Channel’s prevailing winds were unfavorable to Napoleon’s desired course.
Despite unfortunate early deaths in separate balloon crashes, the Blanchards’ pioneering spirit contributed to the development of ballooning.
1903 – First successful airplane flight, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in a craft built by brothers Orville and Wilber Wright. Airplanes start overtaking hot air balloons in capturing public interest.
1950s – American inventor Ed Yost revitalizes the practice of ballooning. He improves the balloon’s design, making it safer and more efficient. Originally, balloons are spherical in shape. However, Yost develops the balloon bag or “envelope” into a teardrop shape which soon becomes the standard hot air balloon design.
1960 – A big year for ballooning, launching the modern era of piloting with propane as a fuel source. As a result, hot air ballooning becomes more accessible to the general public. Prior to 1960, gas balloons were filled with hydrogen and helium.
1967 – The “Bristol Belle” becomes the first modern hot air balloon. Encouraged by Ed Yost’s discoveries, the Bristol Gliding Club creates a red-and-yellow beauty that launches its first flight on July 9, 1967 in the UK.
While the Bristol Belle was once used for the important task of delivering mail to Malta, the vast majority of today’s hot air balloons are for recreational use.
How Modern Hot Air Balloons Work
A commercial hot air balloon is comprised of a “bag” or “envelope” of ripstop nylon that carries a rattan or wicker basket. The bag is coated with a protective sealer. A “burner” is mounted above the middle of the basket and holds the balloon’s heat source – typically an open flame fueled by liquid propane.
The flame inflates the bag by filling it with warm air. Warm air rises above denser, cooler air thus creating lift when the cooler air exits via the bottom of the envelope.
The pilot controls descent and landing with the help of a single vent located at the top of the bag – or multiple vents along the sides of the bag. A ground crew is typically on-hand to assist with the balloon landing.
Today’s balloon bags take on all shapes – from animals to motorcycles – although the teardrop design remains the most common. If you look closely, you’ll see that the teardrop shape is often the foundation of more creative designs. For example, a Humpty Dumpty balloon is a teardrop with arms and legs and a motorcycle balloon is a teardrop with wheels.
National Hot Air Balloon Museum, Iowa
Your family can learn more about hot air balloons by visiting the National Balloon Museum in Indianola, Iowa (10 minutes south of Des Moines). The colorful museum is open between the months of March and December. Kids will love the museum’s architecture, which evokes two inverted balloons.
Enjoy and discover nearly 250 years of ballooning history, the U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame, a digital weather station and more. As an author and literacy advocate, my favorite feature for kids is the museum’s “Book Basket” – a whimsical hot air balloon basket where kids can read ballooning books from the comfort of colorful cushions made of genuine balloon fabric!
Balloon Fiesta and Museum, New Mexico
October is a great time to travel to Albuquerque, New Mexico for the world’s largest balloon festival – Balloon Fiesta. Some 500 balloons launch in the morning and evening over the course of nine days.
While you’re in Albuquerque, be sure to visit the Anderson Abruzzo International Balloon Museum. On Wednesdays, the museum hosts “Stories in the Sky,” a storytelling, music, art and performance program for children.
Experimental Balloon and Airship Meet, Vermont
In May, hundreds of spectators gathered off Route 244 at Post Mills Airport in Vermont for the Experimental Balloon and Airship Meet. Children were spellbound as 19 homemade balloons took flight. The informal annual meet attracts balloonists all over America.
Nearby, you’ll find “Brian’s Museum of Rusty Dusty Stuff” and the “Experimental Balloon & Airship Museum.” (Learn more in Berkshire Magazine’s July, 2022 article Taking Flight by Anastasia Stanmeyer.)
The best times to fly
Mornings and evenings are ideal for flying hot air balloons. Check the weather the night before and right before your flight. Mother Nature has the last call on whether it’s safe to ascend! And be sure to wave “hello” to those of us admiring the balloon from down below!
I’d love to know if your family has special ballooning memories – feel free to drop me a line! If you enjoyed reading this post, please share it with a friend using the golden share icons below.