Hot Air Balloon History: How Manned Balloons Took Flight

historical reenactment of a hot balloon launch

From the pioneers who dared to defy gravity to the modern-day enthusiasts who continue to soar, uncover the fascinating stories behind the first flights, technological breakthroughs, and the enduring impact of hot air ballooning on society.

A Brief Timeline Of Hot Air Balloon History

First Hot Air Balloon Launch – 1783

The first hot air balloon launch occurred in France on September 19th, 1783. The French scientist Pilatre De Rozier launched it with three test passengers: a rooster, a duck, and a sheep. The ride only lasted 15 minutes before crashing.

First Manned Hot Air Balloon Flight – 1783

The first manned hot air balloon flight took place on November 21st, 1783, in France, by the Montgolfier brothers. Their maiden flight lasted 20 minutes and marked the beginning of ballooning as we know it.

First Balloon Flight in the UK – 1784

James Tytler took the United Kingdom’s (UK) first hot air balloon flight on August 27th, 1784. He flew over Edinburgh and kickstarted the romance of ballooning that’s present today. Signor Vicent launched England’s first flight shortly after, on September 15th, 1784.

First Balloon Flight in America – 1793

The first balloon flight in America took place on January 9th, 1973, by Jean-Pierre Blanchard, flying from Philadelphia to Gloucester County, New Jersey.

Hot Air Balloons Used at War – 1870

The Franco-Prussian War was the first recorded war that involved a hot air balloon, where a French Minister made a dramatic escape from Paris by riding a hot air balloon.

Ballooning Grows as a Sport – 1906

Ballooning as a sport took off in 1906 thanks to the annual Gordon Bennett Balloon Trophy Rides, which persisted to this day, only pausing for World War I.

Balloons in World War I – 1914

Hot air balloons were used for military observation by both sides between 1914 and 1918. Balloons were retired from direct military use due to their limited carrying capacity, vulnerability to attack, dependence on good weather, and the advancement of airplanes.

First Gas Balloon Flight to the Stratosphere – 1931

The Nautilus, a hydrogen gas balloon, was launched by Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard and Paul Kipfre, his assistant, on May 27th, 1931. It reached the Stratosphere at 51,793 ft (15,781 m) in altitude, traveled 540 miles (870 km), and lasted roughly 19 hours.

Modern Hot Air Ballooning Era Takes Off – 1960

The first successful balloon launch with a propane burner took place on October 22nd, 1960, thanks to Edward Yost, an American engineer now considered the “father of modern hot air ballooning”.

Highest Ever Gas Balloon Flight – 1961

Malcolm Ross and Victor Prather of the United States Navy set the highest recorded altitude for a gas balloon, using the Lee Lewis Memorial, on May 4th, 1961, reaching a height of 113,739.9 ft (34,668 m). The flight lasted roughly 10 hours and traveled 140 miles (230 km).

First Balloon World Championships – 1973

The world’s first hot air ballooning championship was held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, from February 10th to 17th, 1973. The Balloon Federation of America organized the race, which included 32 pilots from 14 different countries, and was won by Dennis Flodden of the United States.

First Transatlantic Hot Air Balloon Flight – 1987

The first successful transatlantic hot air balloon flight occurred on July 11th, 1987, by Sir Richard Branson and Per Lindstrad on the Virgin Atlantic Flyer. They launched from Cardington, Bedfordshire, England, and landed in Miserey, Maine, United States, after flying for roughly 33 hours, traveling 2,900 miles (4,667 km).

First Transpacific Hot Air Balloon Flight – 1991

The first successful transpacific hot air balloon flight was on July 19th, 1991, by Sir Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand. They launched from Nagashima, Japan, and landed in Point Barrow, Alaska, United States, in a balloon named “The Breitling Orbiter 1”. The flight lasted for 17 days and 21 hours and covered a distance of 6,700 miles (10,800 kilometers).

First Round the World Balloon Flight – 1999

Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones were the first to fly around the world in a hot air balloon successfully, the Breitling Orbiter 3, on March 1st, 1999. Their flight lasted roughly 20 days and covered a distance of 29,055 miles (46,759 km), with them launching from Château-d’Oex, Switzerland, and landing in the Egyptian desert 300 miles southwest of Cairo.

First Solo Round the World Flight – 2002

American businessman and adventurer Steve Fossett completed the first successful solo flight around the world on June 28th, 2002, in the Spirit of Freedom. He launched from Northam, Western Australia, and landed in Queensland, Australia, after flying for roughly 13.33 days, covering 21,100 miles (34,000 m).

Highest Ever Female Hot Air Balloon Flight – 2005

Lindsay Muir was the first successful hot air balloon pilot to travel around the world by herself in the Spirt of Branson. She launched from Cuneo, Italy, and reached a height of 28,000 ft (8,534 m).

Longest Distance Flight in an Ax-02 Balloon – 2010

Mark Shemilt, a British hot air balloonist, recorded the longest-distance flight in an AX-02 balloon on February 20th, 2010. He flew 108 miles (174 km) from Leicestershire to the Suffolk coast in England.

Fastest Solo Round the World Balloon Flight – 2016

The fastest solo flight around the world was set by Russian adventurer and priest Fedor Konyukhov on July 23rd, 2016. He launched from Northam, Western Australia, and landed in Bonnie Rock, traveling roughly 20,505 miles (33,000 km) with a 13.33-day flight.

Common Questions Around Ballooning History

Who Invented Hot Air Ballooning?

The Montgolfier brothers, Joeseph and Stephen, invented hot air balloons in 1783 in France. They discovered that heated air was lighter than cool air, leading them to experiment with silk bags filled with smoke from burning wool and hay, leading to the first hot air balloon.

When Were Hot Air Balloons First Used?

The first recorded “aerostatic” tethered flight took place on September 19th, 1783, marking the day humanity could leave the Earth’s surface.

What Fuel Did the First Hot Air Balloon Use?

The Montgolfier brothers believed their invention, the hot air balloon, used their proprietary fuel, “Montgolfier Gas,” to power it. But in reality, Montgolfier Gas was heated air that lifted the balloon after burning a mix of straw and wool.

Were Hot Air Balloons Used Before Planes?

Hot air balloons were used before planes, as planes were invented in 1903 while hot air balloons were invented in 1783.

Were Hot Air Balloons Used To Spy On People?

Hot air balloons were used to monitor/observe adversaries and interested parties as soon as 1794 when the French used hot air balloons to track Austrian and Dutch troops in the Battle of Fleurus.

What Impact Did the Hot Air Balloon Have On Society?

After years of trial, error, and skepticism, hot air balloons transformed society in the 18th and 19th centuries as a cultural fad that, thanks to modern advancements, has become more commonplace today. 

Why Did We Stop Using Hot Air Balloons?

Hot air balloons were incredibly expensive to run and difficult to maintain due to the less durable and heat-resistant materials available when they were invented, along with the invention of airplanes in 1903.

But hot air balloons have become more common thanks to modern fuels, like propane, and durable heat-resistant fabrics, like ripstop nylon.

Conclusion: The History Of Hot Air Balloons

The journey of hot air balloons through history is a testament to human ingenuity and perseverance. From humble beginnings as scientific curiosities to becoming symbols of adventure and exploration, these majestic vessels have left an indelible mark on society.

As technology advanced, hot air ballooning overcame obstacles and found new life, allowing enthusiasts to experience the thrill of flight and gaze upon the world from a unique perspective. The history of hot air balloons is a testament to humanity’s constant pursuit of reaching new heights.

If you want to take a small step toward the above milestones, why not book a flight with Napa Valley Aloft!