Up, Up, and Away - Hot Air Balloons

  • Who here has taken a hot air balloon ride?
  • Who here has seen a hot air balloon hanging high in the sky and watched in wonderment or fascination as it slowly float away?
  • Who here has ever wanted to end up somewhere over the rainbow, even just for a minute or two?
  • Who has wondered, just how high can a hot air balloon go?; When were they invented?; Can a hot air balloon fly in the rain?; And who invented them anyway?

A hot air balloon is a fairly impractical vehicle, if you actually need to get somewhere, that is, since you can’t steer it and it’s only as fast as the wind that blows it. But if you’re looking for a calm, serene, awe inspiring experience, then a hot air balloon ride might be for you. If you’re afraid of heights, maybe it’s not.

How it works:

Hot air balloons are based on a very basic scientific principle: warmer air rises in cooler air. To keep the balloon rising, you need a way to reheat the air. Hot air balloons do this with a burner positioned under an open balloon envelope. To lift the balloon, the pilot moves a control that opens up the propane valve. This lever works just like the knobs on a gas grill or stove: As you turn it, the flow of gas increases, so the flame grows in size.

The pilot can increase the vertical speed by blasting a larger flame to heat the air more rapidly. To move in a particular direction, a pilot ascends and descends to the appropriate level, and rides with the wind. A lot of the work in hot air ballooning comes at the beginning and the end of the flight, when the crew inflates and deflates the balloon, which is an amazing thing to experience in and of itself.

A bit of history:

In the summer of 1783, the Montgolfier brothers sent a sheep, a duck and a chicken on an eight-minute flight over France. The two brothers, Joseph and Etienne, worked for their family’s prestigious paper company. As a side project, they began experimenting with paper vessels elevated by heated air. The sheep, duck and chicken became the first balloon passengers on Sept. 19, 1783, in the Montgolfiers’ first demonstration flight for King Louis XVI. They all survived the trip, giving the King some assurance that human beings could breath the atmosphere at the higher elevation. Two months later, the Marquis Francois d’Arlandes, a major in the infantry, and Pilatre de Rozier, a physics professor, became the first human beings to fly.

Click here to read more about how hot air balloons work and their history.

Hot air balloons have gone on to enthrall people all over the world and balloon tours have become a multi-million dollar business. Balloon races and other events continue to attract crowds of spectators and participants.

A few interesting facts:

  1. Traditionally, each time a hot air balloon lands, champagne is shared. As hot air balloons became a fad, French aristocracy soon learned that local farmers didn’t much like rich people setting balloons down on their land. So champagne was used to help smooth things over and a tradition was born.
  2. Hot air ballooning is not possible in the rain because the heat inside of the balloon can bring rain to boiling temperatures, destroying the fabric.
  3. The Civil War had a Balloon Corps. Established by Abraham Lincoln, the Balloon Corps had seven balloons, at least 12 gas generators, and a flat-top balloon barge that used to be an old steamboat.
  4. 68,986 feet is the record height, and to accomplish this, the pilots had to wear oxygen masks to stay alive.

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