Hot air ballooning is an exhilarating yet surprisingly relaxing way of experiencing fresh air and seeing the sights below. I have only ever been in one hot air balloon when I was young and whilst I was terrified at the time, I would definitely do it again – I vividly remember wondering if the hot air balloon was even moving – it all felt a bit too peaceful (plus I was a bit too small to see over the basket properly!).
However, looking at a hot air balloon, it does appear quite a cumbersome and bizarre invention – flames and a flimsy skin are essentially the only thing holding you up. So where and when did this creation come from?
Unmanned hot air balloons have been used in China since 220-280 AD, where they would soar into the sky for military signaling purposes. This has led to some speculation that cultures in Peru may have employed hot air balloons in 400 to 650 AD, in order to supervise the creation of the Nazca Lines, which show hundreds of individual figures and animals.
The first proper balloon flight in recorded history was by a Portuguese priest called Bartolomeu de Gusmão in 1709, who lived a small balloon full of hot air about 4 meters off the grounds. Whilst this was not technically a 'flight', this was technically the first man to ever fly in history.
Later in the 18th Century, in 1766, Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers created the hydrogen balloon, launching it in 1783 from the Champ de Mars when it flew for 45 minutes landing 21 km away from its launch point. Peasants were so terrified by the spectacle that they attacked the balloon with pitchforks and knives.
Later that year, the first tethered balloon with humans on-board was flown in October in Annonay, France. The first free flight was blown in the following month and was successfully completed.
In December of that year, Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers launched the first manned hydrogen balloon. Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert was on board and were able to control the balloon effectively, also managing to measure air temperature and pressure with a thermometer and barometer respectively. The first ever aircraft disaster occurred in May of 1785 in Ireland, which also leads to the burning down of approximately 100 houses.
Since that time, hot air ballooning has literally soared in popularity with a sizeable following and a number of military uses have been devised. There are a number of festivals dedicated to hot air ballooning such as the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and the Bristol Balloon Fiesta, where any workers in offices in Bristol can look out their windows and see an army of balloons in the sky.
Hot air ballooning is a cost-effective, visually impressive and therapeutic way to see the sights, as well as travel potentially great distances in one journey. It always attracts a few spectators when there is a balloon in the air and is one of the greatest inventions in the whole of aviation history.