Ballooning is both a recreational and a competitive
sport in which the balloonist, in a craft lifted by either
hot air or gas, relies on the wind and controls height
and direction by monitoring and responding to
weather conditions. The pilot must understand the
complex micrometeorological conditions that govern
wind. A balloon in flight floats literally lighter than air;
however, a typical four-place system can weigh as
much as 363 kilograms (800 pounds). While some balloonists compete in championship events, fly paying
passengers, or fly balloons as advertising billboards,
most enter the sport for the sheer beauty of flight.
Ballooning marked the beginning of manned flight.
Credit for inventing and developing lighter-than-air
craft generally goes to the Montgolfier brothers. Sons of
a paper manufacturer near Annonay, France, Joseph
(1740–1810) and Jacques Etienne (1745–1799) began
building model balloons out of paper laminated with
tafetta. Believing that the lifting power came from
smoke, they powered their balloons with smoke from
burning wet straw under the paper envelope. On 19
September 1783, the Montgolfiers launched a balloon
carrying a sheep, a cock, and a duck.
That same year, J. A. C. Charles (1746–1823), working with Ainé and Cadet Robert, built an envelope out
of silk coated with varnish. They filled it with hydrogen, made by pouring sulfuric acid over iron filings.
In November 1783, the first manned balloon, built
by the Montgolfiers, was launched from the Bois de
Boulogne. Pilâtre de Rozier (1756–1785) and copilot
Marquis d’Arlandes (1742–1809) became the first live
humans in recorded history to fly, and spent most of
their time aloft putting out small fires in the balloon
caused by the burning straw. Their aircraft would later
become known as a hot air balloon. Later that year,
Charles and Ainé Robert launched in a hydrogen-filled
balloon from the Tuilleries Gardens, and gas ballooning grew in popularity in Europe and the United States.
It wasn’t until 1960 that hot air ballooning again
made its presence felt. That year, Paul Edward Yost
(1919–), an aeronautical engineer under contract to
the U.S. Navy, launched a tiny aerostat lifted by a small
propane burner from Bruning, Nebraska. Yost began
building hot air balloons for sport flying. His contribution resulted in the explosive growth ballooning has
Rules and Play
The sport of ballooning is influenced less by rules than
by a goal: to ascend and descend safely when and
where the pilot chooses. Rules of safety and laws of
aerodynamics govern ballooning; competitive ballooning rules are set by the ballooning divisions of the
Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).
Hot air balloons, cheaper and less complex to rig,
are the most popular form of balloon flight. They contain three components. The envelope is the fabric “balloon” part of the system, holds the hot air used for lift,
and is constructed of panels of nylon or polyester, usually sealed with urethane or silicone. The basket hangs
from the envelope by aircraft cables. Most baskets are
woven from wicker or rattan. The burner and fuel system are the “engine” of the hot air balloon. The burner
is attached to a frame over the pilot’s head, and is connected by fuel hoses to the tanks stored in each corner
of the basket. Hot air balloons lift when propane burners heat the air inside the envelope, making it less
dense; gas balloons rise when the pilot jettisons
weights. Pilots of hot air balloons descend by cooling
the gas; gas balloon pilots vent gas to reduce altitude.
Recently, some manufacturers have been experimenting with a hybrid balloon called a Rozier. This is a
gas-balloon sphere surrounded on the bottom half by a
hot air balloon cone; a tiny propane burner heats the
air inside this cone, which then warms the helium, expanding it and increasing lift. Rozier balloons have
proven useful for long-distance flights.
Balloon pilots are trained much like pilots of any
other aircraft, with ground and flight training covering
equipment operation; weather; aviation regulations of
the pilot’s country; emergencies; and launch, flight, and
landing procedures.A balloon joins the air mass within
which it flies and goes wherever that air mass goes and
so are called “aerostats”; they are static within the air.
The pilot can vary the direction of flight somewhat by
adjusting the altitude of the aircraft—air currents at
various levels can differ by as much as 90 degrees of the
compass. Flying with the wind, the aerostat can rarely
fly back to its launch site, so a chase crew follows the
flight on the ground.
Ideal weather for ballooning consists of high pressure, light surface winds, and moderate winds at higher
elevations. Too much wind means the pilot will probably elect not to fly. Balloons normally fly within three
hours of sunrise or sunset, when the air near the ground
is most stable and the winds most predictable. As the
sun heats the earth’s surface, thermals and higher winds
often develop, which are not conducive to ballooning.
The balloonist must also learn to take advantage of various aspects of the terrain that may affect the flight.
Winds flow differently in the wide, flat expanses of the
plains than they do in wooded, mountainous areas. Yet
both can be good areas for ballooning.
Each country with an active ballooning community
has its own balloon federation. The two most active are
the British Balloon and Airship Club (BBAC) and the
Balloon Federation of America (BFA). The BFA is the
largest group of balloonists in the world. Balloonists
compete in local, regional, national, and world championship flying events, or to set world records. The FAI
organizes balloon records into category (gas, hot air, or
Rozier) and size of balloon.Within these are records for
altitude, distance, and duration.
Ballooning is a sport limited by technology. Apparently fearless balloonists continue to try to conquer
new routes and longer distances. Rozier balloons may
permit balloonists to attain long-sought goals, which
will be quickly replaced by new aspirations. Like their
crafts, balloonists’ imaginations soar.
—RUTH P. LUDWIG
Bibliography: Crouch, Tom. (1983). The Eagle Aloft. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. Ludwig, Ruth.
(1995). Balloon Digest. Indianola, IA: Balloon Federation
of America. Wirth, Dick. (1982) Ballooning, the Complete
Guide to Riding the Winds. New York: Random House.
Ballooning is both a recreational and a competitive