Ed Yost



Hot air balloons are one of the most beautiful and fascinating ways to take to the skies. Most people are unaware that these beautiful and exotic aircraft are actually a relatively modern invention, and that these seemingly peaceful sport balloons are actually the unintended result of a military contract. One man, Paul Edward "Ed" Yost, developed, built, and flew the very first balloons that effectively defined the modern hot air balloon. 

Yost first became involved with balloons when he leased his single engine Stinson airplane to General Mills to track their huge scientific balloons. As a senior engineer with the High Altitude Research Division of General Mills, he was a key player in the development of high altitude research balloons capable of reaching altitudes over 100,000 feet. 

Throughout the 1950s, Yost was involved with military and other classified government programs using gas balloons to carry leaflets and even men across the Iron Curtain from three launch sites in West Germany. Using different sized gas balloons, most of Eastern Europe could be covered, carrying anywhere from 4 pounds to over 750 pounds of leaflets. The leaflets were actually small newspapers that would give inhabitants of Communist dominated countries news of the West they couldn't get any other way. Yost said "the thing worked too damn good and we got the Hungarian Revolution. Eisenhower stopped the program. We should have been dropping 45s." 

Communist bloc countries were in the habit of looking for and shooting down the gas balloons. Yost said that "we were launching big balloons in the daytime. Some days there would be a trail of balloons across the sky. Fighter planes were blowing them out of the sky, so they changed to launching at night." So probably the news shouldn't have been quite so shocking when in 1995 Belarus, a country still mired in a Cold War mentality, shot down and killed two balloonists participating in the Gordon Bennett balloon race in Europe.

The First Modern Hot Air Balloon

Yost conceived of the hot air balloon as cheaper and easier to launch replacement for the gas balloons in use in Europe. Initially propane was not the fuel of choice because it wasn't available in European locations where the balloons were flown. Indoor experiments began using plumbers pots fueled by white gas as burners. Eventually, on October 18, 1955 a balloon using five plumbers pots lifted a man on a tether. One of the tethered balloons holding a man on a harness was photographed, and Yost used the photo to negotiate a $47,000 contract from the Office of Naval Research. He had to "nurse" the small sum of money, "bootlegging" parts and labor along the way. 

Yost flew the first man-capable hot air balloon at an old air base at Bruning, Nebraska on October 22, 1960. It used propane vapor rather than liquid propane. It was a cold October day, and Yost had to shake the propane tanks to get some of the liquid propane to vaporize on the sides of the tanks. After a slow climb to around 500 to 600 feet, Yost succeeded in staying aloft for 35 minutes. The deflation opening was only 7 feet across, with the fabric held together by a line which was cut by an explosive squib fired by a flashlight switch. The small hole opened up when the squib was fired. But with such a small opening, the balloon deflated very slowly. Yost said "the balloon dragged me all over the country."

One of the first modifications was to develop a liquid propane burner. One of the first flights of a burner with preheat tubes almost ended disastrously when the burner blew up. Yost said he "turned everything off and landed like a ton of bricks". Following the difficult landing on the first flight, when Yost went to the doctor after this flight, his doctor told him that "he had already worn out three bodies". 

Larger steel tubing would solve that burner problem, but then problems were encountered with flameouts which had to be solved. The original envelope fabric used was only .84 ounces per square yard (typical fabric used in production balloons today is 1.9), but it was too porous. Dupont developed a fabric laminated with mylar. Yost said the laminated fabric did the job, but it only lasted 4 or 5 flights and would begin to delaminate. Other innovations that were incorporated as the experiments proceeded were a much improved top deflation port held in by velcro and a side vent to allow a quick descent. Even here, more than one try was required. The first side slit was 7 feet, and it was inadequate. A larger side vent was then used. Yost is still proud of the side vent and adamant that it is better than some other vents used today. 

By the time Yost and his team had met all of the Navy requirements for a one-man balloon and the final report was written, Yost had developed and flown hot air balloons incorporating all of the major characteristics of today's modern hot air balloons. The innovations included nonporous coated synthetic fabrics, liquid propane fueled burners with preheater tubes and fast acting valves, and maneuvering and deflation vents for control of the aircraft during flight and landing.

The Channel Flight

In April 1963, Yost and Don Piccard made the first hot air balloon flight across the English Channel. Yost said that the flight was not a sport balloon flight. The government project sponsor wanted to demonstrate the range and endurance capabilities of the new type of aircraft. When told by European air traffic control officials that there was too much traffic to fly across the Channel at the shortest point near Calais, Yost said that was no problem. With 12 hours of fuel on board, the flight intentionally did not take place at the narrowest part of the channel because that would not have adequately demonstrated the range and duration capabilities of the balloon. The balloon was carried over to England on a Minnesota-based Air Force KC-97, with the navigator on the flight the now famous Paul Poberezny, founder of the Experimental Aircraft Association. 

Yost was not particularly complimentary toward Don Piccard, who shared the flight and who Yost referred to as a "passenger", not a copilot. "I don't know why we took Piccard," Yost related. "He didn't know how to fly the damn thing. I told him 'keep your damn hands off and take pictures'" They took off on April 13, 1963 despite unfavorable winds because the KC-97 was scheduled to pick them up in France on the 14th and return to the United States. Initially, at low altitudes the balloon headed inland toward London. Yost, in an incredible display of faith in the equipment he had designed, took the balloon to 13,500 feet where he finally found winds heading toward France. He had never before had the balloon above 3,000 feet! 

When he reached the French coast, Yost looked straight down at Calais and could see smoke from a powerplant stack blowing straight out to sea. He decided to fly five or six miles inland and then dive for the ground. When he was ready to descend, he "turned off everything and screamed out of the sky". He periodically slowed the descent with the single burner can, finally turning it on wide open at 1,500 feet to round out the descent.

Ahead were plowed fields, but also powerlines. He pulled up over two of three sets of powerlines. Fortunately, the final set of poles was new with no lines. The balloon finally flew over a canal and landed in a muddy field less than half a mile from the ocean. Yost said that his landing was complicated by his passenger bailing out when he fired the squib to open the top for deflation. The balloon took off again and dragged a long way through the mud. Yost said when he finally caught up with Piccard again he told him "If you ever ride with me again I'm going to tie your legs in the basket". 

They were initially taken to a local French police station, where "every piece of paper in their pockets was inspected", and then released. Maybe the police were giving the town officials time to arrange for the impromptu celebration to follow. Yost and Piccard were next taken to City Hall where the Burgomeister, a former World War I balloonist, met them wearing tails. They were treated to champagne and pastries. Less than two hours after they landed they were taken to a restaurant for a banquet. Yost said that half the business people in town showed up. 

One hilarious episode occurred at the banquet. Charles Dollfus, the elderly and eccentric French balloonist, took Yost aside and ushered him into the coed toilets. "Now is the time", Dollfus told him. "The time for what?" Yost responded. "The time to see the tattoos!" exclaimed Dollfus, bending over and dropping his pants. The world ballooning community, including Yost, had heard stories that Dollfus had a Charliere balloon tattooed on one cheek and a Montgolfiere on the other. Yost said "I did get a good look at the things. The Montgolfiere was on the right. He was about 90 so they looked semi-deflated, and faded too!"

The Forbes Transcontinental Balloon

Early in 1973, Yost received a call from Malcolm Forbes, who said that he wanted Yost to build him a balloon to fly across the United States. Forbes asked Yost when he would be coming to New York. Yost replied "Never, if I can help it." An inquiry about when Yost would be visiting other eastern cities drew a similar reply. 

About two weeks later, Forbes called again, and Yost again told him he wasn't interested. Shortly thereafter, Yost was working on a government project in Louisville, Kentucky. About 10 am on a Saturday morning, Yost heard a knock on his hotel door. There was Malcolm Forbes. Yost insisted that Forbes help him unload a truck, and Forbes protested that he was too old. They compared their ages. When Forbes found that Yost was a month older, he began pitching boxes. 

Forbes wanted to fly from San Diego in July, and fly about 14-15 hours a day until he got across the country. Yost told him he wouldn't be able to do that, because summer thunderstorms would kill him. Yost suggested flying from Tillamook, Oregon (where Yost had worked on projects in a WWII blimp hangar there) starting in October. Forbes was concerned that his Convair plane, which would be used as a chase and support vehicle, needed to be able to fly into any Oregon launch site. Nearby Coos Bay would be selected. 

Yost finished the balloon in August. It was designed to be taken apart to fit in Forbes' twin-engine Convair airliner. After only a one hour test inflation and flight at Yost's South Dakota facility, the balloon was dismantled and flown in the Convair to fly at Forbe's Chateau de Balleroy in France.

A French gas balloon would be flying with them. Forbes wanted it to be a friendly competition, but he wanted to win. He also wanted to make it look like he was flying the new balloon. Yost said he actually flew the balloon, but Forbes kept his hands up near the burners to make it look like he was flying. They had forgotten to ship the instrument pack, so Yost said he flew with "just his cigar". When the French balloon landed, they landed about a hundred yards beyond, just enough to "win" the informal competition. 

Forbes had a huge mobile home that would be used for ground chase across the U.S. Seeing how lavishly equipped it was, Yost joked that it was "the Taj Mahal". Forbes had "Taj Mahal" painted on the side of the vehicle! 

Yost and about half a dozen of his most experienced people flew with Forbes for the first part of the adventure until Forbes became experienced with the balloon, with Yost himself flying the first two legs. Yost told of one funny incident that happened during the cross-country flight. In Nebraska, Forbes had to inflate the balloon and take off from a field strewn with hay bales in high wind conditions. A local woman had parked her used but beautiful and prized Cadillac along a road downwind of the balloon to watch the action. Bouncing off of haybales, the balloon's basket hit and caved in the side of the Cadillac before Forbes got airborne. The woman was distraught about the damage to her car, and was crying inconsolably. Forbes' crew radioed up to him what had happened. Forbes told the crew to buy the woman a brand new Cadillac! 

At the end of the flight, Forbes had to land the balloon in the Chesapeake Bay in high wind conditions. Yost said that Forbes thought he was going to drown, but when the balloon was down Forbes got out of the basket and found that he was in shallows and that the water was only up to his waist!

The Balloon Federation of America

Yost has had a checkered past when it comes to the Balloon Federation of America, the largest balloonists' organization in the United States, which he co-founded with Don Kersten and Peter Pellegrino. He said that the three of them even put in $100 each of their own money to bankroll the new organization's treasury. It wasn't long before those who ran the BFA were making rules for their own reasons and possibly their own benefit, and Yost found himself thrown out of his own organization for flying in an unsanctioned event in Canada. 

Yost enrolled his dog in the BFA, claiming that the elusive member was "the guard in a balloon factory". In the dog's name, Yost would send in letters critical of the way the BFA was being run at the time. Yost said the editor of BFA magazine at the time was on to him but ran his letters anyway. At one point, says Yost, his dog ran for the BFA board and got more votes that some of the other candidates but didn't win. 

Eventually Yost was sent a plaque stating that Yost was a Life Member. Yost's name, address, and phone number is now listed in the BFA Membership Roster.

Winning the Cabot Award

On Friday, June 11, 1999, Paul Edward "Ed" Yost, became only the 48th person in this distinguished line when he received the 1999 Cabot Award from the Aero Club of New England in recognition of his lifetime achievements and significant and enduring contributions to aviation as the inventor of the modern hot air balloon, which opened up a new era in sport aviation around the world, and for the development of the first successful transatlantic gas balloons. The Boston-area based Aero Club of New England is the oldest aero club in the United States, having been founded by gas balloonists in 1902. The highly prestigious Cabot Award, named for the founder of the Aero Club of New England and first American president of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), and has been awarded to giants of aviation including Igor Sikorsky, General Curtis LeMay, Dr. Charles Stark Draper, General James Doolittle, the Rutan/Yeager Voyager team, jet engine inventors Sir Frank Whittle and Hans Ohain, and Colonel Joe W. Kittinger, Jr. 

The Godfrey L. Cabot Award caps a magnificent career by the father of modern hot air ballooning, who has also received other honors including being named as an NAA Elder Statesman in 1994; being named the first living inductee of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale Hall of Fame in 1995; recipient of the French "Diplome Paul Tissandier" in 1975 and the "Montgolfier Diplome" in 1976.


Copyright 2000-2017 Connecticut Lighter Than Air Society.  All Rights Reserved.
Comments or questions about the site?  E-mail the CLAS webmaster
Need more info about CLAS?  Contact any club officer.