Ballooning was the first successful documented means of manned flight. Hot air (Montgolfiere) and gas balloons (Charlieres) both had first flights in France in 1783, with the hot air balloon being the first to fly. The enthusiasm for the original hot air balloons soon waned, however, dimmed by the smoky fuels of the day which included straw, rags, and a variety of other less-than-wonderful materials. The scientists of the day believed that smoke and not hot air created the lift. And they may have been right for the wrong reasons. The porous fabrics used in the early balloons may have needed the carbon from the dirty smoke to seal the fabric pores to hold in the heated air that really created the lift. But hydrogen and later helium gas balloons became the standard for over 175 years.

Modern propane-fueled nylon hot-air balloons derive from an experimental balloon built under a Navy contract by Ed Yost and Raven Industries. This balloon, crude and underpowered by today's standards, first flew in October, 1960. Joined by Don Piccard, a member of the family known for scientific research in gas balloons and undersea craft, Yost and Raven developed the classic side maneuvering vent, velcro rip-top deflation port sport balloon. (Piccard later broke away to form his own company.) A physics student from Minnesota named Tracy Barnes developed the parachute-top balloon, a design which combines the maneuvering vent and deflation port in a single automatically resealing vent at the top of the balloon.

Today, Raven balloons (now known as Aerostars) and Barnes-designed balloons (built by The Balloon Works) are the two most common balloons flown in the United States. Another major manufacturer is Cameron, a British balloon builder known for odd-shaped balloons including Forbes "Chateau de Balleroy", "Sphinx", and "Harley-Davidson" balloons. Cameron also builds a line of the more classical round balloons, with balloons for the U.S. market being built under license in Michigan. Other American balloon manufacturers include National, Galaxy, and Head balloons. Lindstrand Balloons, another British balloon line, is also manufactured under license in the United States. 


One of the facets of ballooning that adds a certain romanticism to it that has largely been lost to other forms of flying is that it holds to certain small traditions, some of which go back to ballooning's origins in France.

One of these traditions is for the pilot/aeronaut to present the landowner on whose property you make your final landing with a ceremonial bottle of champagne. This tradition is reputed to have started with the first balloonists in France. The first hot air balloons were filled with not just hot air but smoke, due to a slight mistake by scientists of that era who believed the lift was due to the smoke rather than the heat. Thus, early balloons landing in peasants' farm fields were likely attacked to be attacked with stones and clubs and pitchforks, since they were obviously fire-breathing monsters. French peasants came with a certain level of sophistication, however. Early French aeronauts found that the peasants could be easily distracted if the monster's human occupants offered them a glass of champagne. It is very unlikely that any landowner today thinks the balloons are monsters, but some remain irate until offered the champagne! (Today we offer the whole bottle!)

Another champagne tradition is the "First Flight Ceremony" which provides a memorable finish for someone taking their first free flight in a balloon. The ceremony can range from gentle and dignified to bizarre and sadistic. The gentle and dignified version, preferred by balloonists in the Eastern United States, has the pilot telling the story of the French origins of the champage ceremony. With champagne-filled glasses raised, the pilot pronounces "Mother Nature has taken you into the skies and returned you gently to Earth. Welcome to the ranks of the Aeronauts!" Glasses are touched, a cheer sounded, and the champagne given a just reward. In Albuquerque and other locales of the Western balloonist, a slightly nastier version may be inflicted on the newly initiated. The new aeronauts are made to kneel on the ground while the story is told. With the final pronouncement, champagne is poured on the victim's head and dirt (to commemorate the return to earth) sprinkled onto their wet hair for good measure. The Germans are apparently the most sadistic of all. Word has it that they add to the Western U.S. version , and burn the ends of the hair of the probably horrified new aeronauts to commemorate the fire that took them aloft!


Unlike most airplanes, balloons are almost always named by their aeronaut owners. Sometimes the names are merely a reflection of a company name, like Rocky Aoki's "Benihana" balloons, or in the age of the Internet, "America Online" advertising balloons. Sometimes a commercial balloon will reflect an advertising campaign, like the Pontiac balloon being named "Excitement". The name of the balloon often will reflect a characteristic of the balloon. The beautiful black-topped balloon with rainbow scallops that Susan Sparks and I fly from Harvard, Massachusetts resembles the NBC peacock logo, and is appropriately named "Peacock". Sometimes the names will reflect the balloon's characteristics with an especially inventive twist. One described one owner's view of his sport: "Hot Fun". Balloons flown by a commercial operator in Colorado are all purple with yellow flags. Classical titles with a slight twist become a fun names for big purple balloons... "Grape Expectations"... "Grape Adventure"... Not a totally unique way of thinking, apparently... Ed Lappies of Hillsboro, New Hampshire dubbed his mostly purple balloon "Edmund The Grape". Irish pride led Ted O'Hara of Schenectady, N.Y., to name his green-and-yellow balloon with shamrocks "Irish Rover". A balloon flown by Connecticut balloonist Jim Clark that keeps alive the memory of POWs and MIAs is appropriately named "Forget Me Not".

Often, the names reflect more romantic or mystical thought on the part of the owner. Looking through the rally program for a major rally like the 100-balloon Adirondack Balloon Festival held in Glens Falls, N.Y., shows the variety of names reflecting the very beauty and romance of the sport of ballooning. "Diamond Fire"... "Buoyant Breeze"... "Placidity"... "Rainbow's End"... "Windsong"... "Foxfire"... "Misty Horizons"... Tom Stodolski, of Westford, Massachusetts had fascinating and mystical names for a pair of balloons he had flown for over 10 years. The first was "Atlantis Seeker"... The second, as if in answer, "Atlantis Found". At the other end of the spectrum, New Hampshire balloonist Gary Morgan obviously wasn't feeling very imaginative... He simply calls his "Gary's Balloon".


The clothing balloonists and their crews wear sometimes will be as inventive and as fascinating as the names of the balloons. Pilots and regular crew members are often outfitted in "uniforms". These can be as modest as identical T-shirts, often printed with a picture of the balloon, or they may be as sophisticated as matching uniforms with unique jumpsuits and hats matching the colors of the balloon. Balloon names and attire will often match. A black balloon with a white skull-and-crossbones based in Albuquerque was flown and crewed by ballooning enthusiasts dressed in 18th century maritime garb. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world's largest balloon rally, is also a good place to see the extremes to which true fanatics can go! A red-and-purple striped balloon flown a woman pilot with an all-woman ground crew was a good example. Ground crew members were dressed in purple jackets, red tights, purple leg warmers, and had purple-and-red dyed hair!

The clothing worn isn't always so inventive. Commercial balloonists who will be landing with their paying passengers regularly on other people's property know that a clean, professional appearance is less likely to rile up a landowner than something bizarre or extravagant. Safety seminars recommend that balloonists wear long-sleeve natural fiber shirts and long pants to give themselves an extra measure of protection and time to react to rare emergencies like propane fires or the stinging, burning cold of raw propane from a burst propane line. Sadly, all too many balloon pilots today dress more appropriately for the summer heat than for safety and fly wearing T-shirts and even shorts.



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