All about the hot air balloon

The hot air balloon

Invented in 1783, the hot air balloon has gained in popularity after being forgotten for several decades. The invention is attributed to Montgolfier brothers Joseph and Étienne. After several initial attempts, the brothers felt ready to organize a first public display on June 4, 1783, in Annonay, in Ardèche, France before a hundred curious onlookers. Their 11 meter diameter spherical balloon was made of silk and paper, and was inflated over a straw and wool fire. It rose 180 metres, and travelled two kilometres in 10 minutes, descending slowly before landing.

On September 19, 1783, in front of Versailles, before King Louis XVI and a huge crowd, the Montgolfier brothers presented their latest model. The balloon, measuring 12.5 metres in diameter and 17 metres in height, was made of cotton and paper, and was elegantly painted and decorated. A cage suspended beneath the balloon contained a rooster, a duck and a sheep, history’s very first aeronauts. The balloon rose to 500 metres, and travelled 3 kilometres in 8 minutes. The animals were unharmed.

On November 21, 1783, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and the marquis d'Arlandes, François Laurent, were the first humans to fly in a balloon. The craft was 2,040 cubic metres, 21 metres long and 14 metres wide, and weighed 725 kilograms, with its passengers. The envelope was made of cotton treated with alum to make it impermeable and less combustible. It was decorated with the royal insignia and the signs of the Zodiac. It rose majestically before a huge crowd (estimated at more than 500,000 people, almost half the population of Paris at the time). It reached 900 metres, and landed intact after 25 minutes 8 kilometres from its starting point.

Professor Jacques Charles and brothers Robert, Anne-Jean and Nicolas-Louis, engineers and pilots, also made a significant contribution to the evolution of hot air balloons by introducing the hydrogen gas balloon at that same time, which made longer flights possible over a greater distance. The first flight of a hydrogen balloon was on August 27, 1783.

In the 1950s, American Ed Yost revived the hot air balloon by experimenting with new methods, combining plastics and a heating system that used industrial type propane tanks. But it wasn’t until 1970 that hot air balloons really caught on thanks to a small group of people. Entrepreneurs then started making hot air balloons for fans of the new sport. Since then, it has turned into a very sophisticated sport. Competitions at the local, regional, national and international levels take place every year in more than 40 countries.

This text contained extracts from the book by Marco Majrani, Les vaisseaux du ciel. Aérostats, vifs comme le vent, plus légers que l’air (1997, 175 p.), available through Ville de Gatineau.​

The balloon itself, which is called the envelope, is made of reinforced nylon (some balloons are made of polyester). Even though very light, this material is very strong. The inside is lined with a material that prevents hot air from seeping out.

Inflating the balloon is a true team effort. The balloon is rather unwieldy on the ground, particularly on windy days, and it takes four people to inflate it. They start by spreading it on the ground, and it is then attached to the basket lying on its side. A gas-powered fan is used to blow air into the balloon. Then the burner is lit to warm the air in the balloon. The hot air rises, and lifts the balloon into a vertical position.

The baskets are made of wicker, and each one is woven by hand.

A typical hot air balloon is between 65,000 and 105,000 cubic feet, and up to 70 feet high. Standard hot air balloons at the Festival are 90,000 cubic feet; the biggest ones are 210,000 cubic feet and can carry 12 passengers. There are hot air balloons as large at 750,000 cubic feet, which can carry as many as 32 passengers.

It goes as fast or as slowly as the wind. Given that hot air balloons do not have a forward propulsion mechanism, their speed is entirely determined by the wind.

Most hot air balloon rides take place between 1,000 and 1,500 feet. However, a balloon can rise only high enough to skim the top of the trees, or it can go much higher. When you see a hot air balloon very high up, it usually means that the pilot is looking for a particular wind direction, because wind directions vary with different altitudes.

It depends. Normally, a hot air balloon has enough fuel for 90 minutes, but factors such as the ambient air temperature, the weight in the basket, the location of safe landing sites and time of day will determine the flight duration.

Propane, stored in propane tanks under pressure, that are secured to the bottom and sides of the basket. A hot air balloon carries approximately 160 litres of liquid propane. The flame can reach as high as 10 or 20 feet and makes a very loud noise when it is ignited.

The hot air balloon

A. Envelope 
B. Skirt 
C. Suspension cables 
D. Burners 
E. Ratan basket

The Basket

1. Burner system 
2. Fuel line 
3. Suede side 
4. Ratan basket 
5. Vent valve (propane) 
6. Suspension cables 
7. Leather protector 
8. wooden Floor

The instrument panel

Altimeter : altitude indicator 
Variometer : measures speed of ascent 
Thermometer : indicates air temperature inside the envelope (balloon).


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