All about the hot air balloon


Since its invention in 1783, the hot air balloon has gone from decades of oblivion to renewed popularity.

Joseph and Étienne de Montgolfier invented the hot air balloon. After several successful tries, the two brothers decided to organize a public demonstration on June 4, 1783. Around 100 curious spectators were on hand. The 11-meter wide silk and paper balloon was inflated over a fire of straw and wool and rose to an altitude of about 180 meters. The balloon travelled two kilometers in ten minutes and made a soft landing.

On September 19, 1783, in the presence of Louis XVI and a huge crowd gathered in front of the Versailles palace, the Montgolfier brothers presented their most recent balloon. Made of coton and paper, the 12.5 by 17-meter balloon was elegantly painted.

Aboard the balloon, in a suspended cage, a rooster, a duck and a sheep became the first balloon passengers in history. The balloon rose to 500 meters and travelled three kilometers in eight minutes. The animals returned unharmed.

On November 21, 1783, Jean Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent, marquis of Arlandes, became the first humans to fly. The balloon had a volume of approximately 2,040 cubic meters, measured 21 meters in length and 14 meters in width, and weighed 725 kilograms with a full load. The envelope was made of an alun-soaked coton sheet to render it waterproof and less inflammable. The decorations represented the royal coat of arms and the signs of the Zodiac. As a huge crowd watched (500,000 or half the population of Paris according to estimates), the balloon rose majestically to an altitude of 900 meters and landed safely after a 25-minute, 8-kilometer flight.

Professors Charles and Robert also made a significant contribution to the discovery of the hot air balloon by introducing, at about the same time, the hydrogen balloon which could outdistance its hot air cousin. The first flight of a hydrogen balloon occurred on August 27, 1783.

In the 1950s, American Ed Yost rekindled the hot air balloon's popularity by experimenting new methods combining plastic materials with an industrial-type propane gas tank heating system. In the seventies, with help from a small, dedicated group of people, hot air balloons resurfaced for good. Manufacturers started producing balloons for a growing number of enthusiasts. Since then, hot air ballooning has become a very sophisticated sport. Local, regional, national and international competitions are held every year in more than 40 countries.

This text contains excerpts from Les vaisseaux du ciel, a book by Marco Majrani which is available at City of Gatineau offices.

What are hot air balloons made of?

The balloon, more properly called the envelope, is made of reinforced nylon (certain balloons are made of dacron). Despite its very light weight, this material is very resistant. The cloth's interior is leak-proofed.

How are balloons inflated?

Inflating a hot air balloon requires a team effort, since a balloon is very cumbersome on the ground. If the wind flares up, it may take a four-person team to inflate a hot air balloon. The first step is to spread out the envelope on the ground, and then attach it to the basket, which is laid down on its side. Using a small gas fan, air is blown into the envelope. The burner is then ignited to heat up the air already inside the envelope. The heated air rises and brings the balloon to its vertical position.

What is the basket made of?

Baskets are made of ratan, and entirely hand woven.

How big is a hot air balloon?

A typical hot air balloon has a volume of 65,000 to 105,000 cubic feet, and may reach 70 feet in height. The City of Gatineau hot air balloons, for example, are in the 100,000 cubic foot range.

How is a hot air balloon steered?

A hot air balloon is not really "steered". It goes where the prevailing wind takes it. However, since winds blow in varying directions and speeds at different altitudes, a pilot finds the required wind direction by choosing the right altitude.

How fast can a hot air balloon fly?

It is as fast, or as slow, as the wind that carries it. Since a hot air balloon has no propulsion system, speed is completely dependent on wind velocity.

When is the best time to fly in a hot air balloon?

Just after sunrise or an hour or two before sunset, when winds are usually calm and the air is most stable.

How high can a hot air balloon fly?

Most hot air balloons fly at altitudes of 1,000 to 1,500 feet. But they can also choose to skim the tree tops, or fly much, much higher.

How long can a flight last?

It depends. Usually, a hot air balloon carries enough propane for a two-hour flight, but factors such as air temperature, total basket weight (including passengers) and time of day may influence duration.

What type of fuel is used?

Propane, kept in pressurized tanks attached to the basket floor. A single hot air balloon carries 30 or 40 gallons of liquid propane. Flames may shoot up to 10 or 20 feet and make a loud characteristic sound when the burner ignites.

How is a hot air balloon recovered?

A hot air balloon is recovered by a chase crew travelling aboard a small truck or van. The crew follows the balloon (roads permitting) and must reach the landing site before the balloon touches down. For each balloon launch, a radio-equipped ground crew of three to four people is needed to ensure a successful flight.


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).