Up, Up, and Away!

Airplanes get entirely too much credit.

Okay, sure, it’s pretty amazing the way several tons of metal manages to lift off carrying hundreds of people across the entire ocean in a matter of hours…but why should they get all the get all the glory and acclaim just because they work?

The first successful manned flight was not an airplane, and it operates on a principle so simple that elementary student can build one. The first time mankind freed themselves from the weight of earth it was in 1818 in a hot air balloon.

sell_sky_lantern_Kongming_lantern_wish_lanternLike just about every other technological achievement in Europe, the Chinese did it first. As early as 220 AD they were using Kongming Lanterns for military signalling. But, like everything China invented, once Europe finally caught on to the idea they made vast improvements. In 1709 the first European balloon demonstration takes place in Portugal.

Little is known about the early development of hot air balloons, but it is easy to imagine a race between nations to be the first to successfully fly. If there was such competition, however, the french clearly took the lead launching the first hydrogen balloon, the first manned tethered flight and, finally, the first manned free flight in a hot air balloon in 1783.

The principle of the hot air balloon is extremely simple. Inventors observed the simple fact that hot air rises, and correctly surmised that if a large enough balloon were filled with hot air it could carry a basket and a pilot. The problems faced in the eighteenth century were mainly concerned with a practical heat source. Heat was provided by a charcoal fire carried in an iron bowl mounted beneath the balloon. It had to be fed continually and smoked horribly, not to mention the added weight of fuel that had to be carried. Then, in 17 85, a hot air balloon crashed into an Irish town and the fire it started burned down 100 houses.

civilwarballoonBetween 1790 and 1960 gas balloons became the most common. These balloons were filled with hydrogen, a gas lighter than air, and had many advantages over a balloon that had to carry fuel. The success of the hydrogen balloon was demonstrated in the Battle of Fleurus in 1794 when the french used a balloon as an observation post to watch the movements of the Austrian army. The idea quickly caught on, and balloons were used extensively during the American Civil War. The first assignment of the Union Army Balloon Corps was to work with topographical engineers to provide better maps. The idea also captured the imagination of the public, and in 1874 Jules Verne published his “Mysterious Island” featuring a dramatic escape from war-torn America by means of a hijacked army balloon swept halfway across the world in a violent storm.

The next problem to face balloonists was the simple matter of steering. Balloons could go up and come down, but when traveling in the second and third dimensions they were at the mercy of the wind. In order to reach a certain target you had to predict the weather and launch upwind of  your destination. And in the eighteenth century if the wind decided to come from the opposite direction you didn’t have much of an option beyond waiting for it to change. This led to a demand for steerable balloons, later to be known as dirigibles.

HenriGiffardsSteamShipThe first dirigible was built by Henri Giffard in 1852 and powered by a steam engine. Unfortunately, this brought back all the problems of early hot air balloons–it was heavy, accident prone, and you had to carry fuel. The invention of the internal combustion engine in 1859 made dirigibles possible, and also lead to the invention of aeroplanes. In 1872 Paul Haenlein flew the first such airship–the first flight powered by an internal combustion engine.

Many dirigible designs at this point mirrored early submarine designs, featuring hand-powered propellers requiring a crew of eight men…or just one. And, like submarines, they quickly became tools for warfare, this time delivering terrifying death from above. The name “Zeppelin” now synonymously associated with airships, was actually the brand name for dirigibles of German manufacture. Although popularized since, zeppelins were actually wildly inefficient, suffering all the usual problems of lack of control in high winds, and lack of visibility in cloudy weather. Their inability to accurately hit a target greatly hampered their usefulness, and the amount of damage inflicted was negligible. Recognizing these weaknesses, Britain abandoned airships in favor of aeroplanes, a trend that would only continue as the 20th century progressed.

Hindenburg_burningThe crash of the Hindenburg in 1933 led to the banning of hydrogen powered balloons in the United States. This only left helium gas for light-than-air flights, and helium was both expensive and hard to come by. Thus the only airships seen today are the non-rigid cousins of the zeppelin–blimps used for advertising or surveillance where the ability to hover is more important than the speed and efficiency of the more modern airplane.

However, the era of balloon flight was far from over. The high cost of airplanes and the extensive (and expensive) training required to operate one means that far more people want to fly than those who do. Other novels by Jules Verne such as “Five Weeks in a Balloon” and “Robur the Conquerer” both predicted the importance of controlling the skies, and ensured that the concept of balloon flight remained alive in the imagination of the public. And in 1950 Ed Yost began development on a new kind of hot air balloon, one that was far more practical than carrying around a basket of hot coals. The “Bristol Belle” took flight on October 22, 1960 and a new era in ballooning was born.

L5_balloonfiestaWith an envelope sewn from modern heat resistant fabric, and the hot provided by controlled propane burners, both the dangers of flammability and the problems of carrying fuel were eliminated. Hot air balloons are able to reach extremely high altitudes and, prior to the space program, set all the records for high altitude flights. Although primarily used for recreations balloonist continue to set records for longest and highest flights, eventually circumnavigating the globe.

The popularity of hot air balloons is proved by fly-ins held around the globe were hundreds (sometimes thousands!) of balloonists compete for large cash prizes. Their brightly colored envelopes dotting the sky is a sight guaranteed to thrill an audience, and an ongoing testament to the ingenuity of the first aeronauts and inventors of the eighteenth century.

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