How did hot air ballooning start, and what is involved?

On September 19, 1783, French paper makers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier sent a sheep, a rooster, and a duck aloft on an 8 minute flight in front of a crowd estimated to be 130,000 strong.  This flight, viewed by King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, would prove that living beings could survive being carried aloft and laid the groundwork for man's first flight on November 21, 1783.

Still uneasy about the safety of sending human beings into the great unknown King Louis XVI decreed that condemned criminals should become the first aeronauts, but knowing the historical significance this flight would surely have the King was persuaded to allow scientist Pilatre de Rozier and Marquis Francious d'Arlandes to become the world's first pilots.  Benjamin Franklin was among the dignitaries who witnessed the 25 minute flight.

As years passed hot air balloons were overshadowed by the longer flight times that contained gas balloons allowed, and dirigibles which could be steered, and then by the Wright brothers' successful airplane flight more than 120 years after ballooning originated.

In the 1960's the birth of the modern hot air balloon, pioneered by Ed Yost, put ballooning within reach for people from all walks of life.  Today's hot air balloons, though materials and designs vary between companies, all have the same components.  The gondola, or basket, is the passenger carrying compartment, which also holds the propane fueled burner which creates the heat to make the balloon rise.  The balloon, or envelope, is made of a coated nylon or polyester fabric not much different from the jacket hanging in your closet.

Hot air ballooning will give you a whole new perspective on everyday things...

Your worries seem to fade away as everyone below is left to deal with the stop and go traffic. We've all picked leaves before, but have you ever picked them from the top of a tree? The early morning fog in the Kansas River valley is a spectacular sight from above.

Balloons are laid out on the ground and inflated with large fans powered by gasoline engines.  2 crew members are shown here holding the mouth of the balloon open to allow it to fill with the air from the fan.

Out of view, another crew member is holding the crown line, a line attached to the top of the balloon keeping it stable during this cold inflation process which lasts around ten minutes.

The balloon is attached to the basket with steel or kevlar cables that attach to load tapes that run all the way to the top of the balloon.  The load tapes are the structure of the balloon and carry the load.  All handling of the envelope is done by the load tapes rather than pulling on the fabric to avoid stressing or tearing it.

In the center of the top of the balloon is the parachute, or valve, which is a large opening controlled by a rope leading to the basket.  The valve acts as a means to let hot air out of the balloon to decrease altitude or deflate the balloon.

The image to the left shows balloons in various stages of inflation.  The balloon on the right is just getting started.  It's crew members are attaching velcro tabs that hold the valve in during inflation.  Once the balloon is upright air pressure keeps it in place.

The middle balloon is approximately 2/3 full and ready for hot inflation.  The pilot will soon trigger the blast valve on the burner and the hot air will stand the balloon upright in about 20 seconds.

The balloon on the left is fully inflated and ready for final pre-flight preparations followed by lift off.

Hot air balloons usually have a crew of 3-10 people that assist with the launch and then follow the balloon to it's landing site to assist with the deflation and pack up.

Crew members are usually volunteers that got involved through a friend, family member, or local club.  With rare exception, crew members are not paid, they do it for the pure enjoyment of being involved and the occasional flights they earn along the way.  Most pilots start out as crew members and learn to fly as a natural progression to their participation.

Hot air balloons are at the mercy of the winds, and the only steering available is to ascend or descend to different altitudes which often offer different wind speeds and directions.

The gentle movements and slow speeds allow balloons to fly in close proximity to each other, sometimes with their envelopes making contact.  In most cases this is nothing to be concerned with and is not a "crash".

Unlike other forms of aviation balloon pilots prefer to fly close to other balloons as ours is a social sport and we can often talk to each other in flight, sharing hellos and discussing potential landing areas ahead.

Balloons can often be seen skimming along the surface of a lake, which we call a splash and dash.  This "water landing" is not an emergency situation, but a test of skill fine tuning the pilot's abilities to make gentle landings on a soft surface.  If the pilot's approach is too steep or fast he will end up with wet feet, but still safe.  Even full of fuel the basket will not sink, but with the added weight of the water in the basket the pilot will have to add extra heat to get back into the air leaving a trail of water as it drains out of the basket.

Another thing that people often see that causes alarm is what we refer to as "tree-topping".  Pilots will sometimes allow their baskets to come in contact with the tops of trees on approach to landing in an effort to squeeze into a small space or to slow their speed before touch down.  On these occasions passengers are often allowed to pick leaves from the tops of the trees to keep as a souvenir of their flight.

Though balloons do sometimes take off or land at airports it is not a requirement, or even a common occurrence. 

As balloons travel with the wind, the pilot will chose a launch site that will allow the wind to take the balloon to an area with ample landing opportunities.


Balloons can often be seen giving tethered rides to landowners after a flight, a school or church group, or spectators at an event.

The balloon is anchored to vehicles or other heavy objects by 1 or more ropes or lines allowing it to fly, but not to go farther than the line will permit.  Tethers are a great fundraiser for groups and allow people a short flight and an up close look at how it works. 

Night glows are a common sight at balloon rallies and special events.

 The balloonists begin to prepare their equipment shortly before sunset and once darkness falls the balloons are lit up like Chinese lanterns illuminated by blasts from the propane burners.   The glows are always a crowd favorite and a spectacular sight, but deflating and packing up in the dark can sometimes be a challenge! 

Balloon Rides