Hot air ballooning is the oldest form of aviation. It began over 200 years ago when a French scientist famously sent up a balloon carrying a rather confused duck, a sheep and a cockerel.
Balloons have come a long way since then (you’ll be pleased to hear we don’t burn old boots or meat as fuel anymore, or expect you to share a basket with animals!).
Today ballooning is popular all over the world, and pilots like Sir Richard Branson have achieved incredible feats in a quest to fly further, higher and for longer.
Ballooning History Timeline
First Hot Air Balloon Flight
French scientist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier famously launches the first hot air balloon carrying a duck, a sheep and a cockerel. The balloon is given lift by hot air but also has a compartment of ‘lighter- than-air’ gas – like helium or hydrogen – in the top of the balloon. The flight lasts for 15 minutes.
First Manned Hot Air Balloon Flight
Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes fly from Paris in a genuine ‘hot air’ balloon created out of paper-lined cloth by wealthy brothers and papermakers Jacques Étienne and Joseph Michel Montgolfier.
First Balloon Flight in the UK
Scottish aviator James Tytler becomes the first Briton to fly a hot air balloon making a flight over Edinburgh. However, he is overshadowed soon after by Italian diplomat and ‘dare devil’ Vincenzo Lunardi who completes the first balloon flight in England. Launching his hydrogen gas balloon in front of 200,000 spectators at London’s Artillery Ground, he flies with a dog, a cat and a caged pigeon for 24 miles into Hertfordshire. He becomes famous and helps build the romance of ballooning still present today.
First English Channel Balloon Crossing
French aeronaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries successfully fly across the Channel. They carry and deliver a letter (now that’s what you call ‘Air Mail’!)
First Balloon Flight in America
Jean-Pierre Blanchard completes the first balloon flight in North America, flying from Philadelphia to Gloucester County, New Jersey.
First Long-distance Balloon Flight
The Great Balloon of Nassau (85,000 cubic ft in size) flies 800 km (500 mi) from London to Weilburg in Germany in 18 hours.
Hot Air Balloons Used at War
Balloons are used for military observation during Franco-Prussian War and a French Minister makes a dramatic James Bond-style escape from a besieged Paris by balloon.
Ballooning Grows as Sport
Interest in ballooning as a sport grows thanks to the annual Gordon Bennett Balloon Trophy Races, founded by American journalist James Gordon Bennett when a group of hydrogen gas balloons fly from Paris, which runs from 1906, pausing for World War I, and continues today.
Landmark Distance Record
The Berliner hot air balloon flies 3,052 km (1,897) flies from Bitterfield in Germany to Perm in Russia.
Balloons in World War I
Both sides use balloons for military observation during the war from 1914 to 1918.
First Gas Balloon Flight to the Stratosphere
Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard flies to the Stratosphere at 15,781 m (51,793 ft) in a metal cabin carried by a hydrogen gas balloon. The next year, he reached 16,507 m (54,156 ft).
Modern Hot Air Ballooning Era Takes Off
Edward Yost invents a propane burner that changes ballooning from gas power to hot air. A hot air balloon using the burner successfully flies in Nebraska, USA.
Highest Ever Gas Balloon Flight
After several successful attempts to better Piccard’s record – by US Army Captains Orvil Anderson and Albert Stevens (22,080 m/72,440ft), Major David Simmons (31,110 m/102,000 ft) and Captain Joseph Kittinger (31,354 m/102,870ft) who parachutes back to earth – Malcolm Ross and Victor Prather achieve 34,679m (113,775 ft).
Next Generation for Ballooning
The 1970s and 80s see the development of new synthetic materials and lighter burners allowing ballooning to become a popular modern sport.
First Balloon World Championships
The first ballooning world championships are held in the United States.
First Transatlantic Flight in Helium Gas Balloon
American businessmen Ben Abruzzo, Max L. Anderson and Larry Newman fly a record 5,000 km (3,108 mi) from Maine, USA, to Miserey, France, in 137 hours and 6 minutes.
First Transatlantic Hot Air Balloon Flight
Sir Richard Branson and Per Linstrand successfully fly the Virgin Atlantic Flyer – the largest balloon ever at 2.3 million cubic feet – across the Atlantic. The balloon travels 2,900 miles in a record breaking time of 33 hours and reaches speeds in excess of 130 miles per hour (209 k/ph).
First Transpacific Hot Air Balloon Flight
Sir Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand cross the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Arctic Canada at the furthest distance of 6,700 miles. Again, this breaks all existing records. The balloon measures 2.6 million cubic feet and hits speeds of up to 245 miles per hour.
First Round the World Balloon Flight
Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones fly a helium/hot air balloon, the Breitling Orbiter 3, around the globe setting the longest ever flight covering 46,759 km (29,055 mi) in 19 days, 21 hours, and 55 minutes.
First Solo Round the World Flight
American millionaire Steve Fossett flies around the world in a helium/hot air balloon, Spirit of Freedom, on his sixth attempt. He flies for 13 days, 34,000 km (22,100 mi). It is the longest ever solo balloon flight.
World Female Altitude Record Attempt
Virgin Balloon Flights pilot Lindsay Muir – the UKs top female flyer – attempts to take her balloon to 34,000 ft, in Cuneo, Italy, to beat the record of 33,669 ft. High winds and turbulence cause the attempt to fail but it receives major national coverage for Virgin and ballooning in general.
Highest Ever Hot Air Balloon Flight
Vijaypat Singhania, an Indian businessman and Aviator, flew set the record by flying up to 21,290 m (69,852 ft) in a massive 160ft tall balloon with a pressurized cabin.
Highest Concert & Highest Recorded Sing in a Hot Air Balloon
Virgin Balloon Flights team up with rock band the Girls (including special guests such as Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowles form Massive Attack) and Future Music magazine to set the new Guinness World Records in a Virgin balloon piloted by Mark Simmons. The song ‘What I did Today’ was performed and recorded 1,848 m (6,063 ft) above Wiltshire.
Unplugged & Airborne
Virgin Balloon Flights team up with Virgin Radio and Sony BMG to host a gig by singer-songwriter Newton Faulkner in a balloon above the Swiss Alps. The event is believed to be first ever show by a hit artist to be recorded in a hot air balloon for national radio and it receives widespread coverage.
Longest Duration Flight in an AX-02 Balloon
Virgin Balloon Flights pilot Mark Shemilt breaks a world record for endurance flying by keeping a special lightweight hopper balloon (AX-02 category) above the French Alps for seven hours and 32 minutes, beating previous best by more than half an hour.
Longest Distance Flight in an AX-02 Balloon
Pilot Mark Shemilt does it again in February 2010 breaking the distance record in the same AX-02 category balloon flying 120 miles from Leicestershire to the Suffolk coast.
Largest Mass Balloon Ascent
A total of 329 balloons line up to launch at the Lorraine Mondial balloon fiesta in France setting the world record for the largest mass ascent of hot air balloons. Meanwhile, Virgin Balloon Flights’ Chief Pilot and Director Kenneth Karlstrom beats 120 other top pilots to win the prestigious event’s target flying competition.
Visit the Ballooning Science page to learn about how a hot air balloon works