21st November is Montgolfier Day

All over the world, 21st November is the day balloonists celebrate the anniversary of the first free flight with human beings.

In 1783 in Paris, France, the famous Montgolfier balloon took off from the garden of the Château de la Muette in the Bois de Boulogne in the presence of the King. The balloon was designed and built by Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier. King Louis XVI had originally decreed that two condemned criminals would be the first passengers, and if they survived they would be pardoned. But Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier, (a chemistry and physics teacher) along with the Marquis François Laurent d’Arlandes (a French military officer), successfully persuaded the King to let them go up instead.

The fifty feet high, highly decorated envelope had a smoky fire slung under the neck of the balloon suspended in an iron basket. It was controllable and supposed to be constantly replenished by the balloonists who were in the balcony around the neck of the balloon. But Marquis François Laurent d’Arlandes was absolutely terrified for the whole flight, and often did not hear Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier yelling at him from the other side of the balloon to put more straw on the fire.

In 25 minutes the two men travelled just over five miles. Enough fuel (hay or straw) remained on board at the end of the flight to have allowed the balloon to fly four to five times as far, but burning embers from the fire threatened to engulf the balloon and the men decided to land as soon as they were over open countryside. The pioneering work of the Montgolfier brothers in developing the hot air balloon was recognised by this type of balloon being named Montgolfière after them.

First Hot Air Balloon across the English Channel

On April 13, 1963, pilots Ed Yost and Don Piccard launched the 60,000 cubic foot hot air balloon “Channel Champ” from the village of Rye, England. Three hours and seventeen minutes later Yost landed the aircraft near Gravelines, France completing the historic voyage. Newspaper headlines around the world proclaimed their success the next day and effectively introduced the hot air balloon to the world.

The purpose of the flight was to demonstrate the range and endurance of Yost’s new aircraft. Yost is recognized as the ‘Father of the Modern Hot Air Balloon’ based on his work at Raven Industries with the Office of Naval Research to create an aircraft that would carry one man and enough fuel to fly for at least 3 hours, carry a load to 10,000 feet and be reusable and require a minimum crew to launch.

The Channel Champ was a further refinement of Yost’s first models. None of those balloons remain today making the Channel Champ an undeniably historic aircraft.

During the flight Yost and Piccard sat on a simple “board” between two 30-gallon propane tanks. The tiny one can burner produced a mere 2-million BTUs (today’s modern hot air balloon burners will produce 11-20 million BTUs). The balloon had no top vent, instead the top was simply gathered together, tied with nylon cord and fixed with an explosive squib that, when fired after landing, would allow the balloon to rapidly deflate.During the flight Yost was forced to climb to an altitude of 13,500 feet to find favourable winds that would carry them across the Channel and into France.

Ironically the Channel Champ was almost lost to history. The famous “board” has been on display for many years at the Forbes’ family balloon museum in Balleroi, France but the envelope was thought to have been destroyed or lost until a retired Raven Industries employee contacted Yost saying he believed he had the historic envelope, having taken it home years before when it was being discarded. An inspection proved the envelope was the historic balloon and it was later reunited with the “board.”

After some minor restoration the balloon was inflated for the last time at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in October 2005. It has now been moved to its new home, the National Balloon Museum in Indianola. Iowa also home of the Balloon Federation of America.

During the ceremonies Yost regaled the appreciative audience with stories from the flight including an admission that he was “scared to death” not by the flight, but by the ride with French police back into Paris where a ceremony was staged for himself and Don Piccard.

A 20-minute movie of the famous flight pieced together from Piccard’s original films was also shown to the crowd after which Yost posed for pictures and signed autographs.

More information: www.nationalballoonmuseum.com, www.bfa.net

Don Piccard b.1926 – d.2020.

In 1957, on 18th September Don Piccard flew the first plastic Pleiades, a cluster of small balloons, based upon a design of his father’s, Jean-Felix Piccard, from Valley Forge to Spring Garden Pennsylvania USA. It cost $800 to make and fly.

The 1957 Pleiades flight was the first ever plastic balloon multi celled (Pleiades) flight. Charles Moore made the first manned plastic balloon flight in a single cell polyethylene balloon. Jean Piccard flew the first successful plastic balloon in 1936, it was Cellophane. He also made the first manned multi-celled balloon flight, the Pleiades, using 98 rubber balloons in 1937.

As a balloon rises, gases within the envelope expand, increasing volume as the atmospheric pressure outside decreases. The frost free window and the plastic balloon inventions were by Jean Piccard. The Bathyscaph was a co-invention of the twins, Jean and Auguste, when they were students in 1905, but was built by Auguste after WWII.

For his plastic Pleiades flight, Don’s solo gondola was made by Mike Schonfeld and himself in the Aero Engineering Lab at the University of Minnesota. The surplus US Navy balloon used city gas for buoyancy, not for fuel. A hot air balloon could burn it to create heat for lift, but the tanks for compressed gas would be very heavy. So hot air balloons use liquid propane and vaporize it to burn.

Don Piccard represents three generations of Piccards whose lives have centred on research and sport ballooning. In 1947 Piccard made his first solo balloon flight and became the first FAA certified pilot.

The Piccards are an amazing record breaking family;

Jules Piccard (professor of chemistry) 1840-1933

Auguste Piccard (physicist, aeronaut, balloonist, hydronaut) 1884-1962

Jacques Piccard (hydronaut) 1922-2008

Bertrand Piccard (aeronaut, balloonist) 1958 –

Jean Felix Piccard (organic chemist, aeronaut, and balloonist) 1884 – 1963

Jeannette Piccard (wife of Jean Felix) (aeronaut and balloonist) 1885 – 1981

Don Piccard (balloonist) 1926 –

Don Piccard was a Vice President of the British Balloon Museum & Library almost since its inception.

1709 – First demonstration of a model hot air balloon

Just after breakfast on August 8th, 1709, a 24 year old Priest, Bartolomeu de Gusmão from Brazil, demonstrated the first model balloon to King John V of Portugal.

It was Gusmao’s third attempt, as he had nearly set the palace alight 4 days before. He wore his best black cassock, as he had burned his two others experimenting.

On the patio of the House of India in Lisbon, before the King, loads of royalty, nobles and ladies of the Court and a few others, he set fire to the fuel within an earthenware container slung below the balloon.

It worked perfectly, it went up in the air, the flame went out, so it came down. The King was madly impressed, made him a Canon and granting the right of any and all flying ships to Gusmão from then on… and, for all those who dared to intervene or to copy his ideas, the penalty would be ‘death’.

Gusmao wanted to build a machine to fly people. His design was a balloon in the form of a bird with a tail and wings and a boat underneath. The invention was called ‘Passarola’, because of its resemblance to a bird. It was filled with numerous tubes, through which the wind would flow and fill out the bulges to give it shape. A model of his design is in the Museo Nacional Aeronáutico y del Espacio de Chile.

Sadly, after King John V died, the commoners didn’t trust all this hocus pocus and reported Gusmao to the Portuguese Inquisition as a wizard.

The Inquisition was a powerful office set up within the Catholic Church to root out and punish heresy throughout Europe and the Americas. Beginning in the 12th century and continuing for hundreds of years, the Inquisition is infamous for the severity of its tortures and its persecution of Jews and Muslims and anything such as heresy, wizardry or magic.

Gusmao, who was terrified of the Inquisition, took the advice of his friends, burned his manuscripts, disguised himself, and fled to Spain, where he died in a hospital.

First Flight at South Pole

On 8th January 2000, the first ever hot air balloon flight at the South Pole took place. Ivan André Trifonov, an Austrian balloon pilot, flew 14,934m (49,000ft) over the geographic South Pole Antarctica at an altitude of 4,571m (15,000ft) with his two Spanish crew members. The Aircraft was Mil 2000, a Cameron AX 66- EC-HDB hot air balloon carrying the flags of the Antarctic Treaty nations which are usually flown around the ceremonial South Pole.

Ivan Andre Trifinov balloon pilot and adventurer said “I had a Tarot card reading (one possible way to look in the future, if you believe) analysed by my polar friend Matthias Wölfle showed a positive trend for my personal participation and I took this as a good omen. With a diabolical willpower I mobilised all possible ways of organising the necessary finances. I also worked long hours on my balloon construction to reduce the total take-off weight to 140 kg and to minimise my costs. Through a big sponsorship help of the mobile telephone company “max.mobil” and a large part of my own money the financial situation was eventually resolved and I did it.”

Snow Bugs were used for the transport.

The “Snow Bugs” are remarkable vehicles with 6 large inflated tyres which give a very light footprint on the snow and are ideal for soft snow or areas with crevasses. Only the middle pair of wheels are normally used for drive although 4 wheels have drive-shafts fitted.

During the journey to the pole all 14 replacement gear boxes had to be used. They used 3 different engines with the Volvo being more reliable than the Volkswagen and Minsk engines.

The four “Snow Bugs” finally arrived at the South Pole late on the 7th of January 2000. Just in time, and before the launch the next day the “Snow Bugs” demonstrated their light footprint by running over some American volunteers. A feat which resulted in great applause from those watching (but probably scared the hell out of the volunteers)!

The day a duck, a sheep and a cockerel took to the air in 1783

On the 19th September 1783,  Etienne Montgolfier, a paper maker, launched the first hot air balloon with passengers, it was called ‘Aerostat Reveillon’. The passengers were a sheep, a duck and a rooster. The balloon stayed in the air for a grand total of 15 minutes before crashing back to the ground.

After the successful launch of a hot air balloon in June 1783, in Annonay by the brothers Montgolfier, King Louis XVI, ordered the brothers to bring the balloon to Paris, and launch it in front of the palace of Versailles

Etienne went up to Paris with the balloon, and stayed with Jean-Baptiste Reveillon who had a wallpaper factory and was a customer of the Montgolfier’s paper mill in Annonay.

Etienne, to save money had made a balloon where the taffeta was sandwiched between two layers of paper but very plain.

Reveillon said he really ought to have something fancier as he was going to fly it in front of royalty and set his workers on to glue swathes of ribbons and paint it with the royal coat of arms.

On 11th September, Etienne lit the fire and it went perfectly and inflated very fast and lifted the 8 men holding it down, off the ground, others luckily jumped on the ropes to keep it down. It was left over the scaffolding that night ready for the commissioners in the morning but it started to rain.

Next morning the envelope was a bit soggy, but he managed to inflate but as it started to really pour with rain, Reveillon said to cut it free, but Etienne said no and pulled it down. The result was many of the panels were burned.

The rain then got worse and all the swagging and decorations washed off. So they had to build a new balloon from scratch for Versailles on 19th September. They abandoned paper and used taffeta coated with varnish. 4 frantic days and nights of work and they did it. A balloon  had to be capable of lifting the chosen ‘non-humans’, a sheep, a cockerel and a duck as instructed by the King.

Etienne and Reveillon’s workers took the balloon to Versailles and it was raised on a scaffold. The King came down and spent time examining it before going back to his balcony to watch.

Thousands of people watched as the balloon lurched up into the sky. It only flew for about 15 minutes. It landed softly enough. The only casualty seemed to have been the duck as the sheep had kicked it and broke its leg. The King watched the whole thing through field glasses and when Etienne went up to join him, he was able to point out how far the balloon had got.

I did a lot of research trying to ascertain what breeds were used by looking at old prints. The sheep was probably a Berichon, the only breed with no horns, and it was very docile. The Berichon du Cher was established in the Berry region of France. The original breed was crossed with a Merino in the mid-1780’s.

The cockerel we think is a Crève-coeur.  The Crève-coeur chicken is the oldest of the standard-bred fowls of France. The breed gets its name from Crève-Coeur en Ange, a small town in Normandy, France. The breed’s name translates as “broken heart. Little is known of the breed’s origins other than they were developed in Normandy and existed there for a very long time. They did not come to England because they did not like the cold, but were kept in cities in France for their meat.

It is possible that the duck was a Challans duck. The Challans Duck originated in Challans, France, from a cross between Rouen Clair and Colvert ducks in the mid 1600s. Prized by restaurants for their meat, the ducks are raised in the Vendée area of France. They are allowed to roam along the canals, where rush nests are built for them.  They forage for themselves free-range during this time, eating bugs, snails, tadpoles, etc. When they are 8 weeks old, they are gathered into pens for fattening for market.

Military Ballooning

The first military use of observation balloons was during the French Revolutionary Wars. They were also used by both sides during the American Civil War (1861-65) and continued in use during the Franco-Prussian War.

Balloons were first deployed by the British Army’s Royal Engineers during the expeditions to Bechuanaland and Suakin in 1885.

They were also deployed during the Second Boer War (1899-1902), where they were used in artillery observation with the Kimberley column and during the siege of Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal.

Positioning artillery observers at altitude on balloons allowed them to see targets at greater range than they could on the ground. This allowed the artillery to take advantage of its increased range.

The idiom “The balloon’s going up!” as an expression for impending battle is derived from the very fact that an observation balloon’s ascent likely signalled a preparatory bombardment for an offensive.

The First British Military Balloon

In Great Britain, two officers, Captain F. Beaumont, who had served with Thaddeus Lowe’s Balloon Corps in the American Civil War, and Captain G.E. Grover tried unsuccessfully to persuade the British military to recognize the military value of balloons.

But the first British military balloon was not used until Captain J.L.B. Templer, an amateur aeronaut, brought his own balloon, the Crusader, to Woolwich Arsenal, and then built Pioneer which was made of specially treated and varnished cambric, and cost £71. It was the first balloon built by the RE at Woolwich. Therefore it was the first British Built Military Aircraft. First flight 23 August 1878.

The British began military balloon training in 1880. Members of the balloon corps were trained in free flight as well as in observations from a tethered balloon in case the tethered balloon broke away from its cables.

During this time, Templer and his associates realized that a new way of storing the hydrogen gas that filled the balloons was needed because generating the gas near the battlefield was too cumbersome and slow.

Compressed cylinders for the gas were suggested. The cylinders came into use both in Britain and in other countries. Storage pressures increased rapidly and, by 1890, the French claimed they could inflate a small balloon in 15 minutes.

Goldbeater Skins were used to make the balloons

Templer also recognized the need for a lighter and more impervious balloon fabric. He found an Alsation family in London, the Weinlings, who had been using goldbeaters’ skins, (the outer layer of the lower intestines of an ox used to make gold leaf) for toy balloons and he hired them to provide fabric to the British government and moved them to The School of Ballooning in Chatham, Kent.

By the end of 1883, they had produced their first balloon that could lift one observer to a useful height.

The balloon, the 10,000-cubic-foot (283-cubic-metre) Heron, served in South Africa.

The advances in balloon technology impressed the British military, which moved the Balloon Section to larger quarters in Aldershot and included it in British Army establishments.

They increased the number of balloon sections, and four balloon sections participated in the South African War at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Second Boer War

The Boer War began in 1899 and four balloon sections were sent to South Africa support the army.

The first unit in action was the 2nd Balloon Section under the command of Major GM Heath, which arrived at Ladysmith on 27th October only to remain within the besieged town for the next four months. At first they continued to observe the enemy’s movements until the supply of gas ran out.

A small contingent of the 2nd Section which had remained outside of the town and with reserve equipment and gas, saw action at Potgieters Drift and Spion Kop.

The 1st Balloon Section joined Lord Methuen’s advance on the Modder River and at the battle of Magersfontein, observing the enemy and directing the artillery with great effect.

In 1900 the balloonists provided vital information on the Boer’s positions at Paardeborg, even though the 12,000 cub foot Duchess of Connaught was holed and leaking badly.

The gas was transferred to the Bristol which flew at the Battle of Poplar Grove, and in the advance from Blomfontein, it was kept inflated for twenty two days on the 165 mile march.

It then took part in the engagements at Vet River and Zand River.

Balloon Transport

In June, a balloon located in Pretoria assisted in the capture of the Boer forces, and although damaged by enemy fire in several places, it was repaired with patches of gold-beaters’ skin in the field.

The 3rd balloon Section arrived at Cape Town in March of 1900, and was sent to Warrenton on the left flank of Lord Robert’s advance on Pretoria.

The observers were able to provide information on the position of the enemy guns and aided in directing fire from the British 5inch and 6inch Howitzers.

Transporting the balloon equipment was no easy task as Templar’s traction engines had been lost on the way to Cape Town when HMS Commonwealth was wrecked. Instead the balloons were moved, often fully inflated, on wagons drawn by teams of oxen and mules.

These balloons were quite small, up to only 13,000cubic foot in volume, and their tiny baskets allowed just about room for one person sitting down which is why the habit of observers riding in the rigging became so commonplace.

Boer Soldiers

The Boers had no balloons of their own, and the effect on their morale was considerable as they relied on their knowledge of the terrain to carry on a war of attrition.

Boer Soldier John Lane, in the Laager at Paardeberg. Wrote:

‘I have not been able to have a wash since last night, I ventured down to the river. I had just pulled my shirt over my head, happening to look up, my eye caught sight of a big black thing, at first glance it seemed to be right on the top of me, I said, Oh my God, and fell flat on my stomach, thinking it would explode.

I then got my senses about me and looked up, and Lo and behold, it was the balloon, appears for the first time since lying around Magersfontien… Some fellows shouted to me to hide away, “Poets kernel” they shouted, it does not much matter now, it is all up, they will now be able to find out every hole and position we are in and will pour in a hell of shells. The balloon kept up for about three hours, it looks very close, but is far out of range. Lots of our men kept firing at it. It is amusing to hear the talk of some of our Burghers such as “do you call this fair play” that damnable big round thing, spying our positions, we would not be so mean to do a thing like this’.

Text taken from
Balloons at War’ by John Christopher. Tempus Publishing
‘The Boer War 1899-190’2, David Smurthwaite, Hamlyn History: London: 1999
‘History of Early British Military Aeronautics’ by PWL Broke-Smith

Le Flesselle, 19th January 1784

Le Flesselle, the biggest balloon.

On the 19th of January 1784, in Lyon, France, the largest Montgolfier balloon ever made was laid out for launching.  Called “Le Flesselle”, it was 120 feet high and had a capacity of 700,000 cubic feet, making it not only huge for its day but one of the largest hot air balloons ever flown, even to this day.

It was sponsored by the governor of Lyon, Jacques de Flesselles, seigneur de Champgueffier en Brie et de La Chapelle-Iger.

It would be piloted by two experienced balloonists — Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier.

Five noble and gentlemen were passengers, as reported in “Editions de LE NOIR”, including M. le Prince Charles De Ligne, M. le Comte de la porte d’Anglefort, M. le Comte de Laurencin, M. le Comte de Dampierre and M. Fontaine de Lyon.

The rather unfortunate winter weather and a badly repaired tear meant that after 13 minutes, at 3,000 feet, the envelope ripped and the balloon plummeted into a meadow near Lyon.

The rip took place at a spot where previous repairs had been made — apparently incorrectly.  Immediately, the balloon began leaking the hot air that was essential for flight.

For a moment the balloon hung in the sky and then seemingly it hesitated before it began to fall, slowly at first.  As the winter cold entered the envelope, it further hastened the cooling of the air. “Le Flesselle” was doomed.  Despite releasing ballast, the rate of descent only accelerated.  A crash was inevitable — Montgolfier, de Rozier and the passengers could do nothing but hang on.

Finally, the balloon struck the ground.  Somehow, the seven aboard survived the impact, though it was a jarring affair.

As for “Le Flesselle”, it was never flown again.  For the makers and for the public, the third and last flight of  “Le Flesselle” heralded the view that the maximum size of balloons may well have been reached.  In any case, the Montgolfiers never again attempted a balloon of that size.  “Le Flesselle” was unique — and remains a grand gesture in a time of greatest, when man first conquered flight. Somehow, none of them were injured.

All of the inhabitants of Lyon as well as 3,000 others had come to witness the feat.

Despite the tragedy, and death miraculously avoided, the event was celebrated — truly, France had gone “balloon mad!”

 How can anyone survive a 3,000 foot fall?

Jean Pierre Blanchard

Jean-Pierre Blanchard (July 4, 1753 – March 7, 1809), aka Jean Pierre François Blanchard, was a French inventor, most remembered as a pioneer in aviation and ballooning.

He began inventing a variety of interesting devices as a young boy, including a rat trap with a pistol, a velocipede, and later a hydraulic pump system that raised water 400 feet (122 meters) from the Seine River to the Château Gaillard.

He also attempted to develop a manually powered airplane and helicopter but was unsuccessful.

During the 1770s, Blanchard worked on designing heavier-than-air flying machines, including one based on a theory of rowing in the air currents with oars and a tiller.


One of the most skillful of the pioneer balloonists, Jean Pierre Blanchard was a dislikable character who, if he had ever had a friend, would have stabbed him in the back for a newspaper headline.

Flying for fame and money, the egotistical Blanchard was the first great aerial showman, stunt man, and occasional con man.

The son of French peasants, Blanchard was born in the village of Les Andelys in Normandy in 1753. After receiving a meager education and becoming disgusted with his family’s poverty, the ambitious young Blanchard ran away from home. Fleeing to Paris, he became a mechanic and tinker and, at the age of 16, invented the velocipede, an early form of the bicycle.

Next, he became enthralled with flight and studied birds to learn the secrets of aviation. The result of his investigations was his vaisseau volant (“flying vessel”). This invention had four birdlike wings which were flapped by manipulating two foot pedals and two hand levers. Needless to say, the contraption never left the ground, even though Blanchard insisted that he had flown it when there were no witnesses present.

Realizing his flightless flying machine would never bring him riches, Blanchard turned his attention to the newly invented gas balloons. He constructed his own balloon and attached oar-powered wings to the carriage, claiming that they enabled him to steer. The wings never succeeded in propelling his balloon and only added extra weight.

In March, 1784, Blanchard made his first balloon ascent from the Champ de Mars park in Paris. Blanchard planned to ascend with a monk named Pesch, but a deranged young man named Dupont de Chambon demanded that he go along. When Blanchard refused, De Chambon leaped into the carriage, drew his sword, stabbed Blanchard in the hand, and slashed at the rigging and wings until the police managed to drag him away. After this disturbance, Blanchard ascended alone. He frantically rowed the wings, but to no avail; a wind carried the balloon in the opposite direction of his intended journey.

Since France was the ballooning capital of the world, Blanchard found the competition for fame too stiff there and moved to England in late 1784. In England, Blanchard launched a publicity campaign promoting himself as the world’s greatest aeronaut and advertising his many achievements. Most of his claims were false, yet he convinced a group of wealthy personages to sponsor him. These patrons financed a number of flights that won Blanchard the renown which he so ravenously desired.

Together with one of his benefactors, Dr. John Jeffries, an American living in England, Blanchard planned the first aerial crossing of the English Channel. Though Blanchard needed Jeffries to pay for the expedition, he certainly did not want Jeffries to accompany him and share the glory of being the first to cross the Channel. However, Jeffries insisted he be taken along and even signed a contract stating that, if necessary for the success of the flight, he would dive overboard. At Dover Castle on the English coast, Blanchard made his preparations, but he refused to allow Jeffries into his barricaded camp. Jeffries retaliated by hiring a squad of sailors to storm Blanchard’s fortress. Eventually a truce was negotiated, and Blanchard reluctantly agreed to let Jeffries accompany him.

© 1975 – 1981 by David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace
Reproduced with permission from “The People’s Almanac”

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