International Women’s Day

On this International Women’s Day we wanted to highlight an extraordinary woman in the world of ballooning. Sophie Blanchard (1778 – 1819) was not only the first woman to pilot her own balloon but the first ever professional lady balloon pilot in the world! Born in France and from humble beginnings she was just a small child when the first balloon to carry humans set skyward on November 21 in1783, now known as Montgolfier Day. It was the famous Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier who were the inventors of the first balloon to carry people into the air and bring them safely back to earth.

Sophie met and married Jean Pierre Blanchard an inventor and balloonist considerably older than herself who had made his first balloon ascent when Sophie was a mere five years old. In 1785 with an American called John Jeffries, he became one of the first men to fly a balloon over the English Channel from England to France. Jean Pierre soon began touring Europe with his balloon shows and became the first balloonist to fly in America. Before long he decided that having a lady fly with him in the basket would attract more attention and very soon Sophie became part of the show. She took to the air with a great sense of adventure and was fearless to the last, which for many who knew her was rather surprising as it was said that she was rather a timid woman who was afraid of riding in horse drawn carriages. To Sophie, being in a balloon was something she described as a “sensation incomparable.”

Sadly her husband, Jean Pierre, died in 1808 leaving Sophie in huge financial difficulties which prompted her to keep flying not just for fun but out of economic necessity. She often took off at night dropping pyrotechnics from her balloon and started charging the public to attend her performances. Using her flying, showmanship and business skills Sophie managed to pay off all her husband’s debts and become financially independent, which was an incredible feat for the time.

Sophie soon caught the attention of the King of France, Louis XVIII and Napoléon Bonaparte with her aerial escapades which included flying her balloon over the Alps. When Napoleon got married, Sophie set off fireworks from her balloon in celebration. When the Empress had a baby, Sophie dropped leaflets from her balloon whilst flying over Paris to announce the good news to the public.

Sophie Blanchard became famous throughout Europe and Napolean was so enamoured by her he bestowed on her the title of Chief Air Minister of Ballooning. This title was a testament to the huge recognition and respect that Sophie had acquired in the world of aviation, a world that at that time was mainly dominated by men.

First circumnavigation of the world by balloon.

March 21st, 1999 at 6:00 GMT, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones successfully landed in the Egyptian desert, after traveling 45’755km in 19 days, 21 hours and 55 minutes, thus achieving the longest flight in the history of aviation for both distance and duration. The balloonists took off from Chateau-d’Oex, Switzerland, on March 1st, 1999.

Many teams had already attempted this seemingly impossible flight and with each attempt records were broken and valuable experience added to the melting pot.

The ‘Breitling Orbiter’ claimed outright distance and endurance records for balloons and demonstrated what can be achieved with a good team of engineers, meteorologists, diplomatic political negotiations and a two plucky pilots who showed admirable determination, trust, courage and skill.

Brian Jones said,”  It was an extraordinary relationship. After the flight Bertrand said to the press, “We took off as pilots, flew as friends and landed as brothers.” A lot of our competitors said, “Oh, that’s horrible.” But it was pretty much true. We left our egos in the car park, and that was key. We talked things out, respected each other and were prepared to put our lives in the other’s hands. For the whole 20 days, we never had a cross word, never argued once — ever. I got really pissy with people on the ground, including my wife, but never with Bertrand.”


Some key facts about the round-the-world flight:

  • Duration of the flight: 19 days 21 hours 55 minutes
  • Maximum altitude reached: 11’755 metres
  • Maximum speed attained: 240 Km/h
  • Distance covered: 45’755 kilometres
  • Ratified distance: 40,814 kilometres
  • Number of countries crossed: 26 countries

Scott & Shackleton’s balloon in Antarctica

On 3 February, 1902, Robert F. Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition was on its way back to McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea of Antarctica. The Discovery had reached its easternmost point of exploration on 1 February but, with the Antarctic summer coming to a close, the desire to find a safe harbour at McMurdo was strong. On the return journey, an inlet was spotted that ran twelve miles into the ice and Scott decided to take a chance landing there. Conscious of the need to keep moving, Scott imposed a twenty-four-hour limit to their stop.

The ship tied up soon after 4pm, Monday, 3 February, 1902. The men of the Discovery assembled and unloaded seventeen gas cylinders and the equipment needed for a balloon flight. The hydrogen gas cylinders brought to inflate the balloon were army cylinders. They were about ten feet long and ten inches in diameter and about sixty of these cylinders were loaded into the storage spaces of the Discovery. Two eight-thousand-cubic-feet balloons and one one-thousand-cubic-feet balloon were brought to Antarctica along with baskets, ropes, tools for repairing etc. It was breezy and cloudy on the evening of 3 February so all operations were halted for that day. Conditions were much better the next morning and work commenced at 9am. Another two hydrogen gas cylinders were needed for inflation due to the low temperatures but the balloon was ready for lift off by 11am. When ready, Scott made the first ascent in the balloon which the crew had named Eva. The fragility of the viewing basket and the rope tethered to the ground below was brought to mind when Scott initially threw out too much ballast from the basket and was lucky to survive the ensuing episode.

The balloon rose to a height of about 600 feet/ 180 metres. Despite being the first person to have such a view, there wasn’t much for Scott to observe—vast icy whiteness as far as the eye could see. He looked south towards the Great Ice Barrier, now called the Ross Ice Shelf. It is the largest ice shelf of Antarctica and was the barrier to the progress of Captain Sir James Clark Ross in 1841.

William Lofthouse Heald, Able Seaman, went on a small ascent before the balloon was anchored for dinner time. The other members of the crew were looking forward to ascending in the basket but a breeze appeared and it was deemed unsafe to continue. Tears and holes developed in the balloon’s fabric and the hydrogen valve proved very dangerous. As Fiennes has written, ‘Eva was a death trap and further flights were abandoned.’ However, it was the first flight by men in Antarctica.

Despite Scott spending £1,300 on the balloon, not all were enthused by its inclusion. Edward Adrian Wilson, the expedition’s assistant surgeon and later member of the polar party, wrote that it was an ‘exceedingly dangerous amusement in the hands of such inexperienced novices’ and Louis Charles Bernacchi, physicist with the Discovery, thought it not worth the space it took up in the ship.

When Scott’s intention to use balloons in Antarctica was announced, it received much support. The idea had come from Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, one of the most respected scientists and explorers of his day and one of the most important botanists of the 19th century. Financial subscriptions were coming in for the Antarctic ballooning and the War Office was also supportive. In preparation for the expedition three men, William Lashly (Chief Stoker), Thomas Kennar (Quartermaster, Petty officer, 2nd class) and William Lofthouse Heald (Able Seaman) received a ten-day course of instruction in balloons from Colonel James Lethbridge Brooke Templer , the head of the Royal Engineers Balloon Factory at Aldershot. Two officers also attended a short course on ballooning in Aldershot, one of whom was Shackleton.

The balloon ascent by the crew of Discovery wasn’t a major success but the writer of ‘Ballooning in Antarctica in The South Polar Times thought that it could easily be only the beginning of a range of new technologies: ‘It would perhaps be rash to say anything about the future of ballooning in polar regions, for when we once more reach civilization, we may find flying machines en route for the Poles.’

Trans-Alpine Ballooning.

Any balloon pilot who has been lucky enough to make a balloon flight across the Alps will probably tell you it was the best flight of their life.

The annual International Alpine balloon meet in Chateau D’Oex , Switzerland is one of the most popular destinations for pilots wanting winter sport in January.

The Alps, with their majestic peaks and challenging terrain, became a natural playground for early balloonists seeking to conquer the skies.

By the early 19th century, intrepid balloonists set their sights on the Alps, aiming to conquer some of the highest and most treacherous peaks. The Swiss Alps, with their breathtaking vistas and challenging weather conditions, presented a formidable yet irresistible challenge. In 1804, André-Jacques Garnerin, a French balloonist, ascended above the Mont Blanc, marking one of the earliest recorded balloon flights over the Alps.

Eduard Schweizer (1852–1931) began taking photos from the basket in 1893 and left behind a unique collection of breathtaking aerial views – mainly of the Alps and Swiss cities – under the pseudonym Eduard Spelterini and became one of the world’s best-known aviation pioneers.


First balloon flight across the English Channel

7 January 1785 – the day Jean Pierre Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries became the first aeronauts to fly across the English Channel .
An account of the time tells us that the men were wearing frock coats, dimity waistcoats, nankeen britches, white silk stockings and shoes festooned with black silk ribbons. Their hats were covered with japan (silk) to which were fixed cockades from which arose a small ostrich feather.
Jefferies wrote his account in his 1786 book ‘A narrative of two aerial voyages’ and there are many sources where we can read the story – including the part where our plucky pilots were perilously close to the sea and started to throw overboard excess baggage, including their trousers!
You can read more about Jean Pierre Blanchard HERE.
One account of  the plucky duo’s flight is as follows….
“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.”
There are a number of 18th century engravings, prints and paintings of the flight….

Green Ice

Ryan O’Neal has died and not one media story mentions his role in the feature film ‘Green Ice’ .

Our president doubled for him in the filming of the balloon sequence and the museum is proud to have the balloon, overalls and helmet used in the film.

Watch this space for the whole story, but for the time being, watch the trailer   LINK

DANTE balloon group.

The Dante balloon group can proudly call themselves ‘the oldest balloon group still active’.

It was formed on 5 December in 1971 by a group of enthusiasts including Pete Bish, John Baker, Phil Dunnington … to be continued

The original ‘DANTE’ Balloon.

Registered G-AZIP, a Cameron AX-7 O-65, c/n 29. (65,000 cu ft. volume)

First flight on 5 December 1971, at Murcott, Oxfordshire.

Used by the DBG for training and fun flying, it was also used to promote B.O.A.C – hence the ‘Speedbird’ Symbols.

Now retired by the Group, it has flown 202 hours and visited 7 countries.

John Baker commissioned a radio controlled model of G-AZIP in 2016….

Commissioned by me, 2 model balloon enthusiasts from Bristol got to work in late 2016 to build this replica.
Envelope – built by Andy Booth, it is a Cameron O-65. (but only 65 cu m., or 2,300 cu ft. volume)!
A faithful copy of the original blue/white check design, including the Speedbird symbols in turquoise.
It also has a hanging skirt rather than the modern scoop.
Basket & Burner– built by Howling Wolf Model Balloons (Ray Preston).
Basket – fully woven (including the floor), with hide covered edges, and 2 wooden runners. It also has leather retaining straps for the cylinders.
Burner – a replica of the Cameron Mk1, with a red burner frame.
The original balloon flew without any support for the burner frame (no ‘rigid’ system). To replicate this, clear acrylic tubes have been used to support the burner frame, giving the illusion of a hanging burner.
First public appearance at ‘The Icicle Re-Frozen Balloon Meet’ 2017.
Thanks to Jane Crawford for the pictures.

Bristol Belle launches from Ark Royal


Terry Adams has enjoyed an illustrious career in ballooning but before that he was a dashing young Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and surely his most memorable flight was in G-AVTL Bristol Belle from the deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal on 29 November 1970.

The story is told in Trailrope #129 (Winter 2022)  but after several false starts Adams ‘commanded’ the carrier to steam towards the island from the west and after a tricky launch he successfully landed on Malta – the first ever balloon to do so.

After a drop of champagne, Terry cadged a lift to the Post Office and franked 4,000 flight covers , one of which is safely stored in the museum library.


Balloon takes telescope to 81,000ft to view Venus

On 28 November 1959 the Stratolab IV balloon ascended to 81,000 feet with a 16 inch Schmidt infra red telescope attached to the top of the gondola. The 2 million cu.ft. balloon was made of polyethylene.

Inside were pilots Malcolm Ross and Charles Moore who used the telescope to perform spectrograph analysis of the water vapour in the atmosphere of Venus thus demonstrating that an observatory can be taken aloft.

Charles Moore is remembered for making the first manned flight beneath a polyethylene balloon on 3 November 1949.  Malcolm Ross flew all five flights of the Stratolab programme  and went on to pilot more high altitude balloon flights to to accomplish research required for the manned rocket program to follow.



World altitude record hot air balloons

On 26 November 2005 Dr.Vijaypat Singhania broke the world altitude recode for hot air balloons after reaching 68,986 feet in Mumbai, India.

Cameron Balloons built him a 1.6 million cu ft balloon and he  flew in a sophisticated pressurized gondola built by Andy Elson and the Flying Pictures engineering team in Glastonbury, England.

The unusual burners used kerosene rather than the more conventional propane fuel. After landing the balloon envelope was released and then flew on its own for a further eight hours before landing. It was later found near a village, the burner had been stripped and much of the envelope was missing!



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