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Drawing of a hot air baloon

The Fabulous Story of the First Hot Air Balloon Flights


A sheep, a duck and a rooster were the first passengers on a hot air balloon, brave pioneers of the modern era of flying.

The modern era of flight was inaugurated in 1783, when a sheep, a duck and a rooster boarded a prototype balloon and flew for some eight minutes. The king of France had proposed the use of prisoners as passengers, but the Montgolfier brothers, inventors and engineers of the balloon, chose the animals, for what were considered scientific reasons. It was believed that the psychology of sheep was similar to that humans, the high-flying duck would not suffer from the altitude and the rooster, which can’t fly, was a good way to measure the limits on the altitude.

The flight was witnessed by Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and an audience of some 130,000 civilians. The balloon flew 3.2 kilometers and landed without incident.

Drawing of the first balloon flight with passengers

The next step for Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier was to put a person in the basket. In October of 1783, they launched a balloon connected to the ground by a guideline, and carrying a brave professor of chemistry and physics, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, who remained aloft some four minutes.

An illustrations of the Montgolfier Brothers flight

Almost one month later, Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes, a French military officer, performed what was perhaps the most impressive flight of the century. They flew together from central Paris to the suburbs (about 9 kilometers) in just 25 minutes. Benjamin Franklin described the story in his diary:

We observed it lift off in the most majestic manner. When it reached around 250 feet in altitude, the intrepid voyagers lowered their hats to salute the spectators. We could not help feeling a certain mixture of awe and admiration.

As often happens in the geometry of anecdotes, the first human passenger was also the first victim of a balloon crash. Pilâtre de Rozier died on June 15, 1785, when his balloon, inflated with a combination of hydrogen and hot air, exploded during an attempt to fly across the English Channel.

Illustration depicting the balloon crash of Pilâtre de Rozier

Despite the controversial loss, the Montgolfier brothers continued their experiments, and in 1784 they built a huge balloon that could carry seven passengers to a height of 914 meters. This caused a sensation. Their success was celebrated with the most beautiful illustrations, prints and even furniture designs. Even acrobats boarded the balloon to add to the spectacle. And, of course, aerial photography took a magnificent boost.

Illustration of a hot air balloon over a city

Shortly after these free flights (untethered to the ground), the limitations of using hot air became evident: when the air cooled, the balloon was forced to descend. Maintaining a fire came with the risk that sparks could ignite the balloon itself. Thus, a man named Jacques Alexandre César Charles, a famous inventor and mathematician, launched a balloon containing only hydrogen.

With this and other advances, balloon travel was established. Leaving aside the obvious implications that the Montgolfier brothers inaugurated in the 18th century, let us imagine that had it not been for the invention of the balloon, Jules Verne’s wonderful novel of 1889 could never have been written (which in turn inspired one of the most exciting trips of history), and the legendary Sonora Aero Club, which has given us so much pleasures.

Photograph of Les Courses de Ballons a Vincennes


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