The first flying machine - the hot air balloon

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Human flight turns 222 years old on Monday. The hot air balloon was the first sustainable form of flight, with the first passengers, (a sheep, duck, and rooster) taking to the skies on September 19, 1783 and the first humans breaking the shackles of gravity on November 21,1783 were Pilatre de Rozier, who was also to become the first man killed in an ballooning accident, and infantry officer Marquis d'Arlandes. The flight took place in the centre of Paris lasted 25 minutes and covered a little more than five miles and the balloon was built of paper and silk by the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Ettienne. The Montgolfiers were well-educated paper merchants who had read the work of English scientist Joseph Priestly on the properties of air and had the skills to adapt the available technologies

Once it had been done, numerous flights took place with endurance and distance records soon set as 76 flights were recorded in France alone before 1790. Little over one year after that first historic flight, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries, became the first to fly across the English Channel and Blanchard made the first American balloon flight in January, 1793 witnessd among others by President George Washington. In 1804, Joseph Louis Guy Lussac broached 20,000 feet and became the first human to recognise the effects of altitude-induced oxygen starvation.

The balloon at war

The balloon was a natural for war, playing minor roles in the French Revolution, the American civil war and becoming recognised as an essential source of information on enemy troop locations and movements, artillery spotting, and also offering a signal post to improve battlefield communications. In World War I, all the major powers used tethered observation balloons.

Following World War I, a revival of sport ballooning began. In St. Louis, Missouri, on October 11, 1919, the National Balloon Races began. This race was the premier American balloon race which was used to send American balloonists to the International Gordon Bennett Race. The first Bennett race was held in 1906, halted during World War I, resumed on October 23, 1920, and continued until the late 1930s when war clouds started forming over Europe. The United States won ten of the races, followed by Belgium with seven, Poland four, Germany and Switzerland with two each, and France with one win.

During World War II, barrage balloons were tethered with strong cables to ships, buildings, and other structures to keep airplanes at a greater height thus making it more difficult to hit targets. If an enemy pilot did get too low, it was possible for the airplane to hit the cable which was holding the balloon down and damage the airplane or even cause it to crash.

Probably the least publicized use of balloons, but potentially one that could have caused great death and destruction, was when the Japanese used them to bomb the United States. Beginning on November 3, 1944, and ending in April 1945, Japan launched 9,300 balloons against the United States. Each balloon carried two to four incendiary bombs and one antipersonnel bomb. The objective was to start forest fires in the Western states and to cause fear and panic in the American public. The operation failed; a few small grass fires were started and six people in Oregon were killed. Due to wartime censorship, a great majority of the American population never heard about, let alone saw, an enemy balloon. Of the 9,300 balloons launched, 200 confirmed landings occurred in the United States (including Hawaii and Alaska), 78 in Canada, and 1 in Northern Mexico. Most of the balloons landed in Oregon, British Columbia, Montana, California, and Washington, with two balloons reaching as far as Michigan.

Around The World By Balloon

History was made at 4:54 AM, Eastern Standard Time, Saturday, March 20, 1999, when the Breitling Orbiter 3 achieved the first nonstop round-the world balloon flight. After 19 days aloft, Switzerland's Bertrand Piccard, and the British pilot, Brian Jones, crossed an invisible line over the vast African desert and became the first aviators to circumnavigate the world in a hot-air balloon. They finally touched down early Sunday morning in southern Egypt, near the town of Mut, 19 days, 21 hours and 55 minutes after their lift-off and after having travelled over 29,000 miles. In doing so, they claimed the trophy for long distance ballooning, established in 1906, by James Gordon Bennett, a U.S. publisher.

This was the third and final attempt sponsored by the Swiss watch and precision instrument manufacturer, Breitling. The balloon floated over Mauritania past the 9 degree west longitude mark to complete the 26,179 mile trip, non-stop, a feat that has challenged and eluded dozens of balloonist before them. The journey was arduous and the duo experienced winds as slow as 20 miles per hour (mph), using up precious fuel at 8,000 feet altitude, to speeds of 100 mph in the jet streams at more than 35,000 feet.

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