The Montgolfier brothers, Etienne and Joseph, invented the hot-air balloon in 1783. The first launching took place in Paris on June 5, with an unmanned spherical balloon that traveled 112 miles in 10 minutes, reaching an altitude of about 6,000 feet.
Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes volunteered for the first manned flight. The Montgolfiers developed a new design that's still used for hot-air balloons, suspending a wicker basket from an open neck. After several trial ascents with a captive balloon, the two men made a free flight on November 19, traveling about 5 miles in 25 minutes.
Another Frenchman, physicist Jacques Charles, inspired by the Montgolfiers' success, meanwhile developed a hydrogen balloon. A crowd of about 400,000 people watched Charles and Aine Robert take off on a remarkable flight on December 1, 1783. The balloon traveled 27 miles in about two hours.
Through the 19th century, balloons were used almost exclusively for military and scientific purposes. But some wealthy men became interested in ballooning for fun about 1895 and the Aero Club of France was founded in 1898 to regulate the sport. Other similar bodies were established in other countries shortly afterward. In 1905, the International Aeronautical Federation (IAF) was organized to furnish international control.
James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald, gave ballooning a boost in 1906, when he offered a trophy for an annual international race to be conducted by the IAF. Except for a six-year period during World War I and a one-year lapse in 1931, the trophy race was held every year through 1938.
During that period, ballooning was much like yachting, open only to people with enough money to buy an expensive plaything. But Edward Yost of the United States in 1961 developed a relatively inexpensive hot-air balloon, made of nylon and using a propane heater that allows controlled inflation during flight.Yost's design also incorporates a "rip panel", developed by American John Wise in 1859. This is a large section of the balloon that can be ripped open to deflate the balloon quickly so it doesn't bounce along the ground after landing.
The new balloon won so many adherents so quickly that the Balloon Federation of America (BFA) was founded that year to regulate the many local and regional meets that were planned.Because of its great lifting power, hydrogen is still used in unmanned balloons for scientific purposes. But, because of its flammability, it's been replaced by helium for manned balloons. Helium balloons are much more expensive than hot-air balloons, so their use is generally limited to long-range flights.
Several such flights have been widely publicized in recent years. Among them were the first Atlantic crossing, in 1978; the first Pacific crossing, in 1981; Joe Kittinger's solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1984; the first trans-Atlantic flight by a hot-air balloon, by Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson, in 1987; Lindstrand's altitude record of 65,000 feet in a hot-air balloon in 1988; and the first crossing of the Pacific in a hot-air balloon, also by Lindstrand and Branson, in 1991.
In late 1996, several teams began the world's first around-the-world balloon race, which is still going on. That race, too, has drawn considerable publicity, in part because the Public Broadcasting System's Nova series carried a documentary about one team's preparations for the flight.
On a smaller, more down-to-earth scale, so to speak, there are now many meets and festivals that feature races, primarily for hot-air balloons, although a few of them also include events for gas balloons. The largest is the annual World Hot Air Balloon Championship in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The BFA conducts national championships for hot air and gas balloons, and biennial world championships are sanctioned by the IAF. The next world championship will be held this fall in Japan.
Balloon races often include competition for altitude, distance, and the amount of time spent in the air. There are also various tests of pilot skill in maintaining a specific altitude, making a controlled descent, or following a pre-determined flight profile.
The most common event is the "hare and hounds" race, in which a race official leads the way and the other balloonists follow, attempting to land as close as they can to the hare.