Ballooning basics and history

Ballooning basics and history

The Basics of flying a hot air balloon

Pilots do not steer hot air balloons in the same way you would steer a plane or a car. Hot air balloons are actually 'lighter than air' aircraft which means that they move with the wind. Like a bubble of detergent, balloons are carried by the wind and their direction is determined by the direction of airflow.

Most people are unaware that wind direction varies at different heights. The direction of the wind on the surface will not necessarily be the same as it is at say 1000 metres. By flying at different altitudes, the pilots can use different wind speeds and directions to manoeuvre the balloon to where they desire, often with extreme accuracy.

Prior to a flight, pilots will release small helium balloons to allow them to observe the wind's direction and speed at different heights. This allows the pilots to determine the direction of flight and choose an appropriate upwind launch site based on where they would like to fly and land.

While in flight balloon pilots can control the altitude of the balloon very accurately with carefully timed blasts of the burners and, if experienced, can land within metres of their desired downwind target even if it is many kilometres away.

Ballooning technology

The fabric section of a hot air balloon is called the 'envelope'. This is the part that most people call the balloon. It is generally made of nylon and is put together by sewing hundreds of specially cut panels together to give it the 'tear drop' shape. These panels are sewn to nylon load tapes that actually distribute the weight loading across the envelope so the actual load on the fabric is less than 0.5kg when flying .

LPG is used to generate heat in balloons . In ballooning circles we tend to use propane, the same gas as used in BBQ's bottles. Autogas is an option although it tends to burn at somewhat lower pressure and is less clean. LPG is contained within the basket in 45L-62L stainless steel tanks similar in size to those seen on fork lifts.

The LPG burners are handmade from stainless steel and are designed to give maximum heat output for minimum noise. They sound like a fire-breathing dragon and can shoot flames up to 5 metres in length into the envelope .

To get lift and 'take off', the envelope is heated using propane burners to a temperature greater than the ambient temperature. This difference in temperature between the outside and inside of the 'envelope' allows the balloon to lift off the ground, just as warm smoke or embers rise from a fire. A basket full of people is quite heavy so the volume of the balloon will be based on how much weight needs to be lifted.

The balloon basket or 'Gondola' is made of cane or wicker. They are hand woven on to a stainless steel frame with stainless steel load bearing cables woven within the wicker to provide the strength to carry passengers and equipment.

Ballooning history

On this page, you will learn a brief history of hot air ballooning, from its origins to modern day ballooning.

The first humans to ever successfully fly did so in a Hot Air Balloon. In 1783, two French brothers, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier, sons of a paper manufacturer, built a balloon (named Montgolfier) out of paper and silk. On 21 November 1783, witnessed by a crowd of 400,000 people, two French noblemen, Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Marquis D'Arlandes, took to the skies above Paris in Montgolfier .

The balloon, 13 metres in diameter, was fuelled with burning wool and straw. The men stayed aloft for 23 minutes and travelled a distance of 8 kilometres, finally landing in a field outside Paris. These two men entered the history books as the first humans to fly.

It was not until 1858 that Australia experienced the wonders of ballooning. On 1 February 1858, Joseph Dean flew Australasian from the Cremorne Gardens Amusement Park in Richmond, Victoria, in a demonstration balloon flight that lasted for 25 minutes.

With the invention of the Aeroplane in 1903, and as people became more interested in powered flight, balloons became a less popular form of aircraft.

. It was not until the 1960s, with the invention of propane burners, that Hot Air Ballooning became a more practical form of aviation.

Modern Hot Air Ballooning

Since the 1960s, many developments in technology, materials and equipment have allowed ballooning to become one of the safest forms of modern aviation. Even with all these developments, balloons still use the same principles as those adopted by the Montgolfier brothers, 200 years ago. As the name suggests, hot air balloons are able to fly because they are filled with hot air.

Australia's First Aeronautical Event in Richmond: Feb 1st 1858

In 1857 George Coppin, the noted actor, entrepreneur and later politician, arrived in London from the Australian colonies in search of new talent for the Cremorne Gardens Amusement Park.

In 1856, with his business partner and fellow actor G.V. Brooke, he had purchased the gardens and had spent over ₤10,000 on improvements to the pleasure grounds. Entertainment was of a varied nature. Visitors to the gardens could feast on an array of opera singing, ballet, theatre, military bands, mardi gras, fancy dress balls, flower shows, river regattas, and firework displays. A constant stream of new amusements was necessary to keep up the public interest, and this was the reason for Coppin's trip to England.

In five short weeks he engaged 50 artists for three years and contracted veteran balloonist Henry Coxwell with a proposal to make the first balloon ascents in Australia. Coxwell's wife was less than enthusiastic, though, and subsequently fellow aeronaut, Charles Brown, a balloon maker and post office clerk from Leeds, was contracted to Coppin. He claimed to have already made between 40 and 80 ascents in England, and also built the balloon, Australasian.

An assistant aeronaut, Joseph Dean, was also engaged. A wire worker by profession, he made 119 ascents under the name "Captain Bedey."

Coppin and Brown travelled via the overland route, taking a steamer from Marseilles to Alexandria, trekking across the Egyptian desert to Suez, and then boarding a boat to Australia. This cut the journey by many weeks, they arrived in Melbourne on January 7th, 1858. Within 3 weeks of their arrival, Brown and Coppin had organised and advertised Australia's first balloon ascent, to take place from Coppin's Cremorne Gardens.

Preparations began the night prior to the ascent. The plain white muslin balloon Australasian was partially inflated, under the guidance of engineer Alexander Kennedy Smith at the City of Melbourne's Gas and Coke Company's gasworks at Batman's Swamp. The partially inflated balloon was conveyed to Cremorne Gardens by horse and cart with the aid of 30 men. The balloon was topped up with gas from Coppin's own gas plant at the Gardens which provided gas for the gaslights.

The chosen day was fine, with a breeze blowing from the south west and away from the sea. Newspapers described the pleasant holiday scene, and spoke of "joyously anxious faces" and "an exuberance of life." Vehicles thronged the roads to Cremorne for this major event and the steamers and smaller craft disgorged more people to swell the crowd. The parapets and verandas of the neighbouring houses were occupied by anxious sightseers, the banks of the river were lined with onlookers, people assembled in thronging numbers everywhere but in the grounds themselves.

At the time appointed for the ascent, it was obvious there was not enough gas in the balloon to take up both Brown and Dean. There are varying accounts as to the reason for the balloon losing gas. The Argus blamed "some neglect of the valve," The Illustrated Melbourne News pointed to the great heat and violent breeze stretching the seams causing gas to escape. Another stated that the wind caused the balloon to oscillate from side to side causing the gas to escape.

Whatever the cause, it was impracticable for more than one aeronaut to make this inaugural flight. A heated argument broke out between Brown and Dean, the former claiming the privilege as constructor and the person chosen to undertake the task, the latter on the grounds of his superior experience.

The various papers again published difference accounts of what happened next. Most said that Brown generously gave way and Dean took his place in the basket, others that Brown jumped out before the ropes were released, another claiming that George Coppin silenced the argument and made the decision. It was this quirk of fate that gave Joseph Dean and not Charles Brown the honour of being the first aeronaut in Australian history.

At eight minutes to six, Joseph Dean gave the word to start, the assistants at the restraining ropes let go and the balloon rose from the ground, cleared the Pantheon Theatre, and receded from the crowds, who stood open mouthed in wonderment at the strange spectacle. Cheering broke out and was repeated and re-echoed by spectators in the more distant suburbs.

Dean discharged bags of sand and rose to a considerable height, drifting towards the North West on a successful flight free from any further incident.

Knowing that George Coppin was anxious for him to descend early and report the success of the flight, Dean discharged gas after 25 minutes and landed on Plenty Road near Heidleberg, seven or eight miles from Melbourne. Immediately he became embroiled in another quarrel, this time over the ₤5 reward Coppin offered to "any one who shall convey the balloon to the Gardens after the decent." This was a generous amount, as Brown and Dean themselves were only earning ₤3.50 per week for risking life and limb.

Dean returned in time for Coppin to announce from the stage, following a performance of "Conquest of Dehli," that the first Australian flight had been successfully completed. Applause greeted the announcement.

The historic balloon flight, though a triumph of science, was not a pecuniary success. The public had shown their resentment at the doubling of the usual admission price from ₤2.60 to ₤5 by watching the event from outside the boundaries of the Gardens.

Four more ascents were made that summer from Cremorne. On several occasions the aeronauts were assaulted by angry crowds who felt that they were violating the heavens by their actions.

During the winter months, Brown made several proposals and submissions about using balloons to explore the inland of Australia. He even offered his services to look for the doomed Burke and Wills expedition, who by coincidence had procured some of their camels from the Cremorne Gardens Zoo.

The next summer Coppin sent the two men to Sydney to perform ascents there. A total of five flights were also completed in Sydney.

Charles Brown settled in Melbourne with his wife and children, whilst Dean undertook several other balloon exploits in Ballarat and Calcutta over the next few years. Nothing is known of Dean's movements after 1863.

Source: Early Ballooning in Australia by Helene Rogers