Reader's Digest

Soaring Facts About Hot-air Balloons

- By jen mccaffery

1more than a century before the Wright brothers’ flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, brothers Joseph-michel and Jacques-etienne Montgolfie­r launched an unmanned 500-pound balloon over Annonay, France, that stayed aloft for about ten minutes. The year was 1783, and

King Louis XVI soon wanted a demonstrat­ion. So the Montgolfie­rs sent up a sheep, a duck, and a rooster as the king, the queen (Marie Antoinette), and 130,000 other people witnessed the historic flight over Versailles.

The animals landed safely.

2France became the epicenter of ballooning, and Americans in Paris, including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay, jumped on the bandwagon. “Travelers may hereafter literally

pass from country to country on the wings of the wind,” wrote Jay, who took time out from negotiatin­g the Treaty of Paris to watch a flight.

3Balloonin­g is still a big spectator sport. The largest event in the United States, the Albuquerqu­e Internatio­nal Balloon Fiesta, attracted almost 900,000 people over nine days in 2018. A meteorolog­ical phenomenon known as the Albuquerqu­e Box— predictabl­e wind patterns that let pilots land close to where they launched—have made the area a ballooning hot spot.

4Commonly made from heat-resistant nylon or polyester, the colorful, usually 80-foot-tall “balloon” part—called the envelope—is laid out on the ground preflight to be partially filled with cold air. Then, to create the lift required for takeoff, the air is heated by propane burners attached below the mouth of the envelope.

5The highest anyone has ever flown in a hot-air balloon is 68,986 feet, nearly twice the cruising altitude of commercial airliners. At those heights, the people in the basket need to wear oxygen masks.

6Another record: On January 17, 1991, entreprene­ur Richard Branson and Swedish engineer Per Lindstrand became the first “aeronauts” (that’s the official term) to cross the Pacific Ocean. They set off from Japan and traveled more than 4,700 miles in about 46 hours. There was no cheering crowd to greet them, however: The men landed on a frozen lake in the Yukon and had to be airlifted out.

7Distance records are all the more remarkable because, unlike airplanes, balloons are very hard to steer. The wind at 100 feet might be going east, while the wind at 200 feet might be going west, says Becky Wigeland, curator of the National Balloon Museum in Indianola, Iowa. “So you just keep going up and down until you get the wind that you want. That’s all you can do,” she says.

8That doesn’t stop balloon pilots from doing some crazy stunts. One of their favorite games is called Hare and Hound. One balloon (the hare) launches first. Then all the other balloons (the hounds) chase the hare. When the hare lands, the hounds try to land as close as they can to their prey.

9The most famous balloon hunt happened during the Civil War. An aeronaut named Thaddeus Lowe convinced President Abraham Lincoln of the merits of hot-air

balloon reconnaiss­ance over the First Battle of Bull Run. Lowe went on to command the Union Balloon Corps, with mixed results. The Confederat­e Army’s attempts to burst his balloons earned Lowe the title of “the most shot-at man in the war.”

10it’s no surprise Lowe survived; flying in a hotair balloon is very safe. Since 1964, the National Transporta­tion Safety Board has investigat­ed 799 accidents involving balloons in the United States. Of those, 73 resulted in fatal injuries.

11The greatest balloon faux pas actually took place in a movie. Remember when Dorothy piles into one at the end of The Wizard of Oz to fly home to Kansas? The writing on the envelope reads “State Fair Omaha”— which is in Nebraska. To be fair, novelist Timothy Schaffert has pointed out that in L. Frank Baum’s novel, the wizard came from Omaha.

12balloons seem to inspire creative flights of fancy. For instance, a story in the April 13, 1844, edition of the

New York Sun had an intriguing headline: “ASTOUNDING NEWS! THE ATLANTIC

CROSSED IN THREE DAYS! SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF MR. MONCK MASON’S FLYING MACHINE!!!” The tale of the balloon that crossed an ocean before safely landing near Charleston, South Carolina, riveted readers. The problem: The story was fake news, written by an ambitious journalist. His name: Edgar Allan Poe.

13The reactions that hot-air balloons engender have led to a fizzy tradition. Back in 19th-century France, balloons would terrify the locals, so pilots packed champagne to appease people where they landed. Something similar happened one Sunday morning this past June, when balloonist Mark Stodolski unexpected­ly landed in the backyard of a homeowner in Stow, Massachuse­tts. “Oh, do you mind?” Stodolski asked the surprised man, according to the

Boston Globe. “No, you’re cool,” he replied. Stodolski handed a bottle of champagne to the man, who then went back to bed.

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