It would be fair to say that Bristol is the hot air ballooning capital of the country. Not only is it home to Cameron Balloons, a company known the world over for its unique and spectacular vessels; it is also home to the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, which has been held annually there since 1979. What a lot of people don’t realise, however, is that Bristol has been a flight hub for much longer than that.
It was actually way back in 1784 that the first balloon was launched. This particular vessel was launched indoors, but still proved to be an impressive show. The event took place back in the early days of flight, when a craze for commandeering the new craft swept the nation.
At the time, Britain was running far behind the French in terms of balloon technology, so it was with much excitement and amazement that the people of Bristol crowded the streets to view the craft manned by Michael Biaggini, who launched the vessel from Coopers Hall in King Street. After this demonstration, many more launches were made in the city, but after 1786, the craze dwindled somewhat.
In the early years of the 1960s – almost 200 years after the first hot air balloon was demonstrated in Bristol – another important development in the city’s history was to take place. This was when Don Cameron moved to Bristol. He had just qualified as an aeronautical engineer and had moved to the city to work for the Bristol Aeroplane Company. He was to go on to design and create the ‘Bristol Belle’ – the first modern hot air balloon, and founded Cameron Balloons, a company that continues to produce industry innovations.
It was not until the year 1979 that Bristol once saw another significant notch added to its ballooning calendar. This was the year when the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta was launched, to much fanfare, and the event is still going strong even today.
The first fiesta took place between the 7th and 9th of September in that year, and was attended by a small bunch of enthusiasts. The event was organised by the Bristol Chamber of Commerce and Shipping, and saw a modest total of 27 vessels take to the skies, launching from Ashton Court. Many of the craft originated from the West County, but there were also balloons from Ireland and as far away as West Germany that took part in the fiesta that year.
Since then, the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta has grown from strength to strength, and now features so many vessels and flights that it is actually the biggest annual balloon festival in the whole continent of Europe.
The city’s longest established university has a considerable tradition of supporting hot air ballooning in the area. It has for some time been home to the Bristol University Hot Air Balloon Society, which still runs regular flights for its members to this day.