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Curious stories from hot air ballooning’s past

17th April 2018    Hot Air Balloon History

A hot air balloon flight is a great experience. People celebrate birthdays and anniversaries on balloon flights, and they offer a fantastic way to say thank you to someone who has helped you at difficult times. Many people have said ‘yes’ to a wedding proposal in a flight too.

Made from high-quality materials, hot air balloon flights are extremely safe today, but in the past, they were often used in ways that were, to say the least, a little maverick. Here are some examples:

Criminals tested out hot air balloons

When hot air balloons were first invented, people were afraid to go on them. They feared that the flames used to heat the air inside the balloon canopy would cause a fire, which would rapidly plunge the balloon to the ground.

For the first manned balloon flight two condemned criminals piloted the balloon. As they were condemned to die anyway, it was felt that it did not matter if they perished if the balloon caught fire.

Fortunately, the two criminals survived and proved that hot air ballooning could be safe.

Champagne for angry farmers

Many people celebrate a hot air balloon flight with a glass of champagne, but in the early days of ballooning in France, farmers did not like balloons landing in their fields. The aristocrats that flew in the balloons offered angry farmers champagne to calm them down and avoid being attacked. This is the reason that champagne why first taken on hot air balloon flights – not simply as a way to celebrate the flight!

Balloons used for military surveillance

In World War I, both sides of the conflict launched hot air balloons behind the front lines where an observer could locate enemy targets and pass messages to the artillery on where to aim. The major problem with this is that enemy aircraft could easily shoot the balloons down. Anti-aircraft guns were used to defend the balloons. If any were burst by enemy fire, the observer would jump out of the basket with a parachute and hopefully avoid death.

A hot air balloon duel

At one time, it was common for men to settled disputes with a duel. In 1808, two Frenchmen competing for the hand of the same Mademoiselle decided to have a balloon duel. The men went up in hot air balloons then fired pistols at each other’s balloons. One balloon burst, killing the occupants. The other survived, the man was unharmed and declared the winner of the duel.

The basketless balloon

In the 19th Century, traveling fairs often featured stuntmen who were tied to a hot air balloon without a basket. As the balloon rose, the stuntman would be dragged into the air. When the balloon reached its highest point, the stuntman would detach himself from the balloon and fall back down using a parachute, to the delight of the crowd below.

Hot air balloon flights, of course, have come a long way and it is now perfectly safe way to fly with a trained pilot. You do not need to face the dangers that criminals, military observers, stuntmen, and champagne-carrying aristocrat once experienced to enjoy the thrill of riding in a hot air balloon.