Adventures in Ballooning

Here's what makes this becalmed form of flight special.

Ballooning
Ballooning is flight without airspeedCarlo Giambarresi

The first free flight of a manned balloon took place, as is well known, in France. The king, who took an interest in the experiments of the Montgolfier brothers, suggested that the passengers on the first manned flight should be two convicts, whom he considered expendable. He was persuaded, however, that the honor of being the first humans to fly should go to persons of the better sort.

A minor aristocrat and military man, the Marquis François d’Arlandes, and a recently ennobled science teacher and member of the king’s brother’s entourage, Jean-François Pilatre de Rozier, volunteered. Pilatre de Rozier was bold to the point of rashness; he once demonstrated the flammability of hydrogen — and eyebrows — by blowing a mouthful of the stuff over an open flame, and would end his life in an attempt to fly a balloon across the English Channel. D’Arlandes, conversely, would subsequently be expelled from the army for cowardice, a quality which, if the charge were just, must have developed in him late.

The balloon, constructed of silk, fancifully decorated by a wallpaper manufacturer with zodiacal signs and other celestial curlicues and powered by burning straw, rose from a park on the west side of Paris, flew 5 miles, and landed safely. One can only imagine the emotions the men felt on seeing the world as only God and winged creatures had seen it before, not to mention those of peasants on the ground who looked up to see a huge painted ball floating past in the sky.

Joseph Montgolfier believed that smoke contained a special gas, which he named after himself, that possessed a tendency to rise. This shows, as have many examples since that time, that garbled thinking is no obstacle to the elevation of bloated gasbags.

Actually, what happened in the Montgolfiers’ hot-air balloons, and in all such balloons since, is that fire made the air within the balloon expand. The excess volume was driven out of the opening at the bottom, making the balloon lighter.

Air weighs about 81 pounds per thousand cubic feet at sea level temperature and pressure. The volume of the Montgolfiers’ first man-carrying balloon, which was as tall as a seven-story building, was about 60,000 cubic feet, and so it contained nearly 5,000 pounds of air. Supposing that the balloon and its payload weighed 1,000 pounds, the air within it would have had to expand until a fifth of it had been driven out of the envelope in order to make it neutrally buoyant. In November in Paris, this would require an increase in temperature of about 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

During my early years of writing for Flying I would collect ratings and write articles about my experiences getting them. One of the skills that I mastered just enough to be rated was that of flying hot-air balloons.

My balloon training began in April 1969 at Perris, California, with Don Piccard, a professional balloonist who designed, built, flew and sold his own hot-air balloons.

One learned by doing. I started off as crew, arriving at Perris at dawn to help unload and lay out the balloon. The gondola was a large, heavily constructed wicker basket, atop which a metal frame held, above the occupants’ heads, two cylindrical burners fed by propane from a tank in the basket. The large opening at the bottom of the balloon, called the skirt, was several feet above the burners.

A team is required, first to inflate the balloon, then to follow and retrieve it after a cross-country flight. For inflation, the nylon envelope is spread out on the ground and the basket tilted onto its side. A couple of helpers pick up the edges of the skirt and hold it open while the pilot directs the burner flame, which is large, noisy and menacing, into the opening between them. The heat of the flame, combined with some energetic pumping of the edges of the skirt, causes the envelope to puff up and begin to fill. As it inflates it rises, until it floats above the now upright gondola. All this is fairly easy to accomplish, provided that there is no wind.

Once the balloon was standing up and the gondola light, the pilot and passengers would scramble aboard, together with a bottle of champagne, because it was tradition to celebrate the completion of the flight with toasts. We would then float over the landscape for an hour in an otherworldly silence interrupted from time to time only by the roar of the burners replenishing the heat. Because the balloon becomes part of the surrounding air, its passengers feel no breeze. If it had pennants, they would hang limp. It seems becalmed.

Once, we passed at treetop level above a house as a man stepped out onto the porch.

"Good morning," Piccard said in a conversational tone.
The man looked about, baffled.
"Beautiful weather," Piccard continued.
A dog barked. We passed on. The man never looked up.

In June of that year, I found myself at the Paris Air Show. Piccard was there too, along with his wife and their daughter Liz, who was about my age. He was delivering a balloon to a customer, a Monsieur Duvaleix, and was scheduled to fly as part of the air show. He enlisted me to crew for him.

It was windy. The previous day, a British team had tried to launch and had failed disastrously. It should have been a scrub; you don’t try to inflate a 60-foot balloon in a stiff wind. But Piccard — well, Piccard was Piccard.

It was a desperate gamble. Piccard roped the gondola to the bumper of a car. He made Liz and me lie inside the skirt, under the burner flame, to keep the wind from picking up the bottom edge. When the flames got too close to my face, I panicked and rolled out. Liz was still inside, yelling. Her mother rushed in to rescue her. “I can’t let you go on with this!” she screamed at Don, who glanced at her and then went on. Liz, her loyalties divided, broke away from her mother, and we held the sides of the skirt, stepping on the inside to hold it down while the expanding monster heaved from side to side in the wind.

Madame Duvaleix was supposed to cut the rope on Piccard’s signal, using a switchblade knife with which he had provided her; but she mistook his shouts of “Get out” to Liz and me for “Cut it,” and she cut the rope prematurely. The gondola, in the bottom of which M. Duvaleix was curled in a fetal position, began to slide away.

Now we had to lift and carry the lightening gondola, so that the balloon would not lie down. Liz and I and a couple of others struggled to run and lift at the same time while Piccard, like a mad, fixated Ahab, aimed the full power of his flame throwers upward into the belly of the whale.

Finally, we could hold the gondola no longer. It slipped from our despairing hands; we fell on the ground, gasping. The gondola bounced a couple of times and then, miraculously, the balloon tipped upward and the gondola left the ground. It climbed to 20 feet or so and leveled off. The wind bore it along, stately and silent. Our hair was blowing into our eyes, but Piccard and M. Duvaleix were cocooned in calm, and waved imperturbably to the crowd.

It was only in September that I finally soloed, under the tutelage of a different instructor, Deke Sonnichsen. He said that a newly minted balloonist received a nickname from his teacher. With a muddy mixture of champagne and the soil upon which I had landed, he christened me “Enigma Springs.”

My article appeared in the February 1970 issue of Flying. As it happened, I never flew in a hot-air balloon again.