For nine days in early October, the skies above Albuquerque become awash with an array of dazzling shapes and stunning colors. It's a sight to behold, as hundreds of hot-air balloons soar above New Mexico's capital for the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. The largest balloon festival in the world, this one-of-a-kind event attracts nearly one million visitors per year and features a variety of balloon related events, such as air races and the 'Glowdeo' — a brilliant display of illuminated balloons floating in the night sky.
Once the pinnacle of innovation, hot-air balloons are now used more for recreation, and unless you are a balloonist, you might not know too much about these amazing aircrafts. So, before you head on down to the Balloon Fiesta, here is brief article to get you up-to-speed on how hot-air balloons work and where they come from.
Up, Up and Away. But how?
Hot-air balloons soar in the sky similar to how a ship floats on water. The key is density. If an object is more dense than the area of water it is trying to float on, it will sink to the bottom. This is why a brick will sink while a stick might float, and why a ship needs to cover a larger area and volume of water to be buoyant. To imagine how a hot-air balloon might fly, just reverse this theory. For a balloon to rise, the air inside it needs to be less dense than the air on the outside. If not, it will, like the brick, just float back down to the ground.
As a rule of thumb, hot air rises! When the air inside a balloon is heated it becomes less dense than the ambient air outside. Only then does it goes up. When the air inside begins to cool, the craft drops down. Controlling the air temperature inside the balloon, then, is critical to controlling flight. And like the big ship on water, if a craft wants to carry a large amount of weight into the sky, it needs to have a bigger balloon to contain a larger volume of hot air so it can 'sink' upwards.
The First Hot-Air Balloon
While 'sky lanterns', an unmanned paper balloon lifted by a small flame, have been in use throughout Asia for thousands of years, it wasn't until the 18th century that something similar to the modern balloon began to take shape. There is some debate around who invented the first hot-air balloon, but most aviation historians hand this honor to the Montgolfier brothers of France.
In 1783, the brothers constructed a large balloon out of cloth, paper and nearly 2,000 buttons. Unmanned, and heated using a ground fire, the first public demonstration took place, lasting about ten minutes and covering just over one mile. While this may seem insignificant, many regard this moment as the invention of flight. Eventually, the Montgolfier design was able to undertake manned trips with the addition a small balcony and more fuel brought on board. Their success quickly gained the attention of King Louis XVI who elevated the Montgolfier family to nobility. However, the dangers with using a lit fire on the craft, along with the eventual discovery of hydrogen and helium as a usable gas, led the Montgolfier design be abandoned.
Hot-Air Balloons: A Modern Passion
Referred to as 'Father of the Modern Day Hot-Air Balloon', American inventor, Ed Yost, revived the practice of manned hot-air ballooning while developing high-altitude balloons in the 1950's. His key contribution was in creating an aircraft which could safely carry and utilize its own fuel source. Light burners and propane canisters allowed for the pilot to reheat the air inside the balloon, allowing for longer and higher flights with greater control over the craft. He also patented various balloon designs, such as a unique deflation system, which aided in safer and more accurate landings.
Along with his engineering prowess, Yost was also an extremely skilled pilot, breaking several aviation records throughout his career. One of his more notable 'firsts', Yost successfully piloted a hot-air balloon over the English channel in 1963. A Yost-built balloon was also the first hot-air balloon to complete trans-Atlantic flight.
Because of Yost's technical innovations, and the growing popularity of his piloting achievements, hot-air balloons reemerged as an exciting and accessible pastime for thousands worldwide. Today, dedicated balloonists are still pushing the craft—soaring to new heights, breaking records, and turning their balloons into brilliant works of art. And now, the general public are able enjoy a ride in these fantastic machines, and see the world in a new way.
Are you ready to take your first flight? Visit our website to learn more about how Mayflower Cruises & Tours can introduce to the special world of hot-air balloons on a one-of-kind tour stopping at the Balloon Fiesta. We'll see you up there!