The flight of birds in the sky must have fascinated mankind from times immemorial. To ancient civilizations, to be borne high up in the sky has been a dream; Pharaonic Egypt visualized the dream in ‘solar boats’ by means of which Pharaoh’s soul travelled to the Sun for renewal before returning to its mummified body. But the Chinese seem to have been more practical; L. Ege tells of a missionary who seems to have dug out, from archives in Pekin, evidence that the Chinese have solved “the problem of aerial navigation by means of balloons”. It was probably a development from the airborne lanterns which they had used for military signaling. Europe’s first encounter with this phenomenon was at the battle of Legnica (1241) during the Mongol invasion of Poland. But it took almost five centuries before the first small balloon, made of paper filled with hot air, got lifted about 4 meters in front of King John V & the Portuguese court (1709) by the Brazilian-Portuguese priest, Bartolomeo de Gusmao. However, the following decades saw remarkable & fast developments. France played a pioneering role & from August 1783 onwards had numerous hydrogen-filled balloons take to the skies in front of King Louis XVI & Queen Marie Antoinette. Soon Britain & other countries followed suit but modern ballooning proper, as a sport & for recreation &/or tourism, made great strides in the twentieth century after Edward Yost’s invention of the propane burner which changed balloons from gas to hot air. Synthetic materials & lighter burners were instrumental in that development.
Live but non-human creatures were the first passengers in the history of balloon flights. Thus in September 1783, the Montgolfier brothers, in France, sent a sheep, a duck & a cockerel on a flight which covered 2 miles in 8 minutes before landing safely to the delight of all on board!. In the UK in 1784, the Italian diplomat Vincenzo Lunardi launched his balloon at London’s Artillery Ground with “a dog, a cat and a caged pigeon”; his flight covered twenty-four miles, taking him and his passengers into Hertfordshire. In 1821, Charles Green claimed to have taken his horse with him in a successful balloon flight but as this was disputed, he repeated the flight in 1850 with a small pony on board. In August 1852, however, there was a big outcry when Madame Poitevin took off from Cremorne Gardens in London as “Europa on a bull” putting flesh on the legend of the abduction of Europa by Zeus disguised as a bull. The sight of the nervous bull dressed up as Zeus was the cause of the outcry & a charge of animal cruelty was filed causing a diplomatic tiff & henceforth animals lost their passenger seats.
The history of ballooning offers many interesting stories, some downright hilarious and some heart-breakingly tragic. Of the first is the incident of how the first Robert brothers’ balloon took off from where the Eiffel Tower now is, in Paris, & after a 45 minute flight it landed in the village of Gonesse where the horrified peasants attacked this weird invader from the sky with pitch-forks and whatever else they could lay hands on and destroyed it before the chasers on horseback could dispel the fear & save the unfortunate balloon.
IN 1785, the French aeronaut Blanchard and the American John Jeffries crossed the English Channel in a balloon for the first time. In 1870 balloons were used “for military observation during Franco-Prussian War and a French Minister made a dramatic James Bond escape from a besieged Paris by balloon”. During World War II, a large number of balloons were inflated over the city of London to obstruct air attacks during the battle of Britain. Hydrogen balloons were also used in upper-atmosphere research.
Rather than this signaling the demise of ballooning, it gave a new impetus to individuals to compete in increasingly daring feats. Ballooning fiestas started to be held in many parts of the world and in 1973 the first Balloon World Championship was held in the USA. The famous International Gordon Bennett Cup had already been established in 1906 but was interrupted twice by the two World Wars to be resumed in 1979 although it was not officially reinstated by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) till 1983. The Austrian pilot, Josef Starkbaum, won the trophy seven times between 1985 and 1993.
This daring sport has continued to attract numerous individuals who compete to go further, higher or to stay airborne longer. Thus in 1978, three American businessmen, Ben Abruzzo, Max L. Anderson and Larry Newman, crossed the Atlantic for the first time in 137 hours and 6 minutes. Less than a decade later, this record was beaten when, in 1987, Sir Richard Branson and Per Linstrand made the Atlantic crossing in 33 hours! This time the balloon, the Virgin Atlantic Flyer, was by far “the largest balloon ever”, measuring 2.3 million cubic feet, and reaching a speed of more than 130 miles per hour (209 k/ph). In 1991, the same duo made the first transpacific crossing breaking all existing records and reaching speeds of up to 245 miles per hour (349.28928 km/ ph).
Most amazing was perhaps the first round the world helium/hot air balloon flight by Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones in 1999. It took them 19 days, 21 hours and 55 minutes. This record was beaten, in 2002, by American millionaire Steve Fossett’s solo flight round the world in 13 days. This record remained unbeaten till 2016, when “the Russian adventurer (and priest!) Fedor Konyukhov made his solo balloon flight around the world in just under 11 days”.
Virgin Balloon Flights made headlined and a new Guinness World Record with a rock concert; “the song ‘What I did to-day’ was performed and recorded 1,848 m (6,063 ft) above Wiltshire”! Then in 2008, the same company, Virgin Balloon Flights, teamed up with Virgin Radio and Sony BMG and made what is believed to be “the first ever show by a hit artist [Newton Faulkner] to be recorded in a hot air balloon” above the Swiss Alps. The largest mass balloon ascent took place at the Lorraine Mondial fiesta in France in 2011 where a total of 329 balloons lined up to launch thereby setting a record. That year, Kenneth Karlstrom beat 120 top notch pilots and won the prestigious event’s target flying competition.
Nowadays, lovers of ballooning fiestas are spoilt for choice; they abound in USA, Canada, Britain and various parts of Europe.
2017 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
This month’s Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta was the 46th time that this premier international ballooning event has filled Albuquerque’s crystal clear skies. It’s a nine-day event with more than 500 balloons taking part, thereby making it the largest hot air balloon festival in the whole world. It was held in Albuquerque for the first time in 1972 and has continued to be held there annually ever since. A combination of perfect October climate and the ‘Albuquerque Box’ make it ideally suited for the festival. The ‘Albuquerque Box’ refers to the geographic landscape as well as to predictable wind patterns, both of which allow the balloonists to control and even re-trace their course & go round as many times as they need to in certain on-field target competitions such as the “Key Grab”. At this event, balloonists strive to grab prizes, including the keys of a brand new vehicle from the top of tall flexible poles, hence the name. The number of balloonists taking part grew year on year till it peaked at 1,019 in 2000. Then the Balloon Fiesta Board limited the number to 750 starting 2001 in a bid for “quality over quantity”. But in 2009, that limit was brought down again to 600 due to the growth of the city and a loss of landing zones. In all, the location extends over 360 acre, with 100 acres of grass and booth selling. These booths are well-stocked with gifts and souvenirs as well as local and international cuisine. It is estimated that about 100,000 American & over-seas spectators attend the Fiesta which is no doubt a major attraction but actually the city has lots more on offer for all ages. For those interested in history, there is no better place where to see ancient Indian and Spanish cultures come to life as they explore the Old Town with its old churches, quaint shops, winding brick paths and Adobe benches.
For those interested in the arts, there is the New Mexico s and Crafts Fair. For more energetic visitors, there is “biking in the Sandia Mountains, hiking among dormant volcanoes, horseback riding along the river” and enjoying the stunning views of the city from Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway.
There was so much promise of fun packed into this year’s festival. The program was replete with the usual ballooning activities and competitions, such as mass ascent and Key Grab, but it also had laser and firework shows. There was even a kids’ day, Thursday the 12th of October. It was a glorious, fun-filled and unforgettable nine-day break.
One more thing that needs pointing out & is worthy of the highest praise was the way in which Albuquerque’s local authorities, including the Sheriff, the Police Department with the festival’s Board and proud volunteers, had achieved a most successful, smooth running of all the activities in a hassle-free orderly manner. The volume of traffic alone, starting every day at 4 am, was a daunting task and yet it all went smoothly like clock-work and thanks to those officials and volunteers, everyone who attended the festival enjoyed every minute of it. It was indeed an exquisitely beautiful and colorful festival and an unforgettable experience.
The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta’s official Sponsor, Canon, had a balloon and a tent offering free professional cleaning services of all Canon cameras and lenses used by the festival attendees. It was doubtlessly an excellent and welcome gesture by a top notch company which many took advantage of. Not many know, perhaps, that a regular balloon costs between $35-45k and takes approximately six (6) weeks to make. Fancy special shape balloons are bound to cost more. On October 14, some balloonists decided not to fly after all because of concerns over the possible landing spots after having detected a change in the wind direction that morning.
One notable change from past balloon flights is that balloon-chasers now follow the flight of the balloon not on horse-backs but in cars into which the balloon is gathered and carried away after a successful landing.
The event provided a huge opportunity to kite-lovers, young and old, who could be seen flying their colorful kites in the afternoon before Night Glow events.
We are planning on publishing more photos for 2017 Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. For more information please see the following links:
The Telegraph newspaper in an article by Nick Squired, dated Dec 6, 2002