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It all began with balloons...

The history of humanity is full of myths and tales of dreamers wishing to fly like birds – some of them claiming success, with precious little supporting evidence. It is generally accepted, however, that actual aerial navigation started with the brothers Montgolfier – the French language still honours them, using their name as the word for hot air balloons. To call their aerial exploits practical may be stretching it a bit, but despite all the inherent dangers, in 1783 they did succeed in lifting man off the ground. About the same time, others found that the newly discovered gas hydrogen provided lift far better than hot air, and lasted a lot longer if you could make a gas-tight fabric. Within a year, ballooning was all gas...

The industrial revolution brought new techniques and materials that improved the gas balloon, extending its operating range by giant leaps. Still, aerial navigation was limited to balloons, and remained so into the twentieth century. It was the hydrogen gas balloon that made man an aeronaut– an aerial navigator – and enabled him to see the world from above and develop navigation skills and insights unknown before. Balloons reigned supreme for 120 years, although it was the last 50 that were the really adventurous ones.

Throughout the nineteenth century the main uses of balloons were scientific – experiments and exploration – as well as sporting, without clear distinction between the two. The balloon’s limited directional control precluded serious commercial use, but stationary balloons were used for military purposes as early as in the Napoleonic wars.

From this period onwards, the discipline was to be gradually displaced by powered flight, although it was to enjoy a certain continued success largely due to the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett gas balloon event; in 1912, on a 2,191-km flight from Stuttgart, in Germany, the French crew of Maurice Bienaime and René Rumpelmayer broke the record for the event. The score was impressive for the time – so impressive that it has not been beaten to this day. After the Belgian Ernest Demuyter had won the race six times – including three years running from 1922 to 1924 – with six different co-pilots, the Gordon Bennett event died out with the advent of the Second World War. Fortunately, the 1983 celebration in Paris of the first human flight marked the renaissance of this legendary competition. Since then it has been run annually, in accordance with tradition.

While on May 27 1931 the Swiss Auguste Piccard made the first balloon flight into the stratosphere, reaching and altitude of 15,781 m and proving for the first time that it was possible to fly safely at extremely high altitudes thanks to pressurised cabins, the ballooning world between the wars was dominated by dirigibles.

In the early 1960s, the invention of new ultra-light synthetic materials and safety systems and above all the novel use of propane as an energy source to heat the air inside the envelope meant that ballooning became extraordinarily popular in many countries at that time, not only for pleasure and advertising purposes, but also for sporting competition.

In February 1973, the first world hot-air ballooning championships took place in Albuquerque, in the United States. 32 balloons took part. There followed, in September 1976, the first world championship for gas balloons, in Augsburg in Germany, bringing together 20 participants, and in 1988 the first world hot airship championships.

For further reading, browse the list of balloon related articles.

Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett

The Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett is the most prestigious event in aviation and the ultimate challenge for the balloon pilots and their equipment.