A Kongming lantern, the oldest type of hot air balloon
This 1818 technical illustration shows early balloon designs.
A model of the Montgolfier brothers balloon at the London Science Museum
The hot air balloon is the oldest successful human-carrying flight technology. On November 21, 1783, in Paris, France, the first manned flight was made by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d'Arlandes in a hot air balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers.
A hot air balloon consists of a bag called the envelope that is capable of containing heated air. Suspended beneath is the gondola or wicker basket (in some long-distance or high-altitude balloons, a capsule) which carries the passengers and a source of heat. The heated air inside the envelope makes it buoyant since it has a lower density than the relatively cold air outside the envelope. Unlike gas balloons, the envelope does not have to be sealed at the bottom since the air near the bottom of the envelope is at the same pressure as the surrounding air. In today's sport balloons the envelope is generally made from nylon fabric and the mouth of the balloon (closest to the burner flame) is made from fire resistant material such as Nomex.
Recently, balloon envelopes have been made in all kinds of shapes, such as hot dogs, rocket ships, and the shapes of commercial products. Hot air balloons that can be propelled through the air rather than just being pushed along by the wind are known as airships or, more commonly, thermal airships.
There is also some speculation that hot air balloons could have been used by people of the Nazca culture of Peru some 1500 years ago, as a tool for designing the famous Nazca ground figures and lines.
The first documented balloon flight in Europe was by the Portuguese priest Bartolomeu de Gusmão. On August 8, 1709, in Lisbon, Bartolomeu de Gusmão managed to lift a small balloon made of paper full of hot air about 4 meters in front of king John V and the Portuguese court.
In 1811 Franz Leppich went to Napoleon and claimed that he could build a hot-air balloon that would enable the French to attack from the air. Napoleon then ordered that he be removed from French Territory. In 1812 he went to Moscow to Count Rostopchin with the same proposal. When the balloon was finally tried out, it failed to rise, and nothing more was seen of its inventor.
In Tolstoy's Novel, War and Peace Count Pyótr Kiríllovich Bezúkhov (Pierre) makes an excursion to see this balloon though he does not see it. Tolstoy also includes a letter from the sovereign Emperor Alexander I to Count Rostopchin concerning the balloon.
Hot air balloons were employed during the American Civil War. The military balloons used by the Union Army Balloon Corps under the command of Prof. Thaddeus S. C. Lowe were limp silk envelopes inflated with coal gas (town gas) or hydrogen.
Hot air balloons are able to fly to extremely high altitudes. On November 26, 2005, Vijaypat Singhania set the world altitude record for highest hot air balloon flight, reaching 21,290 metres (69,849 feet). He took off from downtown Bombay, India and landed 240 kilometres (149 miles) south in Panchale. The previous record of 19,811 m (64,997 ft) had been set by Per Lindstrand on June 6, 1988 in Plano, Texas. As with all registered aircraft, oxygen is needed for all crew and passengers for any flight that reaches and exceeds an altitude of 12,500 ft (3,810 m).
On January 15, 1991, the Virgin Pacific Flyer balloon completed the longest flight in a hot air balloon when Per Lindstrand (born in Sweden, but resident in the UK) and Richard Branson of the UK flew 7,671.91 km (4,767.10 mi) from Japan to Northern Canada. With a volume of 74 thousand cubic metres (2.6 million cubic feet), the balloon envelope was the largest ever built for a hot air craft. Designed to fly in the trans-oceanic jet streams the Pacific Flyer recorded the highest ground speed for a manned balloon at 245 mph (394 km/h).
The longest duration hot air balloon flight ever made is 50 hours and 38 minutes made by Michio Kanda and Hirosuke Tekezawa of Japan on January 2, 1997.