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Engineless Flight 1836 - 1913
 
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The Age of the Scientists

BalloonFollowing the famous first ascent of the Montgolfier brothers in 1783, ballooning spread rapidly throughout Europe. However, for the next 70 years balloons were only used on a very limited basis by the military. In civil life, they tended to be flown mostly by professional showmen, and there was not a lot of advance on the basic techniques of flight. The main development was the replacement of hot air with hydrogen gas to provide lift. Hydrogen balloons were sealed and so could stay airborne for hours once inflated without the need to carry any fuel. This meant that long-distance flights were a real possibility for those 'aeronauts' daring enough to attempt them. (Hot air balloons only re-appeared in the 1960s when modern propane burners became available.) From the 1830s to the beginning of the First World War a handful of adventurers, scientists and sportsmen became the pioneers of this first, often forgotten, era of aviation.

In 1836, for example, the Englishman Charles Green flew from London to Nassau in what is now Germany. The journey took 18 hours and involved flying through the night over France and Belgium. He pioneered the use of coal gas (methane) to inflate his balloon, and took thousands of passengers up without a single accident. Again, in 1849 a Frenchman called Francisque Arban made a crossing of the Alps by hydrogen balloon. His remarkable flight was not repeated until 1924!

Other epic flights were made by scientists attempting to understand the atmosphere and meteorology. One of the first was undertaken by two French scientists, Monsieurs Barral and Bixio, in 1850. Despite never having flown in a balloon before, they rose to over 20,000 feet above Paris. In England, the Association for the Advancement of Science chose James Glaisher (an eminent astronomer) to make several ascents between 1862 and 1866 to take meteorological observations. In 1867 a French astronomer, Camille Flammarion, made a number of similar flights, piloted by the famous balloonist Eugene Godard. And from 1873 to 1875 the French Society for Aerial Navigation sponsored a series of high-altitude ascents. The last of these, however, in the balloon the Zenith, led to the deaths of two of the scientists from cold and oxygen starvation. The scientific establishment was greatly shocked, and these fatalities put an end to such flights of discovery for many years.

A Gentleman's Sport

Pioneering flights of a non-scientific nature continued however. On 9 September 1883, François Lhoste (1859-1887) made the first flight across the English Channel from the French side. He flew from Boulogne to Ruckinge, near Ashford in Kent. To show it was no fluke, he repeated the performance in 1884 and in 1886. On 12/13 September 1886, Henri Hervé (d.1927) undertook the first flight lasting longer than 24 hours. He set out from Boulogne, again, and landed at Yarmouth on the English North Sea coast. And on 14 November 1886, Louis Capazza (1862-1928) made the first crossing from Marseilles to Corsica. Maurice Mallet (1861-1926) took hundreds of passengers up in his balloons, and became the leading authority on construction and piloting.
 
Francois Lhoste Louis Capazza Henri Herve Maurice Mallet
François Lhoste Louis Capazza Henri Hervé Maurice Mallet

During the 1890s sport became immensely popular across Europe. No where was this more marked than in France and England. The Olympic movement was founded; professional football and rugby teams were set up; bicycles and motorcars were raced from town to town. It was against this background that the next surge in balloon activity took place. Aero clubs were established, initially to organise ballooning as a sport, in France in 1898 and in England a little later in 1901. As these dates indicate, ballooning was most popular in France, the land of its birth. At the Great Exhibition held in Paris in 1900 there were fifteen balloon competitions, with most of the prizes going to Aéro-Club de France members who had been trained by Mallet and a number of new records were set:

  • On 16-18 September 1900 Jacques Balsan won the duration prize with 35 hr., 9 mins;
  • And on 23 September he won the altitude prize at 28,000 ft.;
  • On 30 September the Comte de la Vaulx flew solo from France to Russia, a distance of 768 miles. The Comte was a founder-member of the Aéro-Club;
  • Finally, on 9 October a very aristocratic balloon, carrying the Comte de la Vaulx and the Comte de Castillon de Saint-Victor, flew to Kiev in the Ukraine, covering 1,195 miles.
Balloonists at the 1900 Paris Exhibition
Winners of the 1900 competitions: (left to right) the Comte de Castillon, G.Hervieu,
J.Balsan, J.Faure, the Comte de La Vaulx, G.Juchmes, L.Maison. 

The Aéro-Club de France was central to the progress of sport ballooning in the early years of the century. It created a system of pilot assessment and licencing to keep the sport safe, and organised competitions to provide challenges for its members. An 'Aéro-Parc' was set up in pleasant surroundings at Saint Cloud for the purpose of balloon launches, and the Club's membership swelled. In 1913, 479 ascents were made from the Parc alone - more than one every day of the year. The most prestigious competiton was the Grand Prix of the Aéro-Club, first held in 1905.

Aero-Club de France meet
An Aero-Club de France meeting

In 1906 the first Gordon Bennett Race was held under the auspices of the Aéro-Club. These annual races were sponsored by the American newspaper tycoon, James Gordon Bennett Jr. (1841-1918) - the man who, in 1869, had sent Stanley into 'darkest Africa' in search of Dr.Livingstone. This was not the first competition Bennett had sponsored; there had already been Gordon Bennett streamboat, horse and motor races; and in 1908 Bennett would add aeroplanes to the list. All this did no harm to Bennett's newspaper sales, and meant that 'Gordon Bennett' became a household word. The rules of the 'Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett' were simple. The race would be won by the balloon which travelled the furthest distance from the starting point, and then next year's race would be held in the winner's home country.

The inaugral race was held on 30 September 1906 from the Tuilleries Gardens in the centre of Paris, watched by a crowd of 200,000. It was won by an American balloon, crewed by Frank P. Lahm (pilot) and Henry Hersey (co-pilot). Their balloon had travelled 402 miles, in 22 hours and 15 minutes, from Paris to the north of England. By 1909 the race was so popular that 400,000 spectators turned out to see the balloons rise from the Tuilleries for a second time. In 1910 the race was held in St.Louis, Missouri, with the winners flying 1,173 miles to northern Quebec. It took the pilots four days to walk back to civilization. The third-placed team had to walk for ten days, eating berries and whatever else they could find on the way. The furthest distance flown was 1,361 miles in 1912, by the Frenchman Maurice Bienaimé. The longest duration was 73 hours set in 1908 by Swiss Colonel Schaeck, which was a world record for sports balloons. Forty-eight of his 73 hours were spent over the North Sea. This time stood unbeaten until 1995 when another Gordon Bennett team, led by Wilhelm Elmers from Germany, managed 92 hours (or almost 4 days) aloft.


The race is still held to this day, although there was a long interruption between 1939 and 1982. The race was called off in September 1939 when Germany invaded the host country, Poland! Since its recommencement, the race has had one tragic incident. In 1995 an American crew accidentally overflew an airbase in Belarussia and were shot down by the authorities. In the Aéro-Club de France's centenary year, 1998, the race again came back to the Tuilleries, but by the narrowest of margins. The victorious French crew of 1997 won their race by only 200 yards. Each year the crews carry special commemorative air mail and other items to mark the occasion. Only gas balloons carrying a crew of two in a wicker basket may enter, and each country can enter a maximum of three balloons.


While others were racing, record breaking flights continued apace by the more experienced balloonists up to the outbreak of the First World War. And perhaps these flights came to reflect the national rivalries that helped cause it. Balson's 28,000 ft. altitude record, set in 1900, was broken the following year by two German professors named Berson and Suring. Using state of the art oxygen equipment, they ascended from Berlin up to 35,400 ft. on 31 July 1901. For comparison, a modern Boeing 747 cruises at around the same altitude. On 28 May 1913 a French team, including Maurice Bienaimé and Jacques Schneider attempted, but failed, to beat this huge target. They could only manage 33,150 ft. In fact the Germans' record wasn't beaten for another thirty years.


Bienaimé (left) and Schneider (right) at 33,000 ft on 28 May 1913

However, up until 1913 the distance and endurance records remained in French hands. The long distance record set by the two French counts in 1900 was not broken until January 1912 when fellow Frenchman Dubonnet flew 1,231 miles. But between 13 and 17 December 1913, Germans Kaulen, Schmitz and Kwefft covered 1,756 miles from Saxony to the Ural Mountains. They also took the endurance record at the same time with 87 hours in the air. On 8 February 1914 Herr Berliner and two passengers reaffirmed Germany's pre-eminence with an epic flight of 1,895 miles over the Urals. At the outbreak of war in August 1914, Germans had taken all the major records from Frenchmen.
 

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