Up, up, and away! This week, Tidbits researches the rich history of hot air balloons.

Manned balloon rides first took place in the 1700s, but the Chinese had been experimenting for more than 2,000 years before. It’s believed that Chinese military strategist Zhuge Liang invented a balloon when he and his army were trapped by their enemies. He wrote a message on a paper lantern requesting help, and nearby allied forces saw the lantern and came to his aid.

France’s Montgolfier Brothers are celebrated for launching the first manned hot air balloon flight. After several successful unmanned flights, in September 1783, the brothers, paper manufacturers by trade, launched a sheep, a duck, and a rooster in a basket attached to a balloon. King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette and 130,000 other people observed as the balloon carrying the animals rose 1,500 feet (460 m) in the air, traveling two miles (3 km) in about eight minutes before landing safely.   

    The next month a French physics teacher named Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier agreed to try out the balloon for the brothers, and stayed in the air four minutes at 80 feet (24 m), tethered to the ground with a guideline. Another month passed and de Rozier flew untethered, a successful flight that lasted 25 minutes, travelling 5.5 miles (9 km), reaching an altitude of 3,000 feet (914 m).    By the following year, the French Army was using balloons for military reconnaissance.

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    In June 1785, de Rozier and a colleague were launched in an attempt to fly across the English Channel.    A change in the wind direction pushed the balloon back over land, more difficulties followed, and the balloon tragically caught fire in midair, deflated, and crashed to the ground from an estimated height of 1,500 feet (450 m). The two aeronauts were killed, the first known fatalities in an air crash.

    In the 1860s, aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe acquainted President Abraham Lincoln with the value of hot-air balloon reconnaissance during the Civil War. The benefits were undeniable – rising thousands of feet in the air, the riders could see far into the distance, providing critical intel information to Union troops on the location of the Confederates. As Commander of the Union Balloon Corps, Lowe was frequently the target of Confederate bullets, earning him the nickname of “the most shot-at man in the war.”

The most common type of hot-air balloon is the Montgolfier, which uses propane burners to heat the air inside the balloon to get it off the ground. The hybrid balloon contains a compartment of helium or hydrogen in the top. A pure gas balloon doesn’t use hot air, and altitude is controlled by venting the gas or dropping ballast.

    Do you know the terms for the various parts of a hot air balloon? The bag, usually made of ripstop nylon, is called an envelope, with each of its individual sections known as gores. The basket beneath is known as a gondola, or in high-altitude balloons, a capsule. Mounted above the gondola is the burner, a heater fueled by propane that injects a flame into the envelope.

    In 1991, two aeronauts Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand became the first balloonists to cross the Pacific Ocean. The flight was launched from Japan, and more than 4,700 miles (7,564 km) and 46 hours later, the pair landed on a frozen lake in the Yukon.

The record for the highest-flying hot-air balloon was set in 2005, when a doctor from India reached an altitude of 68,986 feet (21,027 m) over Mumbai. At these heights, aeronauts need oxygen masks.