Spotlight on Games > Balmy Balloonists


September 15, 2002


Balmy Balloonists? Well, you'd have to be, wouldn't you, to risk life and limb, not to mention millions of dollars 30,000 feet above the earth? Today's trans-world balloons are outfitted with all of the latest in high technology brainpower and skill both in the capsule and on the ground, but it didn't start out that way.

Although the principle of buoyancy or flotation was first discovered by that polymath Archimedes in 240 BC, it was 1783 before the French Montgolfier brothers had the brilliant idea of filling a balloon with hot air to create the first documented flying ship. On the 19th of September, in what was perhaps the first and last sane moment of balloon travel, a sheep, a duck and a rooster were the first balloonists to try this outlandish invention. The first men to fly in a hot-air balloon, or montgolfière, were Jean-Françoise Pilâtre de Rozier and Marquis d'Arlandes. balloon art

balloon art In a curious case of parallel, but entirely separate inspiration, at the same time, also in France, a physicist named J.A.C. Charles was experimenting with hydrogen. And, just a few days after the manned Montgolfier experiment, he made the first ascent in a hydrogen balloon! The Age of Flight was born.

It only took 18 months for someone to try something more balmy. It was Rozier who tried to see if he could cross the English Channel in a hybrid balloon of his own creation, one using both hydrogen and flame-heated air. Unfortunately the hydrogen caught flame and although the balloonists were not in danger of fire, they were unable to control the craft and in the crash sadly became ballooning's first fatalities. Its pilot's idea – now known as the Rozier Balloon – was a brilliant one, however, and was to become crucial as the only practical way to circumnavigate the earth in a balloon. balloon art

Throughout the 19th century, balloons were used almost exclusively for military and scientific purposes. In 1850 French meteorologists Barral and Dixio took off in a balloon whose net was too small for its envelope. As the hydrogen expanded in the upper atmosphere, the envelope was squeezed out of the open bottom of the net lowered itself right onto the basket! The panicked weathermen slashed away with knives, but succeeded only in releasing hydrogen which put them into deep sleep! Incredibly, the now nearly-empty envelope acted as a parachute and lowered them none-too-gently to the ground. They awoke to find themselves in a vineyard, their balloon demolished, their bodies sore all over and thankful to be alive.

Another incident of some interest was the attempt by the Confederate States of America to employ balloons during the American Civil War. The brash young Captain John Randolph Bryan ascended in a tethered cotton envelope balloon, but one of his ground crew caught his foot and leg in the cable. To save him, the cable was cut. Now adrift, Bryan found himself over enemy lines, but did not encounter firing until he reached his own lines, where the Confederates assumed he must be sent by the enemy. The hot air leaving his balloon, Bryan, nothing daunted, shinnied down the dangling tether and tied his balloon to an apple tree.

But despite such mishaps, some wealthy men became interested in ballooning for fun about 1895 and the Aero Club of France was founded in 1898 to regulate the sport. Other similar bodies were established in other countries shortly afterward. In 1905, the International Aeronautical Federation (IAF) was organized to furnish international control. Since 1906, when U.S. newspaperman James Gordon Bennett established a trophy for long-distance ballooning, sportsmen have striven to fly the farthest. An American race was conducted each year, except during World War I and 1931, up until 1938. Ballooning was like yachting, an exclusive sport for the wealthy.

This changed in 1960 when American Edward Yost invented a propane burner that changes gas power into hot air. Interest took off to such an extent that the first ballooning world championships were held in the United States, in 1973. In 1978 the Atlantic was crossed with a helium-filled balloon and from October 9-12, 1981, Fred Gorell and John Shucraft completed the first non-stop transcontinental balloon flight. In 1981, the team of Newman, Abruzzo, Aoki and Clark launched from Nagashima, Japan to be the first to cross the Pacific in a helium-filled balloon, landing in Covello, California. By 1990, the team of Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson had conquered both the Atlantic and the Pacific in hot-air ballons as well, often under harrowing conditions, once having to leap off a capsule into the Irish Sea and another time landing in a Canadian blizzard with temperatures at -20 degrees and four hours away from help.

Eventually, however, balloonists set their sights on an around-the-world flight. Americans Maxie Anderson and Don Ida made the first attempt, in 1981, but flew only 2,676 miles, from Egypt to India. In 1995, American Steve Fossett piloted a Rozier style balloon from Seoul to Saskatchewan, setting a new distance record at the time. He had to bail out from a 1996 attempt when his outer envelope was shredded. In 1997, his Solo Spirit launched in St. Louis in memory of Lindbergh, crossed the Atlantic and cruised southeast over Eastern Europe. When he reached Turkey, he reported that his cabin heater had broken down and that there were control problems with the burners. Running low on fuel over India, progress slowed due to light winds and it was decided to abandon the attempt. In the same year, Switzerland's Bertrand Piccard launched in the first Breitling orbiter. Six hours into the attempt, a clip came loose, flooding the gondola with fuel and forcing them to ditch.

In mid-1997, with the announcement of the Anheuser-Busch $1,000,000 prize, the race heated up like never before. By the end of that year, there were six teams poised to be the first to fly non-stop around the world in a balloon. What happened to them sounds more like a comedy of crazy errors – one couldn't make a film like this, for who would ever believe it?

So much for the crazy events of the 1997-8 season. Not chastened by these events, many of the balloonists returned in 1999 for another go!

Nevertheless, after decades of trying, man had a last achieved what once seemed impossible. But what next? Have the Balmy Balloonists no more worlds to conquer?


Altitude is the height above a constant surface, usually considered to be average sea level in both aeronautics and meteorology. Among balloonists, altitude is often called "Flight Level" (FL) and the final two digits of the number lopped off. Thus, an altitude of 33,500 feet would be written "FL335". In the game Balloons can maneuver among three relative altitudes: low, medium and high.
Low Altitude is considered to be below 2000 meters (about 6600 feet), or the height most modern, casual, hot-air balloonists attain. No special clothing or equipment is required at these altitudes. Winds can blow in almost any direction, and are usually light.
Medium Altitude represents heights ranging through the middle-troposphere, or about 3000 to 7500 meters (9900 - 24750 feet) high. Temperatures can be quite cold in this range and usually special equipment, e.g. a pressurized cabin or at least an oxygen mask above 20000 feet, are required. Winds can be strong, but seldom reach Jet Stream speeds of 70 knots per hour or more; additionally, wind directions are less variable at these heights.
High Altitude represents heights at the level of the Jet Stream, between speeds of 70 knots per hour or more; additionally, wind directions about 8000 and 10000 meters (26400 - 33000 feet) or more. The Breitling-3 actually reached an altitude of 38500 feet flying over the western Sahara. Temperatures are always very cold, often below freezing, and winds in center of jets can be very strong, including speeds over 100 knots per hour. Only the best-prepared balloonists with the best equipment can travel at these heights. Additionally, a Balloon can generally not attain this kind of height without burning a lot of Fuel.
The best way to make a balloon go up quickly is to drop ballast. Historically sand bags, whose contents may be easily poured out, have been the usual form of ballast. In addition, most of the long distance Balloons also employ the Fuel tanks for this purpose, which the balloonists try not to drop over populated areas. The hope is that they do not need to drop ballast before they have empty tanks available. This was unfortunately not the case for Steve Fossett's 1998 Solo Spirit attempt when he was forced to unload about 80 gallons of Fuel – 10 percent of his 20-day supply – to raise the balloon above a bad Weather system. On Richard Branson's historic Pacific Hot Air crossing, when he dumped the first empty Fuel tank, it also accidentally released two full ones, causing the balloon to soar up to 36,000 feet. Fortunately they still had 35 hours of Fuel remaining.
The balloons used in the recent around-the-world attempts have all been of the Rozier type. This means that the overall Envelope includes cells both of lighter-than-air Gas as well as air heated by Fuel. This compromise approach works better than using either Gas or Fuel alone. With a Gas-only approach, it is likely that too much Gas would be lost before the trip was ended while a Fuel-only Balloon probably couldn't carry all the Fuel necessary.
Busy Air Corridor
When a Balloon is in an area with a lot of heavier-than-air craft – generally major metropolitan areas – it must descend for safety. On their 1999 around-the-world attempt, Andy Elson and Colin Prescott in the Cable and Wireless Balloon had been doing well cruising over Taiwan, but were forced to reduce Altitude due to bad Weather and to avoid planes in a busy air corridor. Their flight was never to recover.
Communications Difficulties
As the Envelope is most often made from aluminized Mylar, when a Balloon is located directly beneath a satellite the radio waves bounce off the Envelope and the balloon is essentially in a "cone of silence". This can be critical as the balloonists do not have the wind charting abilities that ground has and cannot act optimally without excellent communications. This problem may well have affected Steve Fossett's 1998 Solo Spirit around-the-world attempt. It also afflicted the Breitling-3 Balloon from time to time, particularly when flying close to the Equator.
The Balloon vehicle comprises two fundamental components: the capsule which carries the balloonists and their equipment and the large, Envelope which in a Rozier-style Balloon includes cells for both Gas and Fuel. Aluminized Mylar is used in the construction of the Envelope because it makes a good insulator, preventing overheating during the day and retaining heat at night. For around-the-world attempts, the Envelopes required are quite large. The Breitling-3 Envelope's volume was 650,000 cubic feet. And it was not the largest. At take-off, the Gas cell is only partially filled because as the Balloon rises, solar heating expands the Gas. At night to compensate, balloonists burn Fuel to heat up the plain air beneath the Gas cell, also transmitting heat to the Gas. The Breitling-3 Envelope had a couple of special interesting features. One was a pair of appendices – two tubes of material three feet in diameter running from the Gas cell down the outside of the Envelope – which automatically acted as safety valves to release Gas if the Balloon exceeded its natural ceiling. The other was a secondary, smaller Gas Cell at the very top of the Envelope (giving it its elongated ice-cream cone shape) which creates a (specially-insulated) tent at the top of the Envelope to keep it from getting too hot. The smaller cell keeps the tent away from the main cell and thus further avoids heat transfer to it. Coincidentally, it also minimizes the loss of heat from the main cell out the top at night.
Envelope Ripped
Obviously preserving the integrity of the Envelope is of utmost importance for a Balloon. Without Gas and the ability to maintain hot air, the usual result is that the voyage must be aborted. A common reason for tears is the too-quick expansion of Gas during ascent. This happened to the 1998 J. Renee Balloon as well as the pilots of Dick Rutan's Global Hilton World Balloon, who parachuted out shortly after launch. In fact the very first Rozier Balloon ever to be flown had this problem and the escaped Gas came into contact with the burning straw, blew up and killed the inventor. This problem also afflicted the Don Cameron Zanussi attempt to be the first to cross the Atlantic. Steve Fossett's August 1998 southern hemispheric around-the-world attempt was aborted when his Envelope ruptured during a thunderstorm and he was forced to ditch in the ocean, from which he was subsequently rescued. Tears can also occur at take-off, particularly in cold Weather as the Envelope may become frozen to the ground and open during inflation. This was a primary concern of the Breitling-3 team launching in the frozen Alps during March.
Equatorial Doldrums
The Equatorial Doldrums is the Weather term used for the region which on the game weatheris located around the outside of the map, approaching the earth's equator. As surface air moves toward the equator from the north or south, it is heated by tropical sunlight. Warmer air rises, and rising air creates calms, or doldrums. The result is that at low levels in the atmosphere, very little wind occurs at all. Even at higher Altitudes, winds are much lighter than usual Jet Stream strength. Thus in the game, Balloons caught in the Doldrums do not move at all.
While Fire in a Balloon Envelope is almost certainly catastrophic, it can also be quite dangerous in the capsule where it sometimes breaks out. Certainly at the very least it will occupy fully the attention of the pilot or pilots until extinguished. In 1998, shortly after liftoff a burner Fuel tank connection sprung a leak in Steve Fossett's 1998 Solo Spirit capsule, starting a Fire. He reportedly lost his eyebrows and received other minor burns before extinguishing it. He also temporarily lost two burners, later repairing one of them.
Balloons which employ hot air do so by fueling burners which heat up the plain air in the Envelope, and by osmosis, also the Gas. While Gas is sufficient to get the Balloon aloft, the control offered by regulable Fuel is required to get Balloons through the cold air and to the high Altitudes required to take advantage of the Jet Stream that is the only path to successful circumnavigation. This Fuel which may be either propane or kerosene is generally stored in large tanks hung around the outside of the capsule, thirty-two of them in the case of the Breitling-3. The advantage of kerosene is that it can be carried in synthetic rubber bags instead of titanium tanks. The kerosene that was carried in the Breitling-1 weighed only one hundred pounds – had it been propane, it would have come to a ton. Containment of kerosene can cause problems, however. The Breitling-1 crew had one of its tanks overflow into the floor of the capsule and contaminate the water reserve. The pilots were forced to land after only six hours due to exposure to the vapor. In the Breitling-2 there were also problems as one-third of the kerosene was lost in flight. The Breitling-3 flight switched to propane.
While the earliest Balloons used hydrogen gas to make the aircraft lighter than air, more modern vehicles employ helium as a less flammable alternative. Gas, which is always slowly leaking out of the Envelope, provides the original bouyancy to the Balloon and tends to provide even more when heated by the rays of the sun. As the balloonists have no way to cool off the hot air in the Envelope, when they wish to descend or stop ascending, they release Gas. The Envelope includes valves at the top of the Gas cell by which Gas can be released to do this.
Heater Problems
Balloon travel at the high Altitudes where the best Jet Stream winds is not without problems, mainly in accommodating the needs of the human passengers. Due to lack of oxygen, the historical open basket gondola gives way to a closed, pressurized capsule. And to cope with the very cold temperatures, a capsule-heating system must be supplied. Should this system fail, the Balloon must reduce altitude to reach temperatures fit for human habitation. In 1997, while over Turkey, Steve Fossett had to bail out of his 1997 Solo Spirit attempt partly because his cabin heater had broken down. Actually, this was not the first time Fossett has experienced this particular difficulty. In an attempt to cross the Pacific, both of his cabin heaters failed soon after launch. With temperatures at night below zero he had only his sleeping bag to help keep him warm. To keep his drinking water from freezing he found it necessary to keep the bottle next to his body. For the next four days Fossett caught 45 minute cat naps as he flew his balloon across the Pacific.
Jet Stream
Jet Streams are bands of high-speed winds in the upper atmosphere which blow from west to east. In the game, the current state of the Jet Streams is depicted by the Quadrant Cards. Read more.
Obviously, the higher mountain ranges of this world such as the Alps, Rockies and Himalayas provide obstacles for balloonists to surmount. In addition to their physical presence, they also generate air turbulence which is caused by wind hitting steep mountain faces and becoming unstable. As the Breitling-3 crew discovered in Myanmar, this can make a balloon shoot up and down quite disconcertingly. This was also a problem for the Double Eagle flying over the mountainous terrain of Maine and eastern Canada which they crossed before entering the Atlantic. As a result they were forced to expend considerably more ballast than planned.
Of course no balloonist wants to land in the sea, but it is the easiest place to fly since there no one tries to prevent it. In many parts of the land this is not the case. Area 51 in the southwestern United States is a no-fly zone because it is a training zone for multiple bases of the United States Air Force. (It also contains Roswell, the rumored location of captured aliens.) The airspace over Iraq remains a no-fly zone as a result of the Gulf War. Libya has been sensitive about overflights of its country by Westerners ever since the Anglo-American bombings. The Peoples Republic of China is concerned about flights over its western regions, site of its nuclear weapons deployments, and Tibet. In addition, there are remote areas where no air traffic controllers do not have radar and where, should a balloon be forced to land, it might take a very long time for rescue teams to arrive, potentially causing a loss of face for China. In 1999 the Breitling-3 team in a six-week negotiation arranged permission for a precise corridor over which to fly across this large country. Later that year Richard Branson, faced with a sudden wind change flew his balloon into Tibet and central China without permission, explaining that it was impossible to land on the mountainous terrain at the border. This caused China to immediately ban all balloon flights within its borders and partly because of this, both Kevin Uliassi and Jacques Soukup had to give up their attempts. The Breitling-3 team re-opened negotiations and eventually balloonists were once again allowed, but only in the narrow strip south of the 26th parallel of latitude. For more, read "Branson balloon avoids Iraq" from the Augusta Chronicle.
Polar Vortex
The Weather term for the area north of the temperate zone. In this region, reduced sunlight results in cooling of the air. Cold air sinking to the ground produces a weak northerly and easterly flow in the atmosphere. These polar easterlies rotate around the globe in the opposite direction of the mid-latitude westerlies. In the game this means that a balloon trapped in the Polar Vortex tends to be pushed backwards.
Solar Panels
Solar panels are photovoltaic cells on an assembly which hangs off a line connected to the capsule. During the day they collect solar energy which is converted to electricity used by the balloonists to power their instruments and provide heat for the capsule. If the Balloon should pass through a thunderstorm which damages the panels and this energy is lost, the pilots can compensate by burning Fuel, but doing this is to consume a precious resource needed to heat the Envelope. Photo of the Breitling-2 solar panel assembly.
Weather, and its study, called "meteorology," are absolutely critical for balloonists. The successful Breitling-3 around-the-world voyage employed two meteorologists using the best weather data gathered from satellites, radio balloons, aircraft and ships and working around the the clock to ensure that the balloon was always situated in the optimal winds. In the game, the general weather pattern is reflected by the Quadrant cards while local conditions are shown by the Local Wind cards. In addition, some Misfortune cards reflect Bad Weather conditions which have unpredictable effects on Balloon positions. Read more.


Sources consulted in creation of the game:


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