Several of the 20th century’s most famous gas balloonists were based in Albuquerque, which is proud to be called the hot-air ballooning capital of the world. Among the adventurers who chalked up record long-distance gas flights were Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman, who became the first to cross the Atlantic in their Double Eagle II. But the history of their sport has its roots in Europe in the 1700s, where several people experimented for years with the idea of putting people in flight.

Gas ballooning finally took off in 1783, within months of the first-ever unmanned hot-air flight. This new science of aviation was born in France, about the same time the United States was wrapping up its War of Independence against England. Those first balloon builders, French papermakers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier, used heated air to make their craft rise. Not fully understanding the principles of lighter-than-air flight, they thought smoke from a straw fire did the trick. From the date of an early public flight in 1783 -- with a balloon carrying a duck, a rooster, and a sheep -- hot-air balloons have been called the Montgolfier type. It took a real scientist, Parisian physicist Jacques A.C. Charles to figure out that other gases that are lighter than air should cause balloons to rise. He believed that hydrogen would work as a lifting gas, and he found engineers who could make fabric air-tight by rubberizing it.

For Professor Charles’ first flight, which also was unmanned, it took three days to fill the balloon with hydrogen, but it finally flew to the cheers of a crowd in Paris. Gas balloons are still called the Charliere-type in honor of their developer. Human flight began with a daring young man who had helped recover the animals from the Montgolfier flight – unharmed except for the rooster, whose wing may have been hurt during the rough landing in a tree. Jean Francois Pilatre de Rozier, working with a friend, the marquis D’Arlandes, convinced the skeptical French king to let them be the first human aeronauts. They took off on Nov. 21, 1783, and landed safely 25 minutes later. The dream of human flight had finally become a reality. Ten days later, Professor Charles flew in his gas balloon. He had already solved the most important problems of balloon flight.

From his time until today, the tube under the balloon, called the appendix, would remain open in flight, and he added a valve that let pilots fly lower by letting gas out of the balloon. His Dec. 1, 1783, flight went 27 miles. Today’s gas balloonists use many of the professor’s methods, which included using sand for ballast.

Gas Ballooning Milestones


Balloon fever covers the globe, and most balloons use gas.


Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries cross the English Channel. The world’s first balloonist, de Rozier, dies in his experimental aircraft made by combining a hydrogen balloon with a hot-air balloon. However, this basic design, called a Rozier-type balloon, is still used for some extreme long-distance ballooning.


U.S. President George Washington observes the first North American balloon flight.


Balloons are used through the U.S. Civil War and both World Wars for spying and communication.

Mid-1860s to 1960s

Gas balloons dominate the hot-air balloon until a modern burner is developed to heat air.


Auguste Piccard of Switzerland flies into the stratosphere in the first use of a pressurized capsule. Climbing to an altitude of 52,498 feet, he sets an altitude record.


A helium gas balloon sets an altitude record of 72,395 feet, or 13.7 miles, with two people on board. The flight proves that people can survive in pressurized cabins at very high altitudes and opens the door to space travel.


A record for the highest parachute jump is set by Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger, who jumps from his balloon at 102,800 feet, breaking the sound barrier with his body.


 U.S. Navy fliers Malcolm Ross and Victor A. Prather ascend to 113,739.9 feet. They land in the Gulf of Mexico, where Prather drowns due to a malfunction of his pressure suit.


 First balloon to succeed in crossing the Atlantic, the Double Eagle II, carries Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman. They also set a duration record by flying 137 hours.


First Pacific balloon crossing accomplished in the Double Eagle V, carrying Ben Abruzzo, Larry Newman, Ron Clark, and Rocky Aoki of Japan. They launched from Nagashimi, Japan, and landed 84 hours, 31 minutes later in Mendocino National Forest in California, setting a new distance record of 5,768 miles.


Joe Kittinger makes the first solo trans-Atlantic balloon flight, crossing 3,535 miles from Maine to Italy in his helium balloon.


Richard Abruzzo, son of Ben Abruzzo, and Troy Bradley set an absolute world duration record. They flew from Bangor, Maine, to Morocco in the combination-type gas and hot-air balloon called a de Rozier.


Steve Fossett makes the first solo trans-Pacific flight, flying for four days from Seoul, Korea, to Mendham, Saskatchewan.


Bob Berben and Benoit Simeons of Belgium travel 3400 kilometers (2112 miles), from Albuquerque to southeastern Quebec Province in Canada, setting the new record for farthest distance traveled.  They were able to break the old record by 1209 km (751 miles).


Troy Bradley and Leonid Tiukhtyaev set distance and duration records on a flight from Saga, Japan, to Baja California, Mexico. Official time aloft is 160 h 34 min, distance is 10,711.6 km (6,655.9 mi)