Aviation history: Human flights with balloons


Amid a host of dreamers, some true scientists distinguished themselves and the 17th century was a period of great learning and scientific accomplishments. The discovery of hydrogen gas in the 18th century led to the invention of the hydrogen balloon, at almost exactly the same time that the Montgolfier brothers discovered the hot-air balloon and began manned flights. Man got off the grounds and stayed up for any length of time.


Belize – 16 May 1983

Flying boat by Francesco de Lana-Terzi.

The idea of using Archimedes’s buoyancy principle to rise in the atmosphere by creating an object lighter than the air it displaces had been introduced by an Italian Jesuit priest named Francesco de Lana-Terzi (1631-1687) who forecast how man would eventually cut the bonds of gravity.  He believed correctly that a vessel containing no air was lighter than one that did; in 1670, he completed the first proper design for a lighter-than-air craft, comprising a boat hull with mast and sail borne up by four tethered paper-thin copper spheres from which all the air had to be extracted. In fact, Lana did not perceive the most serious shortcoming in his proposal: atmosphere pressure would have crushed the flimsy copper vacuum spheres.

São Tomé and Príncipe - 1979

Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão.


Lana’s work represented the first scientific effort to design a lighter-than-air craft; in fact, he conceived the forerunner of the balloon that was to come during the 18th century.


The Portuguese Brazilian-born Jesuit, Father Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão (1676-1724), a brilliant student of physics and mathematics, became interested in aerostation and, thanks to the royal patronage, demonstrated on 8 August 1709 a model hot-air balloon before King John V and Queen Maria Anna of Portugal, Cardinal Conti, and members of the court and the +diplomatic corps; the rounded envelope of thick paper was inflated by heated air from burning materials carried in a suspended earthenware bowl. Further to de Gusmão’s successful model of hot-air device, he should be given a prominent place in aviation history, as the principle of using hot air became an important milestone human flight in 1783.


Mali - 2001

Henry Cavendish

France – 1943 Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier


Somalia 1977 - 30th Anniversary of ICAO

Montgolfier highly decorated hot-air balloon, as per flight on 21 November 1783.


Guinea Bissau 2008

Montgolfier Brothers and their balloon.



Chad - Vanuatu - 1983

Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert into the air on 1 December 1783

Later, English scientist Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) discovered in 1766 a gas burning very readily that he called phlogiston gas (or inflammable air); this gas was later known as hydrogen. This should have stirred someone to realize that hydrogen gas could be used to fill a balloon and the result would be a lighter-than-air object. In 1783, the French chemist Lavoisier coined the name ‘hydrogen’ for the gas which Henry Cavendish had recognized earlier as ‘inflammable air’.


Although he never succeeded with a full-scale model, De Gusmão’s demonstration was a perfect miniature blueprint for the larger hot-air balloons that appeared almost three quarters of a century later with the French Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne. The first public demonstration of a hot-air balloon by the Montgolfier brothers was made on 4 June 1783; when released, the balloon of linen and paper rose to a height of 300 m and flew for over a mile. On 19 September of the same year, they conducted a royal demonstration at the royal palace in Versailles, in the presence of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette; three passengers - a rooster, a duck and a sheep - were carried in a wicker basket for a balloon flight as guinea pigs in order to test the effect of high altitude on live creatures. With the successful demonstration at Versailles, Etienne Montgolfier started construction of a 1,700 m3 balloon for the purpose of making flights with humans. The balloon was tested in tethered or captive flights on 15 October by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a twenty-six-year-old physician, who offered his services. On 21 November 1783, the first free (untethered) flight by humans was made by Pilâtre, together with an army officer, the Marquis François-Laurent d’Arlandes; they landed five miles away, some twenty-five minutes after launching, reaching a height of 900 meters. The balloon was propelled by an iron furnace.


One of the old dreams of humankind then had been realized, taken from testing a concept to a real flight in the span of one year. That event is often considered the first-time humankind flew, more than a century before the Wright Brothers took to the skies.


A period of balloon madness ensued the first manned flight, especially with the hydrogen balloons which slowly took prominence and offered greater possibilities. Less than two weeks after the groundbreaking Montgolfier flight, Frenchman Jacques (Alexandre César) Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert made the first untethered ascension with gas hydrogen balloon on 1 December 1783. In addition to being a vehicle of pleasure, balloons became also used for military purposes, i.e., as observation/reconnaissance platforms or bombardments; soon they also became of interest to scientists to explore the mysteries of upper air and to aerial photographs. But the lack of an effective propulsion device ruled out any commercial transport by balloon.


Balloonists had solved only one of manned flight’s problems, i.e., lifting from the ground and floating into the air essentially at the mercy of the prevailing wind; but flight means controlling the wind and requires three indispensable factors: lift, power and aerodynamic control.


Compared to Europe, ballooning was slow to develop in the United States even though respected Americans such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson told the American public about the aeronautical developments in Europe. False reports in the U.S. press of flights probably contributed to the public's disinterest and scepticism.


When the first hot-air balloon took to the skies in 1783, people began to realize that ad coelum could lead to absurdly trivial trespass violations when a traveller simply passes over someone’s land. The first aerial regulation or trace of aviation law in history was issued by the Paris police on 23 April 1784, by prohibiting balloons to fly without prior special licence; it was a police directive aimed at protecting the population of the French capital, as hot-air balloons often carry with them a small fire to keep the air inside the balloon hot; the potential for disaster was very real. The Paris police also prohibited anyone without experience from piloting a balloon. These were the first pieces of aeronautical legislation.


Following the successful flight by the Montgolfier brothers, the idea of ballooning captured the public’s imagination and quickly became an object of widespread interest and fascination. Balloons remained popular and hundreds of free balloon flights were recorded in the years following the first flight in 1783. The balloon provided inspiration for science-fiction writers, invaded the art, proved to be an ideal subject for caricature, etc.


Poland 1981 - Blanchard and Jeffries Balloon


Belize 1983 - Royal Vauxhall balloon over the thames and over the steel-producing area of Liege in Belgium.

One significant event to be highlighted is the crossing of the Channel by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries from Dover, England, to Calais, France, in a gas balloon, becoming the first to cross the English Channel by air on 7 January 1785; it was the first international manned-balloon flight. Just before reaching the French coast, the two balloonists were forced to throw nearly everything out of the balloon in a desperate, but apparently successful attempt to lighten the ship. Internationalism in aviation was clearly at the doorstep of sovereign governments. On 15 June 1785, Pilâtre de Rozier and Pierre Romain wanted to emulate Blanchard/Jeffries flight in the opposite direction, but their balloon caught fire about half an hour after take-off and both became aerostation’s first fatalities.


In 1819, the Chief of Police of the Seine introduced regulations requiring all balloon operations be equipped with a parachute. While earlier regulations more focused on addressing issues relating to aircraft impacting the ground, this rule appears to have been the first to promote safety on board an aircraft.


Without reporting here all records by balloon leading to the dawn of flight by the end of the 19th century, an impressive and well-known flight in history took place on 7 November 1836 with the Royal Vauxhall balloon constructed by Englishmen Charles Green. The balloon ascended from London’s Vauxhall Garden at 1:30p.m. and crossed the channel from Dover the same evening; then it drifted over the steel-producing area of Liege, Belgium and descended safely on 8 November at Weilburg in Nassau, Germany for a distance of five hundred miles in eighteen hours. It was renamed the Great Nassau Balloon.






Centenary of Giffard’s tethered massive balloon that was installed in the courtyard of the Tuileries during the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878 during which it carried 35,000 passengers.

The first successful dirigible was constructed by the French engineer Henri Giffard (1825-1882), who made the first powered and controlled flight travelling 27 km on 24 September 1852; it was the world's first passenger-carrying airship (then known as a dirigible). This marked the introduction of the term “dirigible”, meaning steerable as applied to airships.

The airship was powered with a 3 hp steam engine weighing over 180 kg and travelled at about 10 kilometers/hour. Giffard perfected the hydrogen manufacturing process on the eve of the construction of his new giant balloon (Le Grand Ballon Captif); he built a 25,000 m3 captive balloon for the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878, capable of carrying up to 50 passengers. This balloon, located in Les Tuileries, was one of the exhibition’s main attractions; a dozen climbs a day took the passengers up to more than 500 meters.


A 5-cent crystal blue stamp, shown here at the right side, for balloon postage was privately issued in Nashville to carry mail on 18 June 1877 from that city to Gallatin, Tennessee, USA on the balloon named Buffalo built by Samuel Archer King (1828-1914). This stamp occupies an important place in postal history; Three hundred stamps were printed and 23 were used on US mail carried by the Buffalo balloon. It became the world’s first airmail stamp, listed as a semi-official stamp. The Buffalo was not a powered balloon and was dependent on air currents for lateral movement. King reportedly dropped over the side some of the letters that he carried, in hopes that they would be found by someone along the route and deposited into the regular mail system.


The Buffalo stamp

The word aviation was coined by the French writer and former naval officer Gabriel La Landelle in 1863. He derived the term from the Latin word avis (bird) and actio (action). The word avion in French was created around 1875 by Clément Ader, a French inventor and engineer, remembered primarily for his pioneering in aviation.


On 9 August 1884, a fully steerable airship La France flew 23 minutes using electric power from batteries turning the propellers. It was the first full round-trip flight with starting and landing points. The day of controlled mechanical flight had finally arrived.


The method of transportation by balloon was of little practical unless the direction and speed could be controlled, since balloons are carried along by the wind. Some pioneers experimented large sails, flapping wings, oars, or steering devices. The balloon would eventually develop into a navigable dirigible, i.e., an elongated balloon supplied by a power source and a means of steering it. But it was not until the arrival of the internal combustion engine that the dream of dirigibles would to be fully realized.


Apart from the observation and communication purposes, the military soon realized the potential of the nascent aviation for the bombardment of enemy targets. The First International Peace Conference held from 18 May to 29 July 1899 at The Hague prohibited the discharge of projectiles or explosives launched from balloons, or by other new methods of a similar nature, for a period of five years, in any war between signatory powers.


Augusto Severo de Albuquerque Maranhão (1864-1902) was a Brazilian politician, journalist, inventor and aeronaut. On 12 May 1902, he died, together with his French mechanic, Georges Saché, when they were flying over Paris in an airship called Pax. The following cover was issued in 1977 to mark the 75th anniversary of his death.



First Day Cover - France 13 March 1973 – Bicentennial of human flight

With the emergence of new materials and propane-gas flame as heating agent, colourful and popular hot-air balloons have staged a remarkable comeback as a popular sport. Hot-air balloons became known as Montgolfières and hydrogen balloons as Charlières.


The bicentennial of human flight with balloons was celebrated at ICAO with an exhibition displaying major events in the history of flight as well as prospects of space techniques for civil aviation. Several art works and historical posters on aviation were on view including a Gobelins tapestry on The History of Flight donated to ICAO by France in 1975, and children’s art works from some 30 countries which were selected as a result of an international children’s art contest under the general theme of A World That Moves on Wings launched on the occasion of the International Year of the Child in 1978 and the 75th anniversary of the first heavier-than-air engine-powered flight.


Guyana – 26 October 1984 - 40th Anniversary of ICAO

Sheetlet of 25 stamps with a serial number.

The original issue of 1980 was later overprinted twice.

The first overprint was for the bicentennial of the first manned flight (1783‑1983) and the 20th anniversary of Guyana Airways.

The second overprint was for the 40th anniversary of ICAO.

 The three letters correspond to IATA airport codes in Guyana.

The main airport, Timehri International, is near Georgetown.

Note that Mont Golfier should be written in one word: Montgolfier.


Uganda – 29 October 1984 – 40th Anniversary of ICAO

Hot‑air balloons race  


The History of Flight tapestry with half-cross stitch in coloured wool was woven in 1963 by Gilka Blécu Geoffray at the Gobelins manufacture.

It is based on a cartoon by Jacques Villon (1875-1963) who derived the composition from four pictures painted in 1939-1940 by Albert Gleizes (1881-1953). In 1960, the French Painter Albert Voisin (also named Vanber, 1905-1994) was charged by Gleize’s spouse to create the tapestry box for the Gobelins manufacture.

Portrayed are four persons of legend and history connected with flight: Leonardo da Vinci, Aladdin, Sinbad and Icarus. Signed at the lower right: Gleizes – Gilka / Wander. Size: 140x430cm.

It was offered in 1975 by France to ICAO and is now exhibited at Headquarters, Montréal in the Conference Center. The Gobelins factory wove a second copy, which supposedly is at the Rochefort Air Force School.


One of the seven children’s drawings, resulting from the international art contest, shown at ICAO Headquarters on the fifth floor of the Conference Center.