Friday, September 28, 2012

Taking to the Sky

by Laurie Alice Eakes

From at least as far back as the origins of the Greek myths, flight of man has fascinated man (and woman). Many tried and pretty much all failed--until the hot air balloon.

No one is quite sure who invented the idea of filling a bag with hot air and attaching a car AKA the basket for flight. As with many inventions, speculation and half-formed theories abound from the Chinese, to the people of the Nazca culture in Peru. Europeans, however, made ballooning a reality to the early modern world.

In 1783, two Frenchmen, de Rozier, along with Marquis François d'Arlandes, took to the sky in the first untethered flight. Before this, many men had sailed aloft while the balloon remained attached to the earth by ropes; therefore, the highest flight was only 80 feet and not precisely flying.

Flying is rather a misnomer with ballooning. In truth, all one can do in a balloon is drift. With favorable wind currents, you may even get where you want to go. Balloons, however, are not steerable. Many tried to find a way to do so, but none proved effective. Balloonists raised and lowered the level of the balloon through air flow, in order to find the most favorable wind currents.

In the early years, before propane tanks to fill the balloon with hot air, going far, even with favorable currents, was not particularly feasible for the simple fact that they needed to carry fuel and a great deal of it for two simple reasons. First of all, the air did not stay in the balloon due to the lack of air-tight fabric, and at the high elevations at which people flew, the air cooled off rather quickly and the balloon began to sink.

Some chemical compounds helped with the air seepage. These included rather combustible chemicals such as bird lime, which was an oily substance used by hunters to make birds stick to tree branches. When mixed and added to linseed oil, aeronauts cooked it to the right consistency as a sealant. It worked fairly well, but if it got near fire. . .Poof!

Balloonists also double-stitched the silk of the balloon fabric, which helped the seals. All that was still not good enough. The hot air needed constant replenishment.

Those men and women who took man into the skies went up in a wooden basket with live fire, straw, iron shavings, and acid.

A brazier held the fire, which the aeronaut fed regularly with straw to keep it going. If that fire extinguished, the air would cool, the balloon would sink, and the passengers would likely die in a crash. If the brazier spilled. . . Well, fire was a very real and too often deadly possibility.

Above the fire, the balloonist suspended a beaker filled with iron shavings and acid. When heated, this toxic combination formed hydrogen. That hydrogen rose from the beaker to the balloon through a wax-coated canvas tube. (At on October 8, 2012, I will discuss what happened to an Irish aeronaut when his tubing and balloon separated in flight.)

Ballooning is still not precisely a safe form of flight. Using a propane tank at tent thousand feet above the earth holds its risks, and balloons are still subject to whimsical and capricious wind currents. But propane seems positively foolproof compared to going aloft with live fire, and acid. Just the idea of going aloft with live fire creating hydrogen, a highly flammable element, makes me queasy. Yet the men and, yes, women who pioneered balloon flight considered the risk worth the experience and potential for navigation.

Sadly, especially for those who died in the trying, ballooning never became a viable form of transportation. With the need to carry live fire and fuel and being subject to the direction of the wind, no one could, for example, sail over enemy territory during a war. Balloons just did not have that kind of range. What the aeronauts did for the future of flying was let mankind know it could be done and thousands of people—now probably billions—would take to the skies when someone invented a navigable machine.

About Laurie Alice Eakes

“Eakes has a charming way of making her novels come to life without being over the top,” writes Romantic times of bestselling, award-winning author Laurie Alice Eakes. Since she lay in bed as a child telling herself stories, she has fulfilled her dream of becoming a published author with a dozen books and novellas in print and more on the way. A graduate of Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate program, she also teaches writing and gives inspirational talks to women’s groups. She lives in Texas with her husband, dogs, and cats.

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  1. Thanks for sharing this excellent information on ballooning!

    Once I had the thrilling experience of watching what at first I took to be a rising circus tent on a school field, but the tent went up and up and formed a gigantic balloon -- which eventually drifted up and away with a few brave souls in what looked like a very big egg basket. Cars and a first aid van went off in fierce pursuit of the balloon's general, wandering course -- and I felt happily safe with my feet firmly on the ground.

    Your description of the early means of lofting sets one's teeth on edge. However, you don't mention dirigibles -- navigatable balloons, which ceased to be popular after the spectacular crash and burn of the Hindenburg in New Jersey.

  2. You will not get me up in a hot air balloon. I will admire from the safety of the ground thank you.

  3. I think of modern day ballooning as rather safe and I think i'd go in a heartbeat and I have a fear of heights! But silly me seems to feel that these early balloons were a bit trickier--which only makes me want to read your story more. Flight of Fancy has such a lovely cover!

  4. Although he's not entirely an historical character, I would like to mention Daedalus Le Pilote (b. Claude Villon, Montpellier 1809. d. Sevastopol 1855): The eldest son of a circus owner, Daedalus Le Pilote was a French pioneer of hot air ballooning who performed in his native country and in the Low-Countries, Angaland and Quebeck (sic). In an attempt to convince French High Command of the practical uses of ballooning, he sailed for the Crimea in the spring of 1855 where he was fatally injured by Russian artillery while observing enemy positions, earning him the distinction of being the first, and for over fifty years, the only casualty of aerial warfare.

    I shouldn't try googling him, though.

  5. Ballooning is fascinating to watch but I am not one who would willingly agree to go up in one. I will leave that to people who are true dare devils. However, watching them leaves me totally in awe. Dirigibles really scare me! After seeing films of the Hindenburg go down in flames, the thought of flying in one gives me the creeps. OK. Now that I sounds like a real weenie, I have to say that I love to fly on an airplane and that makes me feel much safer than these other modes of air travel. Isn't it amazing what these brave inventors have created? Wow!

  6. So interesting! I'm really enjoying the ballooning twist as I'm reading Flight of Fancy right now. But I'm not sure I'd actually want to go up in one of them!

  7. In a way, it's amazing people actually did it. But some will always let their imaginations take them away.

  8. It's so interesting how much knowledge our forefathers had. Too bad they were limited to short flights and not able to travel very far. But then, can you imagine if they could and were used during war time? Oh my goodness! That would be a frightening sight to see hundreds of balloons littering the sky as a battle in the air ensued. Wonderful post, Laurie Alice. Your knowledge of these things is incredible!

  9. I marveled while at the Smithsonian when they showed the display of the early balloon flights. I'm with Marybelle--none for me, thanks! LOL I get dizzy just holding a helium balloon. ;) Wonderful info, and it sounds like Flight of Fancy promises to be a great read.

  10. I didn't get into blimps, as they have engines, which is why they can be steered. And way past when I researched because too contemporary for my historical scope.

    I wouldn't have gone up with live fire and acid. No thank you. Now. . . I think I would.

    The early balloonists were fascinating people. One was a female. Sophie Blanchard. She made a fortune--literally--doing demo flights. She flew over the Alps, but then she could, being French and not flying over enemy territory.

    This post was focused more on the Regency era of ballooning for obvious reasons--I'm a Regency author.


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