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The enduring appeal of hot air balloons


When the Marquis d’Arlandes and Pilatre de Rozier made the first manned free-balloon flight in 1783, the event was witnessed by thousands of people. Since time immemorial ordinary people have flocked to gaze upon daring feats – from the gladiators of ancient Rome to the intrepid aeronauts and aviators of modern times – in the hope of witnessing some death-defying or even death-inducing act in their very presence. Aeronautics was both turned into a public spectacle and exploited financially from its very beginning and thus it has remained ever since.

In the nineteenth century, hot-air balloons were sumptuous and spectacular. The following description of balloonist James Sadler’s twenty-first ascent shows just how much work went into attracting the public’s eye. 

Sadler’s crimson and gold-striped balloon, 40ft tall and 36ft in diameter, was fully inflated with hydrogen gas – a time-consuming process which had begun the previous day. The balloon, publicly displayed for the first time in Cambridge, presented a kaleidoscope of rich colours, its fabric, 3,632 sq.ft of the finest silk, shimmering in the weak sunlight. Around its girth were three horizontal bands of different colours, one carrying the following inscription: Celciss, Princeps Gulieimus Fredericus, Dux Gloucestrix, Acad. Cantab, Cancellarius Electus MDCCCXI. (Roughly translated as, His Highness, Prince George Frederick, Duke of Gloucester, elected
Chancellor of Cambridge University 1811) 

Suspended beneath the balloon, the car itself was a splendid sight to behold. It, too, was richly ornamented in a style that everyone agreed did Mr Sadler a great credit, having spared no expense to honour the illustrious prince whose name adorned the fabric. The car, 11ft long, 4ft wide and 3ft deep, was constructed of wickerwork covered with azure-coloured figured silk, studded with silver stars and made all the more striking by the addition of wreaths of laurel leaves arranged along the bottom. Six gilt ropes secured it below the balloon to a hoop adorned by a drapery of crimson satin, trimmed with golden acorns and bordered round the top with a wreath of oak leaves cut from gold foil. The drapery was secured to the hoop by loops of golden twist, and regency plumes were fixed to the seams of the car as two small silk flags fluttered in the breeze. It was a truly magnificent spectacle to behold.

Then, ‘amidst an immense concourse of spectators’, the veteran aeronaut and his friend John Burcham, from Swaffham in Norfolk, took their places in the open carriage beneath the ‘aerostat’ (balloon). At 2.20 p.m., final restraining ropes were cast off and the crimson and gold silk balloon rose majestically into the sky. Gaining height rapidly and heading east, after a few minutes it was enveloped by clouds and lost to view.

The dramatic spectacle of a hot-air balloon ascent hasn’t lost its appeal in the twenty-first century. Many thousands of avid earth-bound viewers flock to balloon festivals throughout the world to witness the colourful designs and impressive shapes of today’s continually evolving designs and to gaze, in awe, at the freedom afforded to the lucky balloonists within.

Hot air balloon rides also offer unforgettable experiences, breath-taking views and scenic landscapes from a unique perspective. If you’ve been inspired to take flight, why not check out the fantastic range of hot air ballooning experiences available from Red Letter Days?

Extracted from Balloons, Blériots and Barnstormers: 200 Years of Flying for Fun by Alastair Goodrum

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