Monday, October 1, 2012

Beautiful Balloon

by Suzie Johnson
Before you start reading this, close your eyes and try to remember the first time you ever saw a hot air balloon. Was it in the air? In a book? In a movie?

For me, the answer is easy. The Wizard of Oz. My earliest memory of a hot air balloon is in black, white, and sepia when Dorothy meets the old professor in the Kansas countryside before the famous twister that sends them to Oz.

When you think of going up in a hot air balloon, do you feel a sense of awe? Excitement? A sense of freedom and adventure? Or something else? Fear? Vertigo?

For me it’s all of the above. I’m terrified to fly. Once in the air, however, I do enjoy looking out the window and trying to identify everything I can see. While I’m not afraid of roller coasters, I am afraid to stand on something high like the Space Needle observation deck, Deception Pass Bridge, or the deck of the fake Eiffel Tower at King’s Island in Cincinnati.

I get the sense that I’m being pulled over the side. For that reason alone, I’m afraid of the balloons.

This weekend I was supposed to conquer that fear. My mother and I have been planning for almost a year to go to the hot air balloon festival in Prosser, Washington. It’s something she dearly wants to experience. And even though riding a balloon was not on my list of things to do ever, I knew I wanted to suck it up and go with my mother. So I’ve been alternately dreading and looking forward to it for months; praying a lot and planning to find the courage to climb into one and float gently up into the atmosphere. Or is that the stratosphere…?

Courtesy of Joe DeShon via Wikimedia Commons
Unfortunately, our plans had to change and we weren’t able to go so our adventure has to be put off – which means I have another year to pray and gather my courage.

In the meantime, I decided to look up some info about hot air balloons. And since this post was originally meant to share my adventure with you, I’m sharing some of what I’ve learned about the history of hot air ballooning.

In 1709, a priest named Bartolemeu Lourenco de Gusmao presented a flying machine to the court in Portugal. His inspiration for the machine was a soap bubble rising in the hot air of a candle flame. His first attempt was a small balloon made of paper that he lit on fire. It burned up before it could rise.

Undaunted, Bartolemeu returned to court two days later and this time his balloon rose toward the ceiling. It was destroyed before it could reach the ceiling and set the palace on fire. Three days later Bartolemeu launched another balloon that rose slowly into the air and came back to the ground when the flame went out.

This balloon called a passarola, was said to have been made in the shape of a bird.

Several decades later, two French brothers, Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier became pioneers in ballooning history. They were paper makers from Annonay France, so it only makes sense that they fashioned their first balloon out of paper. Shaped like a parallelogram and filled with burning straw, their experiment rose about 300 meters in 1781. Undaunted, they continued experimenting, and a year later launched another paper balloon by lighting a cauldron of paper beneath the balloon. This one reached approximately 6500 feet.

1783 brought more success. Jacques A. C. Charles launched his balloon and fueled it with hydrogen. It rose to an altitude of 3000 feet and traveled 15 miles before landing in a village where it was destroyed by frightened peasants.

A month later, the Mongolfier brothers were at it again – this time launching a balloon that had a gondola attached beneath it. In that gondola, at the order of Louis XVI, were a collection of barnyard animals that stayed airborne for approximately eight minutes.

You can all rest assured, because it is said the animals all survived without harm and without damage to their reproductive powers.

Soon after, the two men launched another balloon. This time with human passengers. Pilatre de Rosier and the Marquis d’Arlandes were the first known men to go up in a balloon that wasn’t tethered to the ground. They ascended 3000 feet and travelled for 7 miles before landing outside of Paris.

Not to be outdone by the Mongolfier brothers, Pilatre de Rozier decided to make his own balloon. In 1785 he and his friend Pierre de Romain, planned to fly to England. Unfortunately, the first known man to go up in a balloon also became the first known man to die in a balloon. They were almost 3000 feet in the air when the hydrogen exploded.

This was just the beginning of a fascinating history that involved the first “airmail” letter, the first flight in North America that was witnessed by George Washington, and the first crossing of the English Channel. These all preceded the fictional characters we’ve come to love like Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days and my own favorite, the old man Dorothy met in Kansas who is also known as the Wizard of Oz.

Next year, hopefully (I think), I’ll have some pictures to share of my own ballooning adventure.

Do you remember the first time you saw a hot air balloon?
Have you ever ridden in a hot air balloon?

Suzie Johnson’s debut novel, No Substitute, a contemporary inspirational novel, will be released November 30, 2012 by White Rose Press. She is a member of ACFW, RWA, and is the cancer registrar at her local hospital. The mother of a wonderful young man, who makes her proud every day, Suzie lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and naughty little cat.  You can visit her at the following places:

Chymia by Clement Duvall; Vol 12; University of California Press; pg 99


  1. Suzie, I just thought of the hot air balloon in the move The Count of Monte Cristo (the one with Jim Caviezal)

    And... just this week I read a post by Laurie Alice Eakes about ballooning. Her latest regency, A Flight of Fancy features them.

    I would go in a heartbeat (so what if I'm afraid of heights. After parasailing, I found out that the thrill and beauty outweighed the fear.

    Loved your research. Aren't they fascinating? When one just happens to be up in the sky, I have to stop what I'm doing and watch (especially if I'm on the interstate). We have a few balloon festivals around here and just this summer, the local history museum launched an 'antique' balloon similar to the ones used during the Civil War for scouting. That fascinates me.

  2. Laurie Alice Eakes's book featuring a hot air balloon releases today, Suzie. You have to check out the cover if you haven't seen it yet. It's gorgeous. Maybe my favorite cover of all time. The book is high on my to be read stack right now.

  3. Deb, I know this sounds crazy considering I'm nervous about the balloon, but I would love to go parasailing. I planned to go once but broke my leg about a week before so couldn't go. One of these days. I wonder, if I go ballooning for my mom, do you think she'll go parasailing for me? ;-)

  4. Dina, I jut heard about Laurie Alice's book. I'll have to find it. If it's your favorite cover of all time, it must be stunning because you have some gorgeous covers yourself. Laurie is a good writer so I'll definitely get this one.

  5. Ooh, fun post, Suzie. I haven't been up in a hot air balloon, but my parents have. I'm a little chicken.

    I love the research. I learned a lot!

    Oh, Laurie's book is on my TBR stack too. It does have a pretty cover.

  6. Parasailing can be a bit more uncomfortable. You are strapped into a harness that has a built-in seat. Lots of wide nylon straps around the body and a life jacket besides. I felt like an astronaut.

    I wonder if there were hot air balloons at the Great Exhibition in 1840s?

  7. I was hoping you were going to report on your hot air balloon experience! I too go back and forth between wanting to go up in a hot air balloon and being afraid. Someday!!

  8. Hi Susie. Did your parents like their experience? Would they do it again?

  9. But Deb, those uncomfortable straps would be what gave me a sense (false?) of security.

    I'll check into the Great Exhibition and see if balloons were there.

  10. Elaine! I'll tell you what ... you come down to WA next summer and we can talk each other into it in between crying and wringing our hands in terror. I do think it would be so beautiful, though.

  11. That sounds like a plan! I understand it is beautiful up in the balloon...! And the little I've seen of WA is beautiful...! OR you could come here and we'd float over the prairie! :)

  12. Elaine, would I have to fly in a plane to get there? Just kidding. I bet a balloon over the prairie would be lovely. Hey, didn't little Laura Ingalls go up in a balloon on Little House? By herself?

    I forgot about the movie UP when I was writing this. They had a pretty awesome adventure with that balloon.


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