A Brief History
On February 26, 2013, a sightseeing hot air balloon over Luxor, Egypt, was carrying 20 passengers and the pilot when something went horribly wrong. A leaking fuel line caused a fire to break out on the balloon when it was only a few meters off the ground, and the ensuing flames caused the balloon to rise dramatically. Engulfed in flames, some passengers jumped out of the gondola to their deaths, while others stayed in the passenger compartment until the balloon exploded, killing 19 of the 21 people that had been aboard, the worst death toll in hot air ballooning history.
The art of hot air ballooning started back in 1783 when a balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers in Paris, France, took 2 men on the first ever hot air balloon ride. Using the physical laws that hot air is lighter than cooler air, a “gas bag” envelope, or balloon, was filled with hot air from a heat source, such as a fire, which in turn carries aloft a passenger compartment, or gondola, carrying cargo or people. Balloons found favor with adventurers and military types, providing fantastic views of scenery or of a battlefield. Later attempts at ballooning included the use of lighter than air gasses, such as the highly flammable Hydrogen or the inert, but rare, Helium. Using hot air, normally fueled by propane burners is the method of choice for most modern balloonists other than those seeking extremely high altitude records.
Hot air ballooning is a popular sport, both for travel over long distances and for short, even tethered, rides to thrill locals at venues such as country fairs. In Luxor, Egypt, the hot air balloon for tourists made a wonderful way for tourists to view the Pyramids and Egyptian countryside from aloft, a memorable experience we would think. In 1999, Frenchman Bertrand Piccard became the first person to fly all the way around the world non-stop in a hot air balloon, and in 2002, American Steve Fossett matched the feat and even beat Piccard’s time. Hot air balloon festivals, often called “Balloonfest” or the like, are a popular gathering of balloonists and people curious about watching the beautiful gas bags as well as those looking for a thrilling ride. Major American balloon festivals are held annually in such venues as the Arizona Balloon Classic in Goodyear, Arizona, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico, or the Ashland Balloon Fest in Ashland, Ohio. Other countries also hold hot air balloon festivals and gatherings.
In spite of modern technology, hot air ballooning remains a potentially deadly sport, with the vagaries of the wind largely to blame. Balloons can be blown into power lines, tall towers, buildings, or dragged along the ground. Careful analysis of the weather and prior planning is essential to a successful flight. Balloonists are also highly trained and licensed, just like airplane pilots. The balloons themselves are also regulated, licensed and inspected. Still, accidents happen, and in 2007, 2008, and 2009 such mishaps occurred in the Luxor area with sightseeing balloons. Sometimes mechanical problems are the cause of the mishap, or people have been known to simply fall out of the gondola. The NTSB reports 760 hot air balloon accidents between 1964 and 2013, with 67 of the incidents resulting in one or more fatalities. (American statistics.)
The infamous Luxor accident was of the mechanical variety, with the leaking fuel line igniting the balloon. The tourist balloon had already completed its flight and was coming in for a landing when the explosive fire started. As the balloon rocketed upward, altitude was gained so rapidly that when people jumped to avoid the flames they were already about 1000 feet above the ground, way too high to survive such a fall. As the gas envelope burned, the hot air escaped and the balloon crashed back to the surface of the Earth. When the crash occurred, 18 people were already dead, while the pilot and 2 passengers still clung to life, the pilot having fallen out of the gondola in the initial burst of flames, dropping an estimated 50 meters to the ground. One of the survivors of the crash later died at the hospital, while a British tourist/passenger and the balloon’s pilot survived with serious injuries. (The pilot was reported to have burns over 70% of his body.)
Investigators found no reason to charge anyone criminally, and that the leaking fuel line was old, having been in service since 2005. When the fire started, the ground crew had already gotten ahold of the ground lines to the balloon, but apparently let go of the lines to attend to the pilot who had fallen to the ground. When the balloon got up to higher altitude, the propane canister exploded, bringing the entire rig rapidly down. In spite of initially reporting no criminal cause for the disaster existed, the pilot and balloon’s engineer were cited for negligence in not detecting or replacing the faulty fuel line.
Questions for Students (and others): Have you ever taken a hot air balloon ride? Have you ever been to a balloon festival?
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For more information, please see…
Bacon, Gertrude. Balloons, Airships and Flying Machines. Macha Press, 2014.
Brown, Dick. Hot Air Ballooning. Tab Books, 1979.
Larese, Steve. Balloons Over Albuquerque. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2014.
Simons, Fraser. The Early History of Ballooning – The Age of the Aeronaut. Macha Press, 2014.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Christopher Michel (1967–) from https://www.flickr.com/photos/cmichel67/11827367613/ of Ultramagic N-425 balloon, registration SU-283, in Luxor being filled in with gas on the morning of 26 February, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. This image was originally posted to Flickr. Its license was verified as “cc-by-2.0” by the UploadWizard Extension at the time it was transferred to Commons. See the license information for further details.