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The first hot air balloon launched successfully by Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier in France had animals in it, but the first manned attempt followed this one by only a couple of months on November 21, 1783. For twenty minutes this balloon soared over Paris, delighting those who saw it. Two years later, two men, the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries flew over the English Channel, an extensive area considered the first step to long distance ballooning. After this success, Blanchard became the first to fly a hot-air balloon in North America with President George Washington viewing the launch. Unfortunately, there was also a tragic attempt that same year of 1785 as Pilatre de Rozier experimented with hydrogen and hot air together in a balloon and the balloon exploded.
A century later, Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard took a balloon to the height of nearly 52,498 feet into the air. This record was challenged and beaten until 1935 when
...a new altitude record was set and it remained at this level for the next 20 years. The balloon Explorer 2, a gas helium model reached an altitude of 72,395 feet (13.7 miles)! For the first time in history, it was proven that humans could survive in a pressurized chamber at extremely high altitudes.
Therefore, the experiments with balloons have served to advance aviation, as well as having paved a path for future travel into space. Then, in 1960, Captain Joe Kittinger parachuted from a balloon at a height of 102,000 feet; furthermore, his falling body broke the sound barrier. In 1978, a balloon crossed the Atlantic Ocean; in 1981, another crossed the Pacific.
For the most part, hot air balloons have been objects of pleasure as people can get the proverbial "bird's-eye view" over great expanses of land. Tourists delight in looking over cities, castles, and rivers. Then, in 1999 the first around the world flight was completed by Bertrand Piccard, grandson to Auguste Piccard, and Brian Jones. This trip took them nearly twenty days.
Modern balloons employ helium and gas as fuels rather than burning things on board the balloon as the first ones did. For the most part now, balloons are used for recreational purposes. In San Diego, California, for instance, balloons have been good for the tourism department. Somewhere around 30,000 tourists come to the area to fly over the Del Mar area to the Carmel Valley where they enjoy a toast to the area with a champagne from the Napa Valley.
Unfortunately, this industry in San Diego is threatened by environmentalism and bureaucracy as there are concerns about the balloons landing on "sensitive" vegetation and on areas prohibited by city ordinances. Perhaps the greatest threat to hot air balloons, though, has been 9/11, according to Mark West, President and Chief Engineer of Aerostar, who has remarked upon the decline that has hit the General Aviation Industry along with the hot air balloon industry.
This coupled with significant increases in liability insurance costs has made for a business model that is no longer feasible. Unfortunately we cannot afford to stay in a business which is not profitable, even though it is the product line that founded Aerostar.
Balloons are perceived nowadays as novelties, and not as something that is important for travel or for aerial viewing. In addition, the physical exposure when one is in a balloon is cause for anxiety in many people after the frightening experiences connected to 9/11.
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