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10 Types of Hot Air Balloons Explained

10 Types of Hot Air Balloons Explained

The hot air balloon was one of the first forms of flight that mankind successfully attempted in their early experimentation to get off the ground. This flight technology was the first of its kind and spearheaded the drive for humans to achieve flight. The early version of hot air balloons we unwieldy, but they have come a long way since those early days.

A hot air balloon is described as a balloon that gets lift from hot air captured by the material of the balloon. The lift provided by the hot air raises the balloon into the air. Hot air balloons can be manned or unmanned, used for recreation, science, tourism, and advertising, among other uses.

Even though the hot air balloon was the technology used to launch our ventures into the arena of flight, hot air balloons are still used today. While they are not practical as a means of travel in our modern era of air travel, they remain a popular form of flight for several applications.

1. Montgolfier Hot Air Balloon

The Montgolfier balloon was the first hot air balloon that carried a human being. It was created by the French Montgolfier brothers, who also were the pilots of the balloon.

The balloon was constructed of hessian, or burlap that was made airtight with three layers of thin paper on the inside of the balloon. It was constructed in four separate segments that were then joined together with buttons. A netting made of cord was placed around the entire outside of the balloon for structural integrity.

Montgolfier brothers hot air balloon

A Montgolfier brothers hot air balloon.

The first manned flight took place in a Montgolfier balloon over Paris, and the balloon and its occupants flew at an altitude of 3000-feet above the city and traveled a total of 5.5 miles. The total flying time was an impressive 25 minutes.

The balloon landed safely on the outskirts of the city after the flight with enough fuel still onboard the balloon to have traveled up to five times further. The flight was cut short because embers from the fire had begun to scorch the fabric of the balloon.

The success of the brothers’ balloon received such public acclaim that it sparked other intrepid adventurers of the era to build and improve on the original design to achieve more controlled and prolonged flights.

2. Sky Lanterns

Sky lanterns were the forerunners of manned hot air balloons and where the concept of lifting a payload into the air was envisioned.

A sky lantern is a small version or a hot air balloon that was traditionally made of thin paper around a bamboo frame. The sky lanterns ranged in size from around 11.8-inches to over 6-feet wide and equally as tall.

The opening of the balloon or sky lantern was always small, from 4-inches to 12-inches wide, irrespective of the size of the balloon. The small opening allowed the hot air to be trapped inside the structure rather than escape through a larger opening at the bottom.

The opening of the sky lantern was made from a collar of a stiff material, often a thicker piece of bamboo, and a structure or platform was made from bamboo or thin wire from the collar to the center of the opening. It was on this platform that the fire was placed to generate the heat to raise the sky lantern.

The fire was usually a candle or a small round waxy fuel cell that would burn for a long time. In the versions from Brazil, this fuel cell usually included paraffin or rosin, wrapped tightly in a cloth ad secured with wire.

The sky lanterns were traditionally launched as part of festivals and in commemoration of religious events. In some cases, in China, they were experimented with as a means of signaling.

These lanterns were part of cultures across the world, from China to India, Japan, Brazil, Portugal, Taiwan, and Thailand.

Many countries have in modern times banned the use of sky lanterns due to the potential fire risk that they present to heavily built-up areas and the risk to livestock and crops in rural areas.

3. Long Distance And Roziere Hot Air Balloons

Since the inception of the hot air balloon, mankind has always been driven to fly these aircraft further and further to test the limits of both the flying machines and the men who pilot them.

This quest for adventure has led to designing balloons that are intended for extended flight and to remain at high enough altitudes to be able to make use of the fast Jetstream air currents.

These Jetstream air currents are fast-flowing layers of air high in the earth’s atmosphere and can carry a hot air balloon a long way in a relatively short time.

The challenge was to develop a hot air balloon that could withstand the rigors of the elements at these altitudes and also be rugged enough to handle the strong winds and sustained flight.

The main change in these balloons was to make them a hybrid balloon, incorporating lighter-than-air gas as well as hot air to achieve the altitudes necessary to reach the jet stream.

The Breitling Orbiter 3 was the first balloon to complete a non-stop circumnavigation of the globe. This balloon and its crew of two took 19 days, 21 hours, and 47 minutes to complete the epic flight.

A Breitling Orbiter 3 in France.

Virgin Pacific Flyer was a pure hot air long-distance balloon and was flown by Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand across the Pacific Ocean. The flight lasted over 46 hours, and the balloon reached speeds of 245mph.

The gondolas used for these balloons are not your typical basket gondolas but rather capsules to adequately protect the crew from high altitude dangers such as low oxygen levels and cold temperatures.

4. Tourism Hot Air Balloons

Traditional style hot air balloons are used extensively in the tourism industry. The balloons used in this application are traditional-style, propane burner-powered balloons with wicker gondola baskets.

In the tourism industry, clients are offered balloon flights that could last anywhere from a couple of hours to an entire day.

tourism hot air balloons

Tourists at the International Balloon Festival.

Tethered flights are also used to give tourists a spectacular view of coastlines, mountains, and cityscapes. Hot air balloon rides have become popular among tourists for special events such as anniversary celebrations, birthday celebrations, and even wedding proposals.

Some enterprising tourism operators have even created hot air balloon restaurants where you can enjoy an intimate meal for two above the city for those special occasions.

5. Racing Hot Air Balloons

Hot air ballooning has become such a popular outdoor activity that it was only a matter of time before people turned this activity into a competition. This is how balloon racing began, and it has grown into a highly competitive and popular activity.

The designs of the balloons for racing were modified to be lighter, more maneuverable, and more aerodynamic to improve the speed they could attain when driven by the wind.

There are different types of balloon races; some where the goal is to reach a destination before other balloonists and others where it is a test of accuracy by the balloon pilot.

Most racing balloons are designed to be more streamlined than recreational-type hot air balloons. They are also made from different materials that offer less wind resistance to allow the balloon to move more quickly through the air.

6. Observation Balloons

Observation balloons were hot air balloons that were used extensively during World War I for reconnaissance to observe what the enemy was doing on the frontline of the battle. In World War I, many of the battles were fought in fields where the opposing armies faced each other and fought to gain ground and by charging the enemy entrenchments to overwhelm them.

In this type of warfare, you could see your enemy all the time, right in front of you. The hot air balloon was used to lift observers to a height that they could see what the enemy troop movements were and try to anticipate any flanking maneuvers the enemy may be trying to get the upper hand.

The balloons were flown to a certain height that gave the observers enough view of the field of battle and were tethered to the ground so that they did not drift into the range of enemy fire. From this vantage point, important information could be relayed to the officers on the ground that were strategizing and coordinating their troop movements to try to out-maneuver the enemy.

Observation balloons were even used in the US Civil War by both armies. The Union army even had a Balloon Corp, which was dedicated to getting the balloons airborne and retrieving them as well as transporting them and maintaining them.

The Balloon Corps was the brainchild of Thaddeus Lowe, who was tasked to oversee all the Union hot air balloon missions and operations. The 7 hot air balloons that were used by the army were designed and manufactured by Thaddeus Lowe. He even ascended in the balloons several times under Confederate fire to perform observation missions, even though he was a civilian.

During the Civil War, hot air balloons were even launched from a tugboat. This was the strategy used by the Confederate army to observe Union army movements during the Seven Days Battle around the James River. The balloon called a War Balloon and named the Gazelle was moved into position on the river by the tugboat.

The balloon was launched from the deck of the boat and tethered to the boat while it was aloft. After the flight, the hot air balloon was retrieved and stowed back on the deck of the boat. The Confederate army had only one hot air balloon in service during the war.

7. Artillery Balloons

Artillery balloons were a type of observation balloon that was used in both World Wars, specifically in directing artillery bombardments.

These balloons were generally flown to a higher altitude than battlefield observation balloons because they needed to provide a much further field of vision. Like observation balloons, these artillery hot air balloons were tethered in place to prevent them from drifting with the wind over enemy territory and within range of enemy fire.

Men with binoculars and other gear used to gauge distance and elevation went up in the basket or gondola of the balloon to observe the effectiveness and accuracy of artillery guns.

From their elevated position, the observers could see where the artillery shells were landing and pass on adjustments for the artillery crews to make to their guns to make the shells land on target. These hot air balloons proved to be a very successful method of improving the accuracy of the artillery and, thus, improve their effectiveness.

8. Novelty Hot Air Balloons

Modern hot air balloon construction has advanced to the point that balloons of all shapes and sizes can be manufactured without compromising the integrity of the fabric.

This has seen the development of novelty hot air balloons in various shapes and forms that can be manned or unmanned. These balloons are popular at festivals, commemorative events, and special occasions. Some people even like to fly these novelty balloons just for fun and for the spectacle at hot air balloon gatherings.

Novelty hot air balloons can be in any shape imaginable, from resembling honeybees to famous buildings such as cathedrals. Events and special occasions have also seen novelty hot air balloons shaped like supermarket trolleys, farmyard animals, and likenesses of famous people such as Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh.

Novelty balloons also spawned a plethora of themed balloons, such as balloons made to resemble Darth Vader and Yoda from Star Wars, Sonic the Hedgehog, and the minion character from the Despicable Me movies.

Novelty balloons are always crowd-pleasers and major attractions for hot air ballooning clubs and festivals where they have mass launchings of many hot air balloons at one time.

9. Marketing Hot Air Balloons

Hot air balloons have also been used as marketing tools by companies for social events and sporting events.

The main attraction for using a hot air balloon for marketing is that they are huge, making them visible from a great distance, and they are an eye-catching sight to behold. Most people who see a hot air balloon cannot help but stop and take a closer look at the spectacle.

This makes for a good marketing opportunity, and it has been used to great effect as a marketing tool. Sometimes these hot air balloons are manned and sometimes unmanned, but they are mostly always tethered near the event or company that they are marketing.

Sometimes marketing hot air balloons are flown in free flight over an area to reach a wider audience. Hot air ballooning companies are often contracted to provide these services to companies and events since they have the equipment and experienced pilots.

10. Conservation Hot Air Balloons

Wildlife conservation has also, in some cases, used hot air balloons to assist in their wildlife conservation efforts. How air balloons can fly without disturbing the natural behavior of the animals which allows scientist to observe animals without their behavior being modified or affected by the presence of the observers.

In wildlife areas that are extremely large, balloons are used to perform game counts and also to dart animals for relocation or for veterinary treatment.

Many conservation areas use balloon safaris as a form of ecotourism which is also more environmentally friendly in comparison to driving 4-wheel drive vehicles into sensitive ecosystems.


Hot air balloons may have been at the origins of mankind’s explorations into flight, but this primitive form of aircraft still has a mystique about it that many people find irresistible.
The peacefulness and quietness of the hot air balloon once the propane burners are shut off is unlike any other form of powered flight.

The appeal that hot air balloons have for the adventurous soul will last long into the future of humanity, even if more sophisticated forms of flight are part of the norm.