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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hot Air Balloon Art

A recent hot air balloon Rally in San Diego
Early balloon designs befoe 1800.
A few weeks ago, my daughter-in-law (a former Marine) took her first hot-air balloon ride. She and our son live in Arizona where hot-air ballooning is more than just a passing fad. A few days later she read of a hot air balloon becoming entangled in power lines, crashing, and killing its occupants. Asked if she planned to take any more such aeronautical jaunts, the answer was a resounding "NO!" The sport/hobby is not for the weak of heart or those weak in the wallet. I wouldn't mind trying it, but like my son's wife, probably only once. I'm not exactly lighter than air even though I've been accused a few times of being full of hot air. In any case, the diagrams at right illustrate an early scientific explanation of the how and why as well as a few suggestions as to balloon design. It's basically a propane torch, an air bag, and a wicker basket. If that doesn't sound reassuring, you're in good company.

Balloon painting.from around 1900, artist unknown.

Ascent of the Montgolfier
balloon, Versailles, 1783
The first hot air craft dates as far back as 1783 (right) when the French Montgolfier brothers persuaded Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Fran├žois Laurent d'Arlandes to put all their legs in one basket, then untethered the whole thing allowing it to drift off into the skies over the royal palace of Versailles while Louis XIV presumably enjoyed the spectacle immensely. For the next two-hundred years, hot air ballooning made great technical strides but any connection to art had mostly to do with paintings of balloons (above) and the decorative embellishments of the broad expanse of nylon separating the hot air inside from the cooler air outside, allowing the balloon to lift off. Then, around 1970, perhaps taking their cue from Macy's Thanksgiving extravaganzas, ballooners were no longer satisfied with even the most colorful creations, began crafting shaped envelopes.

Forbes Balloon patterned after his Normandy chateau

Has NASA tried this?
One of the biggest balloon rallies in Europe takes place at Balleroy, France, not far from Malcolm Forbes' lavish Chateau de Balleroy, a replica of which which he had made into a balloon (above). After setting several distance records, Forbes started something of a fad, adding a new element to hot air ballooning. Since then, the sky has literally been the limit where shaped balloons are concerned. The only other limitations seem to be costs, the imagination of their owners, and perhaps their sense of humor.

Locomotives are not quite what one first thinks off as anything so light as a balloon.
Vincent rises to
new heights.
From French chateaus, there evolved locomotives (above), space shuttles (above left), all manner of cartoon-like animals, and, of course, balloons designed to advertise. Even Vincent van Gogh made the cut, his portrait head floating among the clouds, literally turning heads of those gazing up from below. Quite apart from the sculptor's art in putting together such floating images, there's a rather complex bit of aeronautical engineering involved as well. Such crafts, if they're to be flown, are quite literally a matter of life and death. A traditional cone topped with a spherical shape is ideal, a rectilinear French chateau is a different matter. Their parade cousins are tethered to a team of handlers trying to prevent the helium-filled inflated sculpture from rising more than a few dozen feet into the air.

Floating Turtles?
Floating Elephants?
Peanuts, not Dumbo

The hot air shaped balloon today employs a design theme. Yet, not only are they not tethered, but they must be stable enough, once airborne, to be piloted and at the same time protecting those in the basket below, all while soaring thousands of feet into the sky. That's pretty serious art, giving new meaning to the old saying, "art is not a matter of life and death--it's more important than that.

So this is where babies come from...and how they may arrive.

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