The first clearly recorded instances of balloons capable of carrying passengers used hot air to obtain buoyancy and were built by the brothers Josef and Etienne Montgolfier in Annonay, France. They were from a family of paper manufacturers who had noticed the ash rising in fires.
After experimenting with unmanned balloons and flights with animals, the first balloon flight with humans on board took place on October 19, 1783 with the physician Pilâtre de Rozier, the manufacture manager, Jean-Baptiste Réveillon and Giroud de Villette, at the Folie Titon in Paris. Officially, the first flight was 1 month later, 21 November 1783.
King Louis XVI had originally decreed that condemned criminals would be the first pilots, but a young physicist named Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis Francois d'Arlandes successfully petitioned for the honor. The first hot air balloons were basically cloth bags (sometimes lined with paper) with a smoky fire built on a grill attached to the bottom. They had a tendency to catch fire and be destroyed upon landing, although this was infrequent.
The first military use of aircraft in Europe took place during the French Revolutionary Wars, when the French used a tethered hydrogen balloon to observe the movements of the Austrian army during the Battle of Fleurus (1794). Hot air balloons were employed during the American Civil War. Though the military balloons used by the Union Army Balloon Corps under the command of Prof. Thaddeus S. C. Lowe were limp silk envelopes inflated with coke gas or hydrogen, the Confederate Army did attempt to counter with a rigid Montgolfier style hot air, or "hot smoke balloon." Captain John R. Bryant inflated his rigid cotton balloon with a fire of oil-soaked pine cones. The balloon was soon captured by Union forces as the Confederate's techniques of balloon handling were not competent.
The first modern hot air balloon was designed and built in 1960 by Ed Yost. He made the first free flight of such an aircraft in Bruning, Nebraska on 22 October 1960. Initially equipped with a plastic envelope and kerosene fuel, Yost's designs rapidly moved onto using a modified propane powered "weed burner" to heat the air and lightweight nylon fabric for the envelope material.
Today, hot air balloons are used primarily for recreation. There are some 7,500 hot air balloons operating in the United States.
Hot air balloons are able to fly to extremely high altitudes. On November 26, 2005, Vijaypat Singhania set the world altitude record for highest hot air balloon flight, reaching 21,290 meters (69,852 feet). He took off from downtown Bombay, India and landed 240 km (150 miles) south in Panchale. The previous record of 19,811 meters (64,980 ft) had been set by Per Lindstrand on June 6, 1988 in Plano, Texas. However, like all registered aircraft, oxygen is needed for all crew and passengers for any flight that reaches and exceeds an altitude of 12,500 feet.
The furthest that a hot air balloon has ever been flown is 7,671.91 km. On January 15, 1991, the Virgin Pacific Flyer balloon completed the longest flight in a hot air balloon when Per Lindstrand (born in Sweden, but resident in the UK) and Richard Branson of the UK flew from Japan to Northern Canada.
With a volume of 74,000 m³ (2,600,000 ft³), the balloon envelope was the largest ever built for a hot air craft. Designed to fly in the trans-oceanic jetstreams the Pacific Flyer recorded the highest ground speed for a manned balloon at 245 mph (394 km/h).
The longest duration hot air balloon flight ever made is 50 hours and 38 minutes made by Michio Kanda and Hirosuke Tekezawa of Japan.