It’s been 50 years since the first manned hot air balloon flight in Australia lifted off in Parkes.
On July 4th 1964, Sydney University student Terry McCormack and some of his friends set out to make Australian aviation history. They travelled to Parkes in central west New South Wales with their self designed hot air balloon, set the burner alight and lifted into the sky from a local paddock.
It was only about four or five years since the first flight with an onboard heater had ever been undertaken in the world; it was done as part of a USA Air Force development program for low altitude atmospheric research The extent of the technical information available at the time was an article in the Reader’s Digest. Terry and his mates started out with virtually no information at all, only a dream.
Prior to 1964, hot air balloons were mainly found at country shows and not in the hands of ambitious university students. It was rumored there was a flight in the 1930s by a man who used a kerosene burner under a hot air balloon, but there doesn’t seem to be any documentary evidence of it.
Prior to 1967 Hot air balloon flights were fairground attractions where they’d put up a balloon over a fire and a man would go up either on a trapeze or on a parachute suspended underneath the balloon. Once he got high enough, he’d cut away and parachute back to the ground.
Terry McCormack’s hot air balloon was made of polyester film just 0.001 of one inch thick. A burner was used to inflate the balloon and make it fly, while a plank of wood, not a basket, was attached to the base. The balloon was about the same thickness as a crisps packet. It was taped together with strapping tape which was normally used to bundle steel together.
The amazing part about it was that the people who did it probably hadn’t done anything more technical than mow a lawn. They were very well educated, but they had no experience of making anything. They had to make it up as they went along; they found all the information they could, they got all the materials that were suitable and put it together, and they did it. And the results were outstanding and ground breaking.
Today you will find hot air balloons flying all across our country both in rural and city locations. The technology is developed with Australian manufacturers responsible for many of the latest designs and safety features. More of which will be revealed in future articles.