On June 5, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers launched a hot air balloon for the first time in history. The invention was named a “montgolfière” in French and later in Russian after the Mongolfier brothers, its inventors.
The brothers launched an unmanned 600 m³ silk balloon, pasted inside with paper, to a height of 2 km. It stayed only for a few minutes in the air. However, from this moment on, the history of world aeronautics began.
Hot-Air Snails in the Skies Over a Russian Town
In the 1930s and 1940s of the last century, the Soviet Union was eager to rise high up in the air. It was a golden age of aviation and everything related to the exploration of air space. Special attention was paid to the development of aeronautics. The village of Dirizhablestroy (meaning “airship construction”) with an aeronautical infrastructure was built about 20 kilometers to the north of Moscow. Then it was renamed to Dolgoprudny. During these years, dozens of world records involving gas balloons were set. For example, by the beginning of 1941, Soviet balloonists scored seventeen out of twenty-four world records that were officially registered by the International Aviation Federation.
However, during the era of developed socialism, the world achievements of Soviet hot-air balloon pilots and the names of many famous aeronauts fell into oblivion.
The industry that was promising in every way was gradually abandoned in the USSR. Nevertheless, there were still enthusiasts in the country who dreamed of reviving domestic aeronautics. Already at the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika policy they began to create hot air balloons, fly on unusual aircraft, and take part in international sports competitions.
It is difficult to say what the fate of sports aeronautic would have been otherwise, but I know only one story well. In 1991, a small group of enthusiast balloonists received support from Ekonomicheskaya Gazeta, the country's largest business weekly at the time. It was in that year that one amazing person came to my editorial office. “I’m David Shifrin, President of the Aeronautics Federation from Dolgoprudny,” he said right from the threshold as he introduced himself. “Please, help us! We are going to hold the first aeronautics championship in the USSR. We need the support of your newspaper.” Recall that in 1991, Ekonomicheskaya Gazeta had a great authority because the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was its publisher. Our reporters were acquainted with party bosses and high-ranking officials. We partnered with many enterprises and with nascent cooperative societies.
To be honest, I had no idea who the balloonists were at that time, but I promised Shifrin that I would help him in every way that would turn up. Soon, together with the colleagues from the editorial office, I found sponsors who then took part in organizing and holding the first USSR championship in hot air ballooning.
The choice of the venue fell on the small town of Rylsk in the Kursk region and it was not accidental. Its natural and climatic conditions are suitable for balloon flights. In addition, there was a branch of the Dolgoprudny Central Aerological Observatory and an aviation school in Rylsk. It was in this town that I took the first flight in a balloon basket. It was an unforgettable experience, which I will remember for the rest of my life.
At first, the trip to the sky was more than just romantic. I was filled with delight of free soaring and the beauty of a bird's eye view of nature. But suddenly our balloon started heading for a high-voltage line. The gas in the cylinders was running out. At that moment, my life flashed before my eyes. In the last minutes of the adventure, the pilot managed to land on the black-earth field with great difficulty. The hard bump into the ground felt softer than mother's embrace. In a nutshell, at the time, I did not understand why people wanted to become balloonists and to fly on balloons.
However, the competition ended successfully, which was enthusiastically reported by the country's mass media. The first USSR championship became also the last, and soon after that the Soviet Union disappeared from the world map. But in 1995, I was happy to see David Shifrin, the same enthusiastic president of balloonists, on the threshold of the editorial office again.
The year of 1995 was difficult. Voucher privatization was coming to an end in the country. The First Chechen War was in full swing. Social tensions were mounting. In other words, there were a lot of problems. And here some balloonists came to ask to help them with organizing the championship in Russia. It took us a lot of time to make a plan where to find money for this sports event in times of crisis. Then, one idea hit us. What if we address the administration of the city of Velikiye Luki and the heads of local companies, the friends of the editorial board?
Negotiations with the administration went surprisingly well and quickly, and we got their permission and logistic support, which was the most important thing. In 1996, Velikiye Luki hosted the Russian championship in hot air balloon flights for the first time. Its residents fell in love with this sport at first glance. Balloonists have won the hearts and attention of almost 100,000 inhabitants of Velikiye Luki forever.
In 1997, the Russian Aeronautics Federation established the Cup of Outstanding Russian Aeronauts. Over time, in addition to the Russians, pilots from many countries joined the contest for this high award. The prestigious international CIA FAI category of “a first-class sporting event” was awarded to the competition for the Cup. Then, balloonists from neighbouring and more distant countries began to come to Russia. Pilots from Germany, Ukraine, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, the USA, Latvia, Japan, Belarus, Poland, France, the Netherlands, and South Africa successfully demonstrated their sports mastery in the sky over Velikiye Luki. This year, if the COVID-19 pandemic does not prevent the ballooning competition, it will be held for the 25th time in a row.
At present, Velikiye Luki is justifiably called the Capital of Russian Aeronautics. The prophetic prediction from the novel “Heavy Dreams” by Fyodor Sologub, a Russian Symbolist poet and novelist, has come true a century after it was made. The real balloons and airships arrived in Velikiye Luki. Of course, people cannot fly like birds. However, today, as 100 and 200 years ago, Its Majesty the Balloon gives us an incomparable feeling of complete unity with the boundless ocean of air.