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The Real Wizards of Oz > Virginia's Hot Air Balloon History

By: Michelle Harper

Virginia ballooningVirginia has a long and interesting history of hot air ballooning.  Starting with the first gas balloon ascension in May 1801, at the Court House Green by a student from William and Mary College, to the reconnaissance balloon activities used by both the Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War, until today, when passengers and pilots enjoy both the beauty and sport of this unique mode of transportation.  In addition, today tethered aerostats are being used in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In fact, gas balloons were the humble beginnings of the modern US Air Force. The Balloon Corp, commissioned by President Lincoln during the Civil War and lead by Thaddeus Lowe, provided vital information and slowed the progress of troop movements, as each side had to spend time hiding their encampments.  The South also had a smaller version of the Balloon Corps but its attempts at ballooning were less successful.  They lacked the trained pilots and resources that the Union enjoyed.  Today, they are probably best remembered for their resourcefulness in creating a balloon from silk dress material, which unfortunately was ultimately captured by Union troops.

The Civil War saw many ”firsts” in ballooning.  The first air-to-ground transmission occurred as a result of Lowe’s efforts; the battle at Gaines Mill was the first time that opposing forces had balloons in the air at the same time.  The first time balloons launched from “aircraft carriers” in the form of tug boats along the James River also occurred during this period. Though most balloon reconnaissance was gathered from tethered balloons during the Civil War, pilot John LaMountain provided the first untethered reconnaissance.

Though it may have seemed glamorous, the life of a Civil War balloon pilot was particularly treacherous.  Balloons were the most shot at objects during the Civil War.  Many people think this was due to the fact that the balloons were colorful instead of camouflaged.  However, this was by design to send a message to the troops below “If you can see me, I can see you.”  When pilots were not worrying about being shot at, they had to worry about being captured.  Lowe, himself, was the first detainee of the Civil War when captured as a Yankee spy.

This year celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.  As the balloon played a vital role in many battles, there will be various activities commemorating these events.  Kevin Knapp, Director At Large, Balloon Federation of America, is also a Civil War re-enactor who portrays Thaddeus Lowe.  He will be providing many informative presentations throughout the state to entertain, as well as bringing awareness of the contributions of ballooning in US history.

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Photos courtesy of Mark Nelson

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