South County Balloon Festival

Bradford R. Boss Ice Arena - 1 Keaney Road
Kingston, RI 02881


The year was 1783, and Parisians Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier were intrigued with how fireplace smoke could actually lift objects. They constructed a linen bag, 105 feet in circumference, and filled it with smoking straw. They watched it float over a mile away.

Soon the first passenger balloon was built. Apparently, the creators were reluctant to risk a human life in the basket, so they volunteered three farm animals - a duck, a rooster and a sheep. The flight was successful.

When it came to the first human flight, the King of France was also dubious. He wanted to use a convict as the first passenger, but he was persuaded to use two honorable men. On November 21, 1783, with an audience of 400,000 people, The Marquis D'Arland and his friend accomplished man's first aerial flight. (One of the viewers was Benjamin Franklin. He was probably the first American to attend a hot air balloon event.) Their balloon floated over Paris for a half hour and then descended on the outskirts. Thus, aviation was born!

Today the balloonists range from retirees to doctors to construction supervisors . They use nylon or Dacron and other modern materials, but the baskets are still made from wicker or other natural materials like the original French equipment. Inflating their nylon or Dacron balloons with propane-fired burners, which reach as much as 30 million BTUs, they take off, navigating around with wind currents unlike those on the ground. When in the vicinity of any airports or if it gets too dark, they will set down in a field. The aeronaut and passengers will be picked up by the chase crew.

Sometimes, the landowner is not too happy to see the balloon settle down on his or her property. At any rate, the crew comes equipped with a bottle of champagne to give to the landowner. This practice harks back to France in the late 1700's, when man first ventured aloft. Aeronauts then were feared as evil spirits. Farmers and villagers attacked them. Later, balloonists presented a letter from the king and a bottle of champagne as evidence of their earthly origins. The practice of giving champagne as a gesture of friendliness continues on, and will be used once again in the fields of southern Rhode Island during the festival.

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