Who were the first test pilots in aviation? A sheep, a duck, and a rooster. On September 19, 1783, the animals took off in a balloon built by the Montgolfier brothers. The aircraft floated to 1,700 feet and, after an eight-minute journey, landed in the trees. Their flight proved that living beings could breathe above the ground and paved the way for human aviation. A model of their “flying machine”—as the builders described it— is on display at the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum (AAAIBM).
And although the Montgolfier brothers invented the hot air balloon in June 1783, a brilliant scientist named Pilâtre de Rozière and the nobleman Marquis d’Arlandes were the first humans to take a catastrophic risk and fly in a crude hot air balloon with a blazing open fire to heat the air inside the balloon. You will find an exhibit of their famous balloon Le Réveillon, made by the Montgolfier brothers.
The world-class Balloon Museum has many such models, exhibits, and artifacts representing the first balloon flights in 1783 to the balloon races and latest feats of the current century.
Located in the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Park and overlooking the balloon launch field, the museum is a 61,000-square-foot high-bay building with a tensile fabric roof and a balloon-like feel. It is dedicated to the history, science, and art of ballooning and honoring the high-flying pioneers in lighter-than-air aviation.
Even the name of the museum is a tribute to Maxie Anderson and Ben Abruzzo, Albuquerque’s two ballooning pioneers who set many world records. In August 1978, Anderson, Abruzzo, and Larry Newman (also from Albuquerque) became the first aeronauts to achieve the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by balloon. Their torturous journey of 3,100 miles from Maine, USA to Paris, France, lasted about six days. This was Anderson and Abruzzo’s second attempt despite their near-death experience of the Atlantic crossing only a year before. Neither their own previous ordeal nor the fact that several balloonists had failed and five had perished, deterred them from taking on the challenge again.
Jill Lane, director of the museum’s foundation, says it took over 20 years for the museum to develop into a reality and the initiative was taken by Maxie Anderson’s family. After several record-breaking feats, Anderson died in a ballooning accident in 1983. “The family felt like it needed to keep his legacy of his pioneering feats in
ballooning. They had a significant collection of his balloon-related things that they did not know where and how to showcase them. And, Albuquerque is the ballooning capital of the world, so they started working on the idea of a balloon museum in Albuquerque.”
Their Double Eagle II gondola used during the successful Atlantic crossing is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the Albuquerque balloon museum which opened on October 1, 2005, twenty-seven years after the Atlantic crossing, has its life-size replica. Dr. Marilee Schmit Nason, curator of collections said that she tried to get it on loan from the Smithsonian and they declined.
“But ours has a cutaway, and you can walk into it and sit in it and feel what is was like to be one of those three people in that space for all of those days going across the Atlantic Ocean,” says Nason.
The museum has 15,000 catalogued pieces and, Nason says, she is still processing the collection. “The museum collection comes from two sources — the Anderson Foundation that had artifacts related to Maxie Anderson’s epic balloon flights which is recent, and ballooning memorabilia, historical in nature, collected by balloonists and collectors Jacques Soukup, (and Kirk Thomas), which were housed in the South Dakota Museum that closed,” explained Nason, adding that the two collections complement each other and gives the museum a time depth.
Since it opened in 2005, the museum has had nearly one million visitors from New Mexico, other parts of the country, and the world. The exhibits combine historic artifacts with modern multi-media technology to educate visitors by explaining its history, putting it in the context of the human spirit and drive, and staying on top of what is happening now in lighter-than-air technology.
Paul Garver, director of the museum, says that for many visitors, it’s an eye-opening experience about the uses of balloons in adventure, scientific experiments, the arts, warfare, espionage, and the exploration of space.
“When we think of the early 20th century airships, we think of the demise of the airship, but there is a lot of indication that there is a new age of airship on the horizon and I think that’s very exciting.” says Garver. “That is just one example of how ballooning and lighter-than-air technology is not just the technology of the past or sports — it is still cutting-edge and has a bright future, not just here on planet earth but in space exploration as well.”
You will be astonished to learn about the exquisite interiors, the luxuries, and other details of the early 20th century airships or zeppelins. These airships used hydrogen or helium gas for lift and were propelled by gasoline engines. They were used to deliver mail, drop weapons, or to fly people and they even crossed the Atlantic in two days. The exhibit on “The Largest Flying Airships” sheds light on the era of commercial airships and how it came to an end.
Then there is the exhibit of Félix Tournachon (Nadar), a pioneer in aeronautics as well as in photography, whose combined interests led to mapping of cities. The “Advent of Aerial Photography” display enlightens the visitor about his leading efforts in ballooning and camera techniques to produce the first aerial photograph above Paris as early as 1858. Nadar’s Le Géant was the most celebrated balloon of the nineteenth century. It was 196 feet tall, had a two-story gondola, a restroom, a darkroom, and a capacity to carry 49 people.
Soon after the invention of the balloon, military generals figured how to use “Balloons in War,” and this exhibit covers their use in five wars. A museum visitor said that he never knew about the use of balloons as weapons. The “Fugos” (balloon bombs) exhibit is a revelation in how the knowledge of atmospheric science and lighter-than-air technology was used by the Japanese, during World War II. Thousands of balloon bombs were launched from Japan to ride a jetstream across the Pacific Ocean and land in North America. The United States and Canada kept this a top secret, (mis)leading the Japanese to believe that their balloon operation had failed; as a result, the Japanese abandoned the operation.
“Ballooning covers every subject you can imagine. We have coins, tokens, and postage stamps from all over the world that depict different historic flights, even from countries that I’d never heard of. One can learn about the history, language, and culture through ballooning,” says Nason.
The era of balloon science was launched on the day the first balloon took off and continues to this day. In science and space research, the advantage of using balloons is that they can rise to the edge of space, unlike fixed-wing aircraft which need some air to provide lift and support engines.
A lot of the science and space research involving balloons also needed daring humans to fly to the edge of space, test instruments, and experience the effects of the dangerous near-space environment on human physiology. Some even lost their lives in their effort to contribute to our knowledge of space travel, astronomy, astrophysics, and human physiology at high altitudes.
The exhibit on ‘Flying Higher-Into the Stratosphere” depicts the courage of the intrepid aeronauts who rose to the stratosphere and jumped from that altitude as participants in experimental projects carried by the U.S. Office of Naval Research from 1956-1961.
Visitors have a look of disbelief when they reach the “World’s Highest Jumps” exhibit, which shows photos of Colonel Joe Kittinger jumping from 102,800 feet. In 1960, he was testing a partial pressure suit to be used by fighter pilots and future astronauts.
In 2012, Austria’s Felix Baumgartner jumped from 128,100 feet as part of the Red Bull Stratos Project. The objective of the research? What would happen to astronauts or space tourists if they had to eject at extremely high altitudes? Kittinger had served as Baumgartner’s advisor and the museum also plays a film about such incredible statistics.
“The Balloon Museum is also the official home of the Ballooning Commission’s Hall of Fame which recognizes those who have made significant contribution to aerostation. Each year one living and one posthumous inductee are elected,” said Lane. This year, New Mexican aeronaut and prolific record-setter Troy Bradley was inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 2015, Bradley flew across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Mexico with Russian pilot Leonid Tiukthtyaev in a helium balloon and set a distance record of 6,656 miles and duration record 160.6 hours. “For the flight, the museum served as their Command Center for seven days continuously,” said Nason. Bradley’s original capsule Two Eagles is on display at the museum.
For fans of experiential film viewing, the Tim Anderson 4-D Theater, which opened in September 2016, screens short 2-D and 4-D films.
“Even though it’s open we still have many things to do on the technical and content development side,” says Garver. Audiences’ viewing experience may include vibrating seats, bursts of air, flashes of lightning, and even snow showers along
with many other effects. “The videos we’ll show are flight, science, and nature-related, which will provide content that reflects and expands upon our exhibitions and programs. Like our first 3-D offering, ‘Aerobatic Challenge,’ some will be whimsical so you can just have fun. It’s an exciting and unique addition to the museum,” says Garver.
A dramatic and often misunderstood story in ballooning is about S.A. Andrée’s daring attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon. A 2000-square-foot new exhibition Arctic Air: The Bold Flight of S.A. Andrée chronicles the unprecedented attempt in 1897. It gives an insight into the expedition that was well equipped and supported by that period’s innovative and state-of-the-art technology. “We tried to put it in the context of the overall human drive to explore, to discover, and to achieve; the story of Andrée and his expedition is fascinating, but there are also some lessons in there about why we are driven to do that,” says Garver.
Andrée’s balloon named Örnen (Eagle), also had a combination of balloon steering systems – sails and guide ropes that were intended to influence their direction and altitude.
In 2017, visitors will be able to learn from and enjoy a new exhibition The Weather Lab. This enclosed and permanent exhibit promises to be an immersive and interactive learning experience on various topics — the sun, wind, clouds, storms, and the Albuquerque “Box.” The exhibition will also focus on seasons, topography, pressure systems, and atmospheric levels.
“Our goal is to concentrate on themes such as exploration, discovery, achievement and inspire those in people who interact with our content. Ballooning and lighter-than-air technology symbolizes a lot of that directly,” says Garver.
According to museum officials, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta—one of the most popular events—held in October has led many people to believe that the balloon museum is open only during the nine days of the balloon festival. “The balloon museum is open for the entire year,” says Lane. “Yes, during Fiesta, we have many more visitors as the festival draws nearly one million people. But the nice thing is Albuquerque’s weather allows flying for most part of the year and many balloon ride companies offer rides throughout the year.”
When the weather is ideal for flying, it is hard to miss the hot air balloons in the Albuquerque skies; some can be spotted around Fiesta Park and the Balloon Museum.
In few weeks, we will run a feature on the museum’s educational programs and community activities.