It's hard to pin-point exactly where and by whom the first cloudhopper or, to better define the type, a small one-man hang balloon was built. If one limits the scope of the question to the modern era of ballooning it could be easily argued that the first Yost-built balloon should be counted as the birth of the species since that first experimental aerostat measured in at a slim 31,000 cubic feet.
However with the sport of ballooning in only an embryonic state at that time, it must be remembered that the purpose at hand was to develop a balloon that could lift a man. It happened that 31,000 cubic feet was an appropriate size for the task-thus it was the balloon's lift, not its size that was at issue. So, in a sense the purpose was not to develop a small balloon, it just happened that the balloon developed was small.
While Yost's experiments pushed on toward development of the world's first sport balloons, Raven's Vulcoon, another of the "founding fathers," Don Piccard, was responsible for some of the earliest teeny-tiny aerostats. Over the Christmas holidays in 1964, Piccard and seamstress Rudy Aurez, working in Costa Mesa, California assembled Piccard S/N 1, an AX2. The balloon featured a multi-gore straight seam Velcro rip panel, full vertical load tapes and circumferential load tapes as rip stoppers.
"I rigged it with a boson's chair made from an old pre-W.W.II army balloon basket seat," Piccard recently told Balloon Life. " The fuel was in three low pressure oxygen bottles mounted on a stock skindiver's back pack. I found that the boson's chair and back pack was comfortable for flight, but messy for launch and landing.
"The next small basketless balloon would use a Lennox eight gallon tank slung horizontally from a four point suspension burner plate with a stock western style pony saddle that just fit perfectly. The saddle, while loved by spectators, raised the center of gravity and obstructed quick egress at landing.
We made several tank riders in AX1 through AX4 sizes. The AX1 operated at such a high temperature that the Velcro rip opened up. As a rip was not necessary in such a small balloon it was sewn shut and the balloon released to a tether line to the inside of the top upon egress at landing. The AX1, Jonathon is now in the museum at Windsor Locks, Conn. The larger units, called "Piccup's," had a circular vent and a rip panel held in place by a series of chain link loops. Some had mosquito net in addition to the load tapes outside the disc for absolute security. Venting was by pulling the top away from the netting, but it was not related to the Rohulick Parachute top. That complicated chain link securing system inspired Dick Roberts to invent the bungee secured parachute.
Piccard's third effort "was an lobular gore AX3 built for Dale Gates, who had been referred to me by Raven after their abandonment of the sport balloon business. It was black and yellow and had a small wicker basket, woven by Ernie Beatty, a cousin of "Bring 'em Back Alive" Clyde Beatty." One source interviewed for this article recalled an early Piccard hang balloon by the name Bumble Bee but Piccard told Balloon Life he could not recall if the above mentioned balloon ever went by that name.
Surely other experimentation was ongoing at this time as well, regrettably much of it may never be fully documented. For example. veteran balloonist John Lewis tells the tale of one of his first home built balloons that had only shoulder straps for the pilot to hang from. In one early "test flight" the balloon was inflated with the heat of a weed burner and Lewis suddenly found himself airborne, hanging by his armpits when his "crew" unexpectedly let go of the homebuilt aerostat.
Brian Boland, well known for his vast range of experimental lighter- than-air craft, was certainly one of the most prolific builders of these aero-mites. In the early 1970's Boland constructed a variety of small (21,000 cu. ft.) Tyvek balloons-some using a small basket. In 1976, a now somewhat famous picture of Brian was taken as he hitch-hiked back from a 30-minute flight in his 12,000 cubic foot Piccolo balloon fueled by a small 5-gallon tank.
Boland and his then-wife Kathy, were the first to set world records in the mini "solo-stats" including altitude and duration records for the AX1, 2 and 3 class. Boland's XXUS balloon was used to set the AX3 altitude records in 1978. A year earlier Boland had visited England for the Castle Howard World Championship meet complete with a tiny balloon he had carried over on the flight from the US as hand baggage. The late Dick Wirth recounts this visit in his book Ballooning: The Complete Guide to Riding the Winds . It was during this visit that Boland met Wirth, Per Lindstrand and Hakan Colting and indeed may have inspired the invention of the true Cloudhopper. But we've jumped ahead of our story.
Bobby Sparks was another early builder of one-man balloons. His Baby Lark was typical of the genre in that era-small envelope with pilot hanging from a harness and fuel tank strapped to the back. Of course it wasn't just the Americans who were tinkering around at this time. Don Cameron and Gerry Turnbull of then Western Balloons built a 21,000 cubic foot, red and white balloon called Nimble Bread . This may have been the first one-girl balloon, certainly in England, as it was flown by Turnbull's daughter Christine in its advertising appearances for the breadmaker. Likewise, in France, Maurice Chaize and Clotaire Castanier had formed Chaize balloons and built a system, similar to the Raven Vulcoon , which featured a tubular steel frame chair with a mechanism that allowed the pilot's chair to be turned.
Still history seems to record that it was the meeting between Boland, Lindstrand, et al that truly ushered the solo-stat from the ranks of the home builder's project to manufactured aerostat. The first true Colt Cloudhopper, a 12,000 cubic foot model built for Smirnoff Vodka, was unveiled to the British media and a throng of onlookers as Robin Batchelor, outfitted in a scuba suit, skimmed the water of the river Thames just outside Parliament. The Smirnoff hopper consisted of the small envelope and a harness for the pilot complete with a quick release that would allow the pilot to cut-away from the balloon if necessary. This hopper also introduced the lightweight burner frame that could be turned allowing the pilot to face in different directions. Two years after Boland had first appeared at Thunder Balloons with his backpack balloon, a movie called Green Ice was released. In it, a gang of jewel thieves used the tiny harness balloons to pull off their caper and thus the world was first introduced to the Cloudhopper! The concept for the movie came from Britain's Flying Pictures and Collin Prescott and they are credited with originating the term Cloudhopper and still retain the trademark on the name today.
As always seems the case between Thunder & Colt and Cameron, when one unveils a new innovation, the other is not long to follow. So it was with the hopper and the introduction of the Cameron SkyHopper. As Cameron's Alan noble explains, "the SkyHopper featured a seat rather like an astronaut's back pack with a twist grip in the right armrest to drive the burner and electronic indication of fuel content." The SkyHopper was quite a bit larger than the Cloudhopper as it was offered by Cameron in two sizes, a 24,000 or 34,000 cubic foot envelope. Both "hoppers" proved a big success with commercial ballooning companies because they could pull celebrities, policemen, pretty girls, etc. right from the crowd at a show, strap them in and in mere moments have them flying the balloon on tether.
In 1980, Lindstrand and the late Dick Wirth brought a 14,000 cubic foot hopper to Albuquerque where Dr. Coy Foster flew it for the first time and later purchased that very balloon. Thus began a decade of serious experimentation, research and development into the capabilities of the hopper and other small balloons in the AX1 to AX4 class.
Foster's drive into the record books and ballooning history began and almost ended in January 1982 in Sweden. In Uppsala, Sweden Foster would set his first world record when he flew his tiny yellow hopper for a distance of 22 miles, doubling the existing world record, and landing with a half tank of fuel remaining. The landing was prompted by a burner failure in sub-zero temperatures.
Two days later, having replaced the burner jets and made a successful test flight, Foster was poised for another record attempt. Carrying 35 gallons of fuel, he planned to ditch his first tank and continue flying. The tiny hopper was being asked to lift a total weight of 550 pounds. Launch was uneventful with the burner doing all it could to get the small balloon and its pilot airborne. Minutes later, Foster would find himself enroute to a Swedish hospital with two broken legs, the result of his first powerline contact. He recently recounted the story for Balloon Life.
"Seconds later (after the launch), I saw to my horror where I was going. There were powerlines directly in my path about one half mile from the launch site. I gave the burner everything it had, but the balloon flew straight into the lines.
"I was hanging thirty feet above a frozen creek. The burner was still lit. What do you do when you could be a bomb if the tanks ignite or you could be electrocuted from the powerlines? It didn't take long to review the options. I shut down the fuel supply and turned off the pilot lights. I could stay with the equipment as it slid down the icy lines until they broke, dropping me with 500 pounds of equipment onto the ice or, I could release from the harness and fall thirty feet to the ice.
I decided to jump. The fall didn't kill me, but it hurt like hell."
Six months later Foster would renew his quest for the record books and he succeeded as no man before him had ever done. Along the way, Foster and his close friend and ballooning partner Jerry Owens would design and operate one of the world's first one-man special shape balloons; the Owen's Country Sausage "Patty." Ironically, it would be another powerline accident in 1992, while flying the Patty, that nearly cost Foster his life and would close the book on his remarkable decade of conquest over man's smallest of aerostats.
No doubt it was thanks in part to the publicity Foster was bringing the tiny aerostat that lead to new developments in the 1980's. Thunder & Colt introduced its SkyChariot, still a one-man balloon but with a more sophisticated frame that formed a chair for the pilot to ride in and allowed the fuel tank to be slung underneath rather than strapped to the pilot's back.
In 1982, Richard Pengrey and Jim Marshall of Airborne Balloons & Airships in Napa, California offered their "ultralight balloon" built under FAR Part 31 standards. This system was a 21,000 cubic foot AX3 which, like the T&C SkyChariot, featured a chair for the pilot to ride in. Featured in Balloon Life's 1987 Buyer's Guide, the AX3-21 could be had for a mere $4,995.00
Also featured in that same issue was the Solo System. This was a slightly different take on the idea of a one-man balloon designed by pilot Dick Roberts. The idea was simply to take the features of a full size balloon and shrink it to miniature, to remove the necessity of a chase crew, heavy weight, excessive physical labor, and transportation of vehicles over landowner's property. The SS-103 debuted at the 1985 World Championships in Battle Creek, Michigan. The AX4, 28,000 cubic foot system was built under FAR Part 103 (ultralights). As such a pilot license was not required but the factory insisted on a formal training program. Both the one piece plastic gondola and the envelope carried a lifetime warranty and annual inspections were performed free of charge at the factory. The Solo System envelope weighed only 72 pounds and the basket 19. The system could be transported as baggage or hauled around on a specially designed trailer that incorporated an inflator fan in its design. Unfortunately, sales were never what was hoped for and by 1990 both the Solo System and Airborne models were no longer found in the annual Balloon Buyer's Guide.
The folks at Adams Balloons in Atlanta, Georgia had much the same ideas in mind when they introduced the Little Devil in 1977. The Little Devil included a 24x48" basket of natural rattan with one 10-gallon tanks and space for a second if necessary. The envelope was a 16 gore model and available in two sizes, 34,000 or 39,000 cubic foot. The LD was advertised as "small enough to fit through any doorway, store it in a closet, airfreight it on any plane, or transport it in a car."
Despite the lack of commercial success for these tiny aerostats, they have never strayed far from the public eye. In recent months there has been a rebirth of interest the hopper. Of course a traditional mark against these tiny balloons is that they are essentially one-man units. This makes them difficult to use for training, crew don't particularly care for them as they can never go for a ride, and a pilot wishing to share the experience of balloon flight can hardly do so while flying a hopper. Thus, Thunder & Colt in 1994 introduced the DuoChariot; a 2-place version of the SkyChariot, and advertised as the hot air balloon with unique side-by-side seating. indeed while at Thunder & Colt US I had the chance to tether a DuoChariot, an experience I have always likened to taking the bucket seats out of a '65 Ford Mustang to go flying. The DuoChariot is designed to be flown under either a 56,000 or 65,000 cubic foot envelope and features a 20 gallon fuel tank for greater duration than is usually attainable in such small balloons.
In May of 1994 the hopper again became the subject of front-page news coverage thanks to two exciting and unusual ballooning events. On May 6- 8, balloonists from around the world visited tiny Post Mills, Vermont to celebrate the world's first Experimental Balloon Meet. Hosted by Brian Boland, all of the attending aircraft were required to be homebuilt and many, naturally were in the smaller than life category. Paul Stumpf showed up with a balloon small enough for children to fly while Kevin Brielman flew his experimental 23,000 cubic foot envelope using a garbage can as a basket, inside a 240,000 cubic foot homebuilt belonging to Tom Handcock.
A few weeks later in Branson, Missouri, a team of balloonists from Thunder & Colt US (with tongues firmly in cheek) took four Cloudhopper and a chariot underground into Marvel Cave to claim three new world records-first underground balloon competition, first underground balloon glow, and most balloons ever flown underground.
Schabus still plans to attempt distance records for the AX1 and 2 but those will have to wait until the cold of this winter. Are we witnessing yet another one man drive into the record books and ballooning lore? Time and Schabus' level of drive, determination and desire will tell. But it is clear that after almost two decades of flying, we still have not found the true outer limits of the one-man hang balloon called the hopper.