ED YOST: FATHER OF THE MODERN HOT AIR BALLOON
Hot air balloons are one of the most beautiful and fascinating ways to
take to the skies. Most people are unaware that these beautiful and exotic
aircraft are actually a relatively modern invention, and that these
seemingly peaceful sport balloons are actually the unintended result of a
military contract. One man, Paul Edward "Ed" Yost, developed,
built, and flew the very first balloons that effectively defined the
modern hot air balloon.
Yost first became involved with balloons when he leased his single
engine Stinson airplane to General Mills to track their huge scientific
balloons. As a senior engineer with the High Altitude Research Division of
General Mills, he was a key player in the development of high altitude
research balloons capable of reaching altitudes over 100,000 feet.
Throughout the 1950s, Yost was involved with military and other
classified government programs using gas balloons to carry leaflets and
even men across the Iron Curtain from three launch sites in West Germany.
Using different sized gas balloons, most of Eastern Europe could be
covered, carrying anywhere from 4 pounds to over 750 pounds of leaflets.
The leaflets were actually small newspapers that would give inhabitants of
Communist dominated countries news of the West they couldn't get any other
way. Yost said "the thing worked too damn good and we got the
Hungarian Revolution. Eisenhower stopped the program. We should have been
Communist bloc countries were in the habit of looking for and shooting
down the gas balloons. Yost said that "we were launching big balloons
in the daytime. Some days there would be a trail of balloons across the
sky. Fighter planes were blowing them out of the sky, so they changed to
launching at night." So probably the news shouldn't have been quite
so shocking when in 1995 Belarus, a country still mired in a Cold War
mentality, shot down and killed two balloonists participating in the
Gordon Bennett balloon race in Europe.
The First Modern Hot Air Balloon
Yost conceived of the hot air balloon as cheaper and easier to launch
replacement for the gas balloons in use in Europe. Initially propane was
not the fuel of choice because it wasn't available in European locations
where the balloons were flown. Indoor experiments began using plumbers
pots fueled by white gas as burners. Eventually, on October 18, 1955 a
balloon using five plumbers pots lifted a man on a tether. One of the
tethered balloons holding a man on a harness was photographed, and Yost
used the photo to negotiate a $47,000 contract from the Office of Naval
Research. He had to "nurse" the small sum of money,
"bootlegging" parts and labor along the way.
Yost flew the first man-capable hot air balloon at an old air base at
Bruning, Nebraska on October 22, 1960. It used propane vapor rather than
liquid propane. It was a cold October day, and Yost had to shake the
propane tanks to get some of the liquid propane to vaporize on the sides
of the tanks. After a slow climb to around 500 to 600 feet, Yost succeeded
in staying aloft for 35 minutes. The deflation opening was only 7 feet
across, with the fabric held together by a line which was cut by an
explosive squib fired by a flashlight switch. The small hole opened up
when the squib was fired. But with such a small opening, the balloon
deflated very slowly. Yost said "the balloon dragged me all over the
One of the first modifications was to develop a liquid propane burner.
One of the first flights of a burner with preheat tubes almost ended
disastrously when the burner blew up. Yost said he "turned everything
off and landed like a ton of bricks". Following the difficult landing
on the first flight, when Yost went to the doctor after this flight, his
doctor told him that "he had already worn out three
Larger steel tubing would solve that burner problem, but then problems
were encountered with flameouts which had to be solved. The original
envelope fabric used was only .84 ounces per square yard (typical fabric
used in production balloons today is 1.9), but it was too porous. Dupont
developed a fabric laminated with mylar. Yost said the laminated fabric
did the job, but it only lasted 4 or 5 flights and would begin to
delaminate. Other innovations that were incorporated as the experiments
proceeded were a much improved top deflation port held in by velcro and a
side vent to allow a quick descent. Even here, more than one try was
required. The first side slit was 7 feet, and it was inadequate. A larger
side vent was then used. Yost is still proud of the side vent and adamant
that it is better than some other vents used today.
By the time Yost and his team had met all of the Navy requirements for
a one-man balloon and the final report was written, Yost had developed and
flown hot air balloons incorporating all of the major characteristics of
today's modern hot air balloons. The innovations included nonporous coated
synthetic fabrics, liquid propane fueled burners with preheater tubes and
fast acting valves, and maneuvering and deflation vents for control of the
aircraft during flight and landing.
The Channel Flight
In April 1963, Yost and Don Piccard made the first hot air balloon
flight across the English Channel. Yost said that the flight was not a
sport balloon flight. The government project sponsor wanted to demonstrate
the range and endurance capabilities of the new type of aircraft. When
told by European air traffic control officials that there was too much
traffic to fly across the Channel at the shortest point near Calais, Yost
said that was no problem. With 12 hours of fuel on board, the flight
intentionally did not take place at the narrowest part of the channel
because that would not have adequately demonstrated the range and duration
capabilities of the balloon. The balloon was carried over to England on a
Minnesota-based Air Force KC-97, with the navigator on the flight the now
famous Paul Poberezny, founder of the Experimental Aircraft
Yost was not particularly complimentary toward Don Piccard, who shared
the flight and who Yost referred to as a "passenger", not a
copilot. "I don't know why we took Piccard," Yost related.
"He didn't know how to fly the damn thing. I told him 'keep your damn
hands off and take pictures'" They took off on April 13, 1963 despite
unfavorable winds because the KC-97 was scheduled to pick them up in
France on the 14th and return to the United States. Initially, at low
altitudes the balloon headed inland toward London. Yost, in an incredible
display of faith in the equipment he had designed, took the balloon to
13,500 feet where he finally found winds heading toward France. He had
never before had the balloon above 3,000 feet!
When he reached the French coast, Yost looked straight down at Calais
and could see smoke from a powerplant stack blowing straight out to sea.
He decided to fly five or six miles inland and then dive for the ground.
When he was ready to descend, he "turned off everything and screamed
out of the sky". He periodically slowed the descent with the single
burner can, finally turning it on wide open at 1,500 feet to round out the
Ahead were plowed fields, but also powerlines. He pulled up over two of
three sets of powerlines. Fortunately, the final set of poles was new with
no lines. The balloon finally flew over a canal and landed in a muddy
field less than half a mile from the ocean. Yost said that his landing was
complicated by his passenger bailing out when he fired the squib to open
the top for deflation. The balloon took off again and dragged a long way
through the mud. Yost said when he finally caught up with Piccard again he
told him "If you ever ride with me again I'm going to tie your legs
in the basket".
They were initially taken to a local French police station, where
"every piece of paper in their pockets was inspected", and then
released. Maybe the police were giving the town officials time to arrange
for the impromptu celebration to follow. Yost and Piccard were next taken
to City Hall where the Burgomeister, a former World War I balloonist, met
them wearing tails. They were treated to champagne and pastries. Less than
two hours after they landed they were taken to a restaurant for a banquet.
Yost said that half the business people in town showed up.
One hilarious episode occurred at the banquet. Charles Dollfus, the
elderly and eccentric French balloonist, took Yost aside and ushered him
into the coed toilets. "Now is the time", Dollfus told him.
"The time for what?" Yost responded. "The time to see the
tattoos!" exclaimed Dollfus, bending over and dropping his pants. The
world ballooning community, including Yost, had heard stories that Dollfus
had a Charliere balloon tattooed on one cheek and a Montgolfiere on the
other. Yost said "I did get a good look at the things. The
Montgolfiere was on the right. He was about 90 so they looked
semi-deflated, and faded too!"
The Forbes Transcontinental Balloon
Early in 1973, Yost received a call from Malcolm Forbes, who said that
he wanted Yost to build him a balloon to fly across the United States.
Forbes asked Yost when he would be coming to New York. Yost replied
"Never, if I can help it." An inquiry about when Yost would be
visiting other eastern cities drew a similar reply.
About two weeks later, Forbes called again, and Yost again told him he
wasn't interested. Shortly thereafter, Yost was working on a government
project in Louisville, Kentucky. About 10 am on a Saturday morning, Yost
heard a knock on his hotel door. There was Malcolm Forbes. Yost insisted
that Forbes help him unload a truck, and Forbes protested that he was too
old. They compared their ages. When Forbes found that Yost was a month
older, he began pitching boxes.
Forbes wanted to fly from San Diego in July, and fly about 14-15 hours
a day until he got across the country. Yost told him he wouldn't be able
to do that, because summer thunderstorms would kill him. Yost suggested
flying from Tillamook, Oregon (where Yost had worked on projects in a WWII
blimp hangar there) starting in October. Forbes was concerned that his
Convair plane, which would be used as a chase and support vehicle, needed
to be able to fly into any Oregon launch site. Nearby Coos Bay would be
Yost finished the balloon in August. It was designed to be taken apart
to fit in Forbes' twin-engine Convair airliner. After only a one hour test
inflation and flight at Yost's South Dakota facility, the balloon was
dismantled and flown in the Convair to fly at Forbe's Chateau de Balleroy
A French gas balloon would be flying with them. Forbes wanted it to be
a friendly competition, but he wanted to win. He also wanted to make it
look like he was flying the new balloon. Yost said he actually flew the
balloon, but Forbes kept his hands up near the burners to make it look
like he was flying. They had forgotten to ship the instrument pack, so
Yost said he flew with "just his cigar". When the French balloon
landed, they landed about a hundred yards beyond, just enough to
"win" the informal competition.
Forbes had a huge mobile home that would be used for ground chase
across the U.S. Seeing how lavishly equipped it was, Yost joked that it
was "the Taj Mahal". Forbes had "Taj Mahal" painted on
the side of the vehicle!
Yost and about half a dozen of his most experienced people flew with
Forbes for the first part of the adventure until Forbes became experienced
with the balloon, with Yost himself flying the first two legs. Yost told
of one funny incident that happened during the cross-country flight. In
Nebraska, Forbes had to inflate the balloon and take off from a field
strewn with hay bales in high wind conditions. A local woman had parked
her used but beautiful and prized Cadillac along a road downwind of the
balloon to watch the action. Bouncing off of haybales, the balloon's
basket hit and caved in the side of the Cadillac before Forbes got
airborne. The woman was distraught about the damage to her car, and was
crying inconsolably. Forbes' crew radioed up to him what had happened.
Forbes told the crew to buy the woman a brand new Cadillac!
At the end of the flight, Forbes had to land the balloon in the
Chesapeake Bay in high wind conditions. Yost said that Forbes thought he
was going to drown, but when the balloon was down Forbes got out of the
basket and found that he was in shallows and that the water was only up to
The Balloon Federation of America
Yost has had a checkered past when it comes to the Balloon
Federation of America, the largest balloonists' organization in the
United States, which he co-founded with Don Kersten and Peter Pellegrino.
He said that the three of them even put in $100 each of their own money to
bankroll the new organization's treasury. It wasn't long before those who
ran the BFA were making rules for their own reasons and possibly their own
benefit, and Yost found himself thrown out of his own organization for
flying in an unsanctioned event in Canada.
Yost enrolled his dog in the BFA, claiming that the elusive member was
"the guard in a balloon factory". In the dog's name, Yost would
send in letters critical of the way the BFA was being run at the time.
Yost said the editor of BFA magazine at the time was on to him but ran his
letters anyway. At one point, says Yost, his dog ran for the BFA board and
got more votes that some of the other candidates but didn't win.
Eventually Yost was sent a plaque stating that Yost was a Life Member.
Yost's name, address, and phone number is now listed in the BFA Membership
Winning the Cabot Award
On Friday, June 11, 1999, Paul Edward "Ed" Yost, became only
the 48th person in this distinguished line when he received the 1999 Cabot
Award from the Aero Club of New England in recognition of his lifetime
achievements and significant and enduring contributions to aviation as the
inventor of the modern hot air balloon, which opened up a new era in sport
aviation around the world, and for the development of the first successful
transatlantic gas balloons. The Boston-area based Aero Club of New England
is the oldest aero club in the United States, having been founded by gas
balloonists in 1902. The highly prestigious Cabot Award, named for the
founder of the Aero Club of New England and first American president of
the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), and has been awarded to
giants of aviation including Igor Sikorsky, General Curtis LeMay, Dr.
Charles Stark Draper, General James Doolittle, the Rutan/Yeager Voyager
team, jet engine inventors Sir Frank Whittle and Hans Ohain, and Colonel
Joe W. Kittinger, Jr.
The Godfrey L. Cabot Award caps a magnificent career by the father of
modern hot air ballooning, who has also received other honors including
being named as an NAA Elder Statesman in 1994; being named the first
living inductee of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale Hall of Fame
in 1995; recipient of the French "Diplome Paul Tissandier" in
1975 and the "Montgolfier Diplome" in 1976.