Aug 232023

We’ve all marveled at their beauty and grace as they float through the air. Airplanes will get you to your destination quicker, helicopters may get you into places where no roads go, but for the ultimate flying experience, nothing compares to a balloon lazily drifting on the air currents. At the National Balloon Museum in Indianola, Iowa, over 200 years of ballooning history is chronicled, from the first lighter than air flight in 1783 to present day sport ballooning. Here you will find displays of balloon gondolas, flight equipment, historic artifacts, and the U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame, which honors the greatest names in American ballooning.

The first free flight carrying a human passenger took place on November 21, 1783 in Paris, France in a hot air balloon made of paper and silk made by the Montgolfier brothers. The balloon carried two men, Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent, Marquis of d’ Arlanders. They stood on a circular platform attached to the bottom of the balloon. The fire was hand-fed through openings on either side of the balloon’s skirt.  The balloon reached an altitude of at least 500 feet and traveled about 5½ miles before landing safely 25 minutes later.

On December 1, 1783, just ten days after the first hot air balloon ride, the first gas balloon was launched by physicists Jacques Alexander Charles and Nicholas Louis Robert. This flight also started in Paris, France and lasted 2½ hours, covering a distance of 25 miles. The balloon used hydrogen gas, which is lighter than air.

The first manned flight of a balloon in America was on January 9, 1793, when Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who was the first to cross the English Channel in a balloon, lifted off from a prison yard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He ascended to about 5,800 feet and made a successful landing in Gloucester County in New Jersey. George Washington observed the launch.

Modern hot-air ballooning was born on October 22, 1960, when Paul E. (Ed) Yost piloted the maiden flight of a balloon employing a new envelope and a new propane burner system which he had developed. The flight lasted 25 minutes and traveled 3 miles. Yost’s balloon was 40 feet in diameter, with a volume of 30,000 cubic feet. Yost is known as the father of modern hot-air ballooning. Soon, Yost’s company, Raven Industries, was making balloons for sale, and by the mid-1960s there were three balloon makers in the United States.

By 1963, sport ballooning had grown in popularity, and the first U. S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship event was held in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In 1971 the National Championship event moved to Indianola, Iowa, where it remained for 18 years. Since that time, the Nationals have moved around to various parts of the country. Many local ballooning clubs now hold events all over the United States. As the technology of burners and balloon envelope construction improved, ballooning continued to grow in popularity. Most sport ballooning today is done with hot air balloons. Gas ballooning has its followers, but inflating a gas balloon takes much longer, and the price of helium continues to make gas ballooning more expensive than hot air.

The National Balloon Museum’s location in Indianola came about because of the community’s association with the early days of the National Hot Air Balloon Championships, beginning in 1970. By 1972, exhibits of ballooning history were set up in temporary displays in various locations in the city each year during the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championships. The materials then had to be stored until the next year. The building was designed to resemble two inverted balloons. Indianola is the home of the National Balloon Classic, a nine-day premier ballooning event that attracts balloonists from all over the country.

Visitors to the National Balloon Museum have the opportunity to see many historic balloon gondolas, including the Channel Champ, the first hot air balloon to be flown across the English Channel, and arguably the single most important historical artifact of the sport of ballooning. On April 13, 1963, pilot Ed Yost and photographer Don Piccard launched the 60,000 cubic foot hot air balloon from the village of Rye, England. Just over three hours later, Yost landed the aircraft near Gravelines, France, completing the historic voyage.

Several unique designs of gondolas displayed include a bullet-shaped metal gondola made in Italy for Link Baum, who became the youngest pilot to cross the English Channel, at age 22, in the early 1970s, and the Body Basket, a gondola that resembles a telephone booth and was used in a 64-hour gas balloon flight.

The museum’s displays include odd items such as a smoke balloon cannon used by seventeen-year-old daredevil Florence Allen, a member of the famous Flying Allens. The smoke balloon was inflated in typical fashion, with the cannon harnessed alongside. Rising two to three thousand feet, Florence would “fire” herself from the cannon and plunge toward the ground, attached to the balloon by a single suspension rope. Within a few hundred feet of the ground, she would deploy her parachute and glide gracefully back to earth, thrilling crowds of spectators across the nation in over a hundred performances.

One scrap of fabric on display at the National Balloon Museum is a remnant from a World War II Japanese Fugo balloon. Launched from Japan, the 19,000 cubic foot balloons carried bombs and were designed to float across the Pacific Ocean and detonate in the United States. The Japanese hoped that in addition to causing casualties, the balloon bombs would start massive forest fires in the Pacific Northwest, diverting manpower and equipment away from the war effort. One such bomb did succeed in killing six people on a picnic in Oregon on May 5, 1945, but the rest failed to perform. The Fugo (Holy Wind) fabric on display at the museum came from a balloon that landed in Flint, Michigan in February, 1945, but did not explode.

The museum honors women balloonists with special exhibits chronicling the achievements of women pilots, crew members, crew chiefs, observers, and the balloons they work with and details of some of their accomplishments and awards. One such woman honored is pioneer hot air balloon pilot Nikki Caplan, who set many records in the sport, including making an amazing flight from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Duncombe, Iowa, in 1982 in a gas balloon.

The museum’s Learning Center provides a learning environment for children and adults. It includes a “Book Basket” filled with cushions covered with balloon fabric where children can sit and read a book about ballooning. It also has places to color balloon pictures. A special feature is a video game called Hot Air Pilot, which allows older children and adults to fly a virtual hot air balloon.

It is amazing what you can learn at the National Balloon Museum. Did you know that Wonder Bread was named for hot air balloons? When bakery manager Elmer Kline witnessed the wonder of a hot air balloon festival at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he was inspired to name his bread Wonder Bread. The red, yellow, and blue balloons on Wonder Bread’s packaging represent the balloons Kline saw that inspired the bread’s name. Wonder Bread still recognizes its balloon heritage. In recognition of Wonder Bread’s 80th birthday in 2001, Interstate Bakeries Corporation began touring the Wonder Bread hot air balloon. Every summer, the Wonder Balloon travels across the country to balloon festivals.

Whether you dream of someday floating above the ground in a hot air balloon or prefer to keep your feet planted on terra firma but still appreciate balloons for their silent majesty as they ride the air currents, a visit to the National Balloon Museum is sure to delight you.

The National Balloon Museum is located at 1601 North Jefferson (US Highway 65/69) on Indianola’s north side. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Winter hours are shorter. The museum closes for the month of January and on all major holidays. Admission to the museum is free, though donations are welcomed to help support its operation. Parking at the museum is limited to passenger-sized vehicles, but a nearby WalMart Super Center has room to park an RV while you visit the museum. For more information on the museum, call (515) 961-3714, or visit their website at

And finally, here’s a chuckle to start your day from the collection of funny signs we see in our travels and that our readers share with us.

Thought For The Day Done is better than perfect.

Nick Russell

World-Famous, New York Times Best Selling Author, and All-Around Nice Guy!

  4 Responses to “National Balloon Museum”

  1. That sign reminds me of the signs we used to see at some buildings stating “NO DOGS ALLOWED, EXCEPT FOR SEEING EYE DOGS!” I remember thinking who would read the sign if a seeing eye dog approached the building with its person? The dog?

  2. We were their the summer of 2016. We worked at Adventureland. We enjoyed the museum and was able to take a day off and spend it at the Balloon Festival. It was MAGNIFICENT. I wrote a blog on it myself.

  3. Have attended the annual baboon festival in Albuquerque, NM twice and would recommend it to anyone wanting to see a Balloon Extravaganza. Great location and easy access to balloon operators.

  4. Got a phone call once from a guy selling hearing aids

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