A Comeback For Hydrogen Flight?

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For decades, lighter-than-air flight via hydrogen gas has been associated with a flaming Hindenburg, but now a handful of balloon hobbyists are hoping to change that and bring hydrogen back. On Feb. 17, balloonists Sam Parks and Drew Barrett flew two hydrogen-filled sport balloons from South Carolina to Virginia. Parks told The Statesville Record & Landmark that the launch was probably the first of its kind in the southeast since the Civil War. He added that one purpose of the flight was to demonstrate that modern hydrogen-filled balloons are safe and practical. The price of helium is getting too high for many sport flyers, he said. The two crews flew for about eight hours.

Most sport balloons in the U.S. depend on hot air for lift, powered by propane burners attached above the basket. Their flight time is limited by how much fuel they can carry, generally just enough for a few hours. Gas balloons, which use hydrogen or helium for lift, can fly for days, managing their altitude by dropping ballast and venting gas. Hydrogen balloon systems have long been used for sport flying in Europe and occasionally in the western states. Barrett, who is from Tampa, Fla., told the Record he has flown many types of aircraft, but gas ballooning "is the most perfect and pure flying I've ever done."