What It’s Like To Race A Hydrogen Balloon Across The US


Last week, 17 hydrogen balloons departed Albuquerque in the Gordon Bennett gas balloon for points east. In this interview, AVweb’s Paul Bertorelli talked to two pilots who flew the race, eventually landing in Georgia just west of Savannah. Noah Forden and Brenda Cowlishaw finished fourth, with a distance of 1382 miles in 65 hours. Note: We grabbed this interview on the fly, so to speak, so the first part is a bit noisy.

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  1. I had no idea hydrogen was so popular in US ballooning. It’s all hot air here in the UK (as far as I know).
    Hmmm… suspended from a flimsy bag of the most reactive element known to man (and with “Oh, the humanity…!!!” ringing constantly in my head) would not be my method of travel of choice…

  2. While hot air is certainly safe, the propane used to make it hot is not, making fire a significant risk. If the tanks or line are breached the pilot light provides an ignition source. Too, both gaseous and liquid propane are heavier than air, easily migrating the flames onto and under the occupants. Hydrogen is perfectly safe when kept from oxygen and modern fabrics are much more air tight than the old envelope materials (animal intestines). Plus, when released, the hydrogen goes up, taking the fire with it. Remember that most of the crew & passengers survived the Hindenburg crash.

    • Good points, Jeffry. Most people assume that everyone perished in the Hindenburg accident, but almost two-thirds survived (62 of 97). Only those that were trapped in the collapsing structure died. Most jumped clear of the gondola and ran to safety. As a result of the spectacular film of the accident, hydrogen has a very bad reputation. While it certainly demands proper safety precautions, hydrogen is not inherently unstable and will not burn until mixed in the proper concentration with oxygen (air). Plus, being much lighter than air, any leaks will rise up and away from the occupants below the balloon. Two things make modern ballooning much safer than the old Zeppelins. First, as you said, modern materials contain the hydrogen far better than those used in the Hindenburg. Second is the size. The Hindenburg was the largest aircraft ever built. At 804 feet long and 135 feet in diameter, it held over 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen gas in its rather leaky gas bags inside the airframe. Modern gas balloons carry a small fraction of that.

  3. I was a Dead Cow lake in 2022 for the High Sierra Fly-In and watched a low-boy carrying a hot air balloon envelope and a dozen LP gas tanks go up in flames. And this when the whole thing was tied down on the ground minding its own business. Even then a small gas leak and tiny zap of static resulted in a quite spectacular fire that burned the trailer and its contents, sending gas tanks flying in all directions. Not even safe on the ground!

  4. Having worked with Hydrogen in the semiconductor industry I am amazed that it is used in any mobile application! here are a few points to consider that have helped me come to this veiw point. 1.) Hydrogen is the smallest molecule in existance it can get through or around all materials attempting to contain it, it literally difuses straight through all types of rubber and plastics.
    Simple version : IT Can and WILL leak it is unavoidable.
    2.) the explosive range of hydrogen in air is from 4% hydrogen to air (LEL) to the UPPER explosive limit is 75 % H3 to air! These are the range it explodes when a spark occurs, it can burn in air from the LEL to around 97% in air with a spark, it has the widest flammable range of any fuel / gas in air.
    Simple out take is the small amount leaking in point 1 is very dangerous!
    3.) Hydrogen is oderless and if oder is added it becomes heavy and lots of oderant is required to sent very little gas. Pure H2 burns with a nearly invisable flame but that flame is very hot and can melt almost any material when burning with ample air or oxygen (hello we are talking balloon, plenty of air!) . and last it is said very hard to extinguish an h2 fire however this may be because people tend to get away from the fire and knowing it may explode at any time while burning fire fighting an H2 fire may not be that frequent .
    All that said I still think these folks are great and deserve special recognition for this type of flying and the historical preservation of this early (earliest?) form of flight !