A new design for a solar-powered hybrid hot-air balloon, by Cameron Balloons, made its first flight this weekend at a balloon rally in Bristol, England. The aircraft is the first fully certified balloon to use the hybrid solar concept. The balloon envelope is designed with a special black panel, which absorbs the heat from the sun, and on the other side is a panel of insulating silver fabric, which helps to retain the heat in the envelope. The design enables the aircraft to fly while using about one-quarter the propane fuel that a standard flight would require, according to a news release from the fiesta organizers.
Dave Vauxhall, chief designer at Cameron, was on the first flight, and said flying under solar power creates “quite an unreal sensation.” Normal hot-air balloon flights require frequent blasts of a noisy propane burner, suspended above the basket, to keep the air inside the envelope hot. “With this type of [solar] balloon … you are just floating along without a burner running,” Vauxhall told the Western Daily Press. Solar-heated balloon designs have been flown in the past by experimenters as early as 1973, and in 1981 balloonist Julian Nott flew a solar-powered hybrid balloon across the English Channel.