The Almost-Mile-High Club

Do you know nine facts about hot-air balloons? You’re about to!

Published November 10, 2023

Eric Keihl is the managing editor for Questionist’s parent company, Geeks Who Drink. Each week, he will accept a reader challenge to write a entire, quiz-ready trivia round on some tricky or obscure subject. You can challenge Eric here.

This week’s theme is hot-air balloons, suggested by Justin Garoutte at Social Kitchens & Bar in Santa Fe. Thanks, Justin!

Lock your kids in the garage, folks, we’re going a little blue for this one. The Montgolfier brothers’s first hot-air balloon ascent in 1783 was an incredible leap forward for humanity and science, but by 1784 it was already solid fodder for ribald cartoons and dirty rich-dude wagers.

Enter George Cholmondeley, a British earl mostly known for hanging with courtesans and throwing his fortune around on dumb-ass bets. Naturally he looked for a way to combine his two passions, and so according to the books at a London gentlemen’s club, fellow gadabout Edward Smith-Stanley offered to pay him 500 guineas (roughly $96,000 today) if he could “perform in the aerial regions, the usual ceremonial rites paid at the shrine of Venus” … get his freak on with a young lady in a balloon, in other words. There’s no record of whether the bet was ever paid off, but it if so it would almost certainly make ol’ Georgie the first member of the mile-high club… or the 60-percent-of-a-mile club, in his case. 

An equally-unconfirmed case of aerial porkin’ came a year later, when West End actress Letitia Sage went up in a Union Jack balloon with a companion named George Biggin (huh huh -Ed.). Sage claims that as they were taking off, she had to kneel down to close an opening in the balloon’s basket while Biggin steadied her by the shoulder, and… yeah, you get it. Both of them insisted nothing dirty happened, but there’s something about balloons that just fired up the blood, back before it was even okay to look at your partner’s ankles.

Anyway, enough salaciousness! We’re gonna be (mostly) PG from now on, promise. Prepare for takeoff!

1. Let’s get the RE/MAX question out of the way: What really, really obvious phrase does the “RE” in that company’s name stand for? Real Estate

And the “MAX” is just short for “Maximums.” There, now you don’t have to go around believing there’s a company called “Rhinoceros Enchilada Makers And Xylophonists” anymore.

2. Though she’s riding with a water guy, not an air guy, Ember lifts a balloon just by concentrating in what recent Pixar film about star-crossed… energy states? Elemental

The movie features a water character named Ghibli, a lovely nod to the venerable Japanese animation studio. But a “ghibli” (from the Arabic “qibliyy,”) isn’t watery at all, but a hot and dry desert wind. Zero stars!

3. Around 1810, French aeronaut Sophie Blanchard helped Napoleon draw up plans for a balloon invasion of what country that was whupping his little butt on the high seas? England

Sadly for fans of history and/or steampunk, Blanchard determined that prevailing winds made a balloon invasion impossible. The wife of pioneering balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard, Sophie eventually perished when some fireworks over Paris’s Tivoli Gardens went awry, crashing her into a house along the Rue de Provence. 

4. Dang it, Bobby, pretty much the only gas used for hot air ballooning these days is what clean-burning barbecue fuel with the formula C3H8? Propane

Propane burns hotter than butane, so it’s also the optimal gas for soldering torches. Great news for the ever-growing balloonist/metalworker demographic!

5. You’re welcome! What cartoon brat sings this grating earworm that will never ever leave your brain now? Peppa Pig

Harley Bird voiced Peppa Pig from age 5 to 18, though Peppa herself is forever stuck at four. Now that I think about it, Harley Bird would also be a perfectly normal name for a character on Peppa Pig.

6. An antique fire engine always follows behind the famous hot air balloon shaped like the furry, blankly-staring head of what Forest Service mascot? Smokey Bear

In 2013, Mitch McConnell tried to pull all $31,000 of public funding for the Smokey balloon. That same year, he happily voted “yea” on a $633 billion military spending bill. Hey Mitch, only you can go f*ck yourself!

7. Hot-air balloons float in air under the same principle that makes an old Greek dude float in a tub. That principle is named for what ancient polymath? Archimedes

Archimedes was killed at age 78, when his home city of Syracuse was besieged by the Romans. Legend says that a soldier entered his home while he was heedlessly drawing mathematical figures in the sand, making his last words “Do not disturb my circles!”

Death of Archimedes by Thomas Degeorge (1815)

8. A hot-air balloon carries Tom and Huck to Africa in the little-known sequel Tom Sawyer Abroad, coincidentally written right after what author blew all his money on failed startups? Mark Twain

Said startups included the Fredonia Watch Company, whose founders collected a shady dividend for themselves and quickly cashed out their stock, leaving other shareholders (including Twain) high and dry. Twain naturally responded with a sarcastic “for sale” ad for his stock, but trenchant satire won’t get your foreclosed house back. 

Bonus: Though their balloon festival one from the aughts was pretty cool, what Southwestern state now offers an even-radder black-and-yellow license plate with red and green chiles? New Mexico

Hard to fault New Mexico in the graphic design department, rocking as they do the best state flag in the business, but I gotta say that the “aw, ain’t that just the cutest” look on the eagle in their otherwise fine state seal is not exactly… enchanting.

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