Julian Nott (1944-2019)

Julian Nott was the first balloonist to receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Aero Club which has been awarded to renowned figures in aviation like the Wright brothers and Neil Armstrong

Issue: 5 / 2019By Joseph Noronha

A balloon is an unpowered aerostat which remains aloft or floats due to its buoyancy. And there has perhaps been no greater exponent of balloon flying than Julian Nott, a British national who lived in Santa Barbara, California, USA. Nott founded the modern sport ballooning movement. He shunned conventional ballooning, preferring to be an innovator in the field. He made a name for himself in record-setting feats with 79 world ballooning records and 96 British aviation records. These were in a variety of categories including hot air, helium, super-pressure and combination ballooning and encompassed altitude, distance, as well as time aloft marks. Perhaps the most noteworthy feat was his ascent on October 31, 1980 in a composite plastic hot air balloon to a world record altitude of 55,134 feet over Longmont, Colorado. The cabin was the world’s first pressurised balloon cabin which Nott himself had designed, constructed and then piloted to that rarefied height. This mark stood unbroken for eight years.

Julian Nott was born on June 22, 1944, and grew up in Bristol, England. He was 25 when he made his first balloon flight. He was ostensibly trying to impress a young lady, but it was he who became hooked for life – to ballooning. He was awarded his balloon pilot’s licence in May 1970 and continued ballooning for the next forty-eight years, in fact till the day of his death. One interesting experiment he performed in 1975 concerned the Nazca Lines – a group of very large geoglyphs formed in the soil of the Nazca Desert in Southern Peru between 500 BC and 500 AD, whose form can only be discerned from a height. Together with an American named Jim Woodman, Nott built a hot air balloon using only materials that would have been available to the Nazca – like totora reeds, cloth and rope. The duo then used smoke to lift their giant tetrahedron balloon, Condor I, and flew for several minutes at an average altitude of 300 feet. Although historians have dismissed the theory as not based on historical evidence, Nott did demonstrate that it was technically possible for the Nazca to have soared above the desert to view their works of art.

In 2014, Nott provided crucial assistance to help Alan Eustace break the record for the world’s highest parachute jump, from an altitude of 135,890 feet. And in 2017, when he was 72, he set a new Guinness World Record for the highest tandem skydiving jump, from 31,916 feet. In tandem skydiving, a student skydiver is connected to a harness attached to the instructor. The instructor guides the student through the entire jump from exit through free-fall and landing. Nott was also the first to balloon across the Sahara Desert, the first to balloon across Australia and the first to cross the Alps. Although he achieved all this through brilliant technological innovation, he insisted that record-breaking was not his main objective. “Most of all, I hope to use science to advance and innovate. But setting a world record is indisputable proof of the success of a new design.”

Julian Nott was the first balloonist to receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Aero Club which has been awarded to only the topmost figures in aviation such as the Wright brothers and Neil Armstrong. He was also a prolific lecturer and writer, a TV star and the subject of four full-length TV documentaries. He was not content with simply flying a balloon, but was a senior member of the American Institute of Aeronautics by virtue of his engineering experience. His experimental flying achievements also qualified him to be a member of the elite Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

Nowadays, balloon flying is expected to be more dangerous than powered flight. However, when a balloon claimed Julian Nott’s life on March 26, 2019, it did not happen during flight. According to Roberta Greene, spokesperson for Nott’s family: “Julian was flying an experimental balloon that was his invention and design – made to test high-altitude technology. It was a test flight and while flying over the Warner Springs, CA area, he began to lose altitude. He landed safely and spoke to several of us, including me. He said all was OK and he needed to secure the cabin. Several hours later, while he was in the cabin, it became loose and rolled down the hillside with him inside. It was a totally unforeseen and tragic accident. Unfortunately, he sustained many serious injuries and passed away peacefully in a nearby trauma centre.” Paying tribute to him, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum described Julian Nott as “a central figure in the expansion of ballooning as an organiser, pilot and most of all, as arguably the leading figure to apply modern science to manned balloon design.”