Prior to the Wright Brothers’ heavy-than-air flight in 1903, lighter-than-air experiments and flights were popular. With gas-filled balloons above them, early balloonists sparked interest in flight and helped pave the way for later aviation pioneers.
In Connecticut, the interesting character of Silas Brooks took to the skies in the late 19th century aboard his balloons. Brooks, who had once made musical instruments and worked for P.T. Barnum, took his first balloon ride in 1853, and gained financial backing from gun manufacturer Samuel Colt. Brooks travelled the country making balloon ascensions, and returned to his home state of Connecticut in the late 1800s. During his career as an aeronaut, Brooks is believed to have made close to 200 flights; however, he died in relative obscurity and poverty.
The New England Air Museum’s balloon basket was built and flown by Brooks in the 1870s. The basket is believed to be the oldest surviving American-built aircraft, making it extremely significant. Donated to the museum in the 1960s, the basket underwent restoration in the late 1980s by Harvey Hubbell IV, a member of the Board of Directors as well as an aeronaut and hot air balloon expert. The Silas Brooks Balloon Basket can be seen today on display at the New England Air Museum.