Stokes / Condor Balloons

George Stokes built some of the most beautiful, and strangest, balloons in the world

A good view of just how unusual Stokes balloons could
be (unartfully colorized by the author) (alternate angle)

From the earliest days of the sport, Stokes built
some of the most innovative systems in the air

"Jet Stream" balloons, built by maverick designer George Stokes, were breaking the mold before most manufacturers were aware there was a mold. Stokes was a pioneer in the best sense - possibly decades ahead of his time, interested not in what was "accepted," but rather in what worked best. He demonstrated his creations' capabilities with a number of memorable (if sometimes star-crossed) public appearances and exhibitions. This was particularly fitting because Stokes' balloons, purpose-built to tether, were, probably more than any other maker's, marketed specifically to be exhibited.

I spent years looking, and months pleading on these pages, for decent, descriptive shots of Stokes balloons. Then, in July, 2004, veteran pilot Tom Oerman came through in awe-inspiring style. Tom flew Bandag's Stokes in the mid-'70s, in addition to a vast array of other ballooning activities over the last thirty-some years, and recently contributed a truly amazing collection of balloon memorabilia for display (and for me to pore over for hours, grinning like the world's happiest idiot). Tom's contributions will be all over these pages, but nowhere were they needed more than on this page. I'm bowled over, awed and humbled by Tom's generous contribution. Still - if you've got a Stokes pic on the ol' hard drive that isn't here, please drop me a line! This page has had a fantastic infusion of information, but there's still room for more about these truly unique aircraft, and the colorful figure who built them.

Click on any of the images below to open a new window with a MUCH larger version. Some files are over 200KB (although some are tiny), so downloads may take a while. Or not. "¤" symbol indicates image scanned from "Ballooning" magazine with the kind permission of the Balloon Federation of America.

Stokeses were of the "Superpressure" design, with a fan that forced air into the envelope. Tom Oerman, pilot of this balloon, says he'd gone to hot inflation early - typically, the balloon would be thoroughly "packed" at this stage.

Thanks to Tom Oerman (the gentleman on the right in this '75 pic), I now have a decent shot of a Stokes basket! Note the circular fan/burner assembly, half-obscured behind the crew member on the left.

Stokeses could be easily converted from superpressure to "standard" mode, the latter, shown here, being used for free flight (superpressure mode excelled at tether).

Not only do I now have decent burner shots, but now, thanks to Tom Oerman, I even know what the blast valves looked like!

Bandag used some lavish printed materials in conjunction with its balloon program - this brochure is gorgeous - a true delight for the Stokes fan.

Perched atop the large circular fan was this double, chimneyed burner (not the strongest component of the Stokes system, but it sure photographed attractively!) Note the spark plug on the right, which took the place of the pilot light.

Stokes built this self-explanatory shape, brainchild of artist John Perry, for the "Save the Whales" movement in the mid-1970s. It's hard to beat a flying sperm whale for grabbing attention, which Flo did beautifully in many locales in the '70s, including the '77 (or was it '76?) 'Fiesta. Here's another shot of Flo, in flight, circa 1977 (photo by Dick Stamberg, ¤).

"Balloonman" Tom Rote sent this shot of his Stokes, fan removed and blast valve added late in its life (different angle). The standard Stokes shape predated the Raven Rally's gores-that-don't-reach-the-skirt. (here's another and another). Smoother Stokeses included the super-flat Union Jack design at the top (and background) of this page (different angle).

Tom Oerman sent me this hand-lettered ad for Stokes-built "Jetstream" balloons, circa early '70s. Evidently, some of the claims on Page 2 and Page 3 might have been a tad optimistic, but the authorities are unanimous that Stokes built the best tether balloon on the market.

© BFA. Collection of David Tanzer

The standard Jet Stream balloon used a Raven-style Velcro® top. The only difference was that, unlike the Raven, the Stokes system had no maneuvering vent! Thanks to Tom Oerman for this tidbit.

© BFA. Collection of David Tanzer

The mid-'70s saw the peak of Stokes popularity. I count three in this shot from (I believe) the '77 'Fiesta, including Tom Oerman's "Bandag" and "Dream Mender" (foreground), later acquired by Tom Rote.

Photo: Martin Folb ¤

Stokes built (some of?) the first hoppers in the US (alternate view ¤). The most visible was undoubtedly Baby Lark (collection of Mike Emich), which Bobby Sparks flew, as always, to great effect (alternate view [same]).

George Stokes piloted this vast balloon in 1977, setting the record for most hang gliders dropped at once. Here is a bit closer look at the basket.

Stokes made this faux gas balloon for a movie in 1978. Given how convincing is the effect, it's hard to believe it's only been done once!

Stokes built one of the earliest special shapes in the U.S., circa (correct me if I'm wrong) 1976. My parents thought it looked "diseased." I thought it was cool.

Some Stokes Facts from Robert "Professor Bob" Willbanks

Mike Adams phoned one day to inquire if I wanted to participate in a 'Day Long' tether during the 'Chattahoochee Raft Race.'  Looking to make a little money, as we all were in those days, I agreed. We rented a generator, bought lots of gas and set up at the "River Bend Apartments." The Race began at 8:00 and we were standing tall only 30 feet from the water's edge. This tether completed about 6:30 that evening and we never took down the balloon. The "Commercial Guys" flying for Bud, and others, were blown out by 10:00AM. I continued to use the Stokes in many tether situations where no other balloon would have been able to complete the job.

Regarding the ignition system: The Stokes ignition system, because of the inflation / pressurization fan, consisted of auto spark plugs in each can with Model 'T' style spark coils mounted just below the fan guard. The high tension lead went up around the fan guard and the 12 volt leads traveled about 6 feet down into the control box. There were NO pilot lights. On each firing sequence (there were dual controls for redundancy), one opened the main valve with a slide lever and hit the starter button. The coil points would buzz and you would get ignition of the LPG. If you heard silence, you went to the backup. Sometime the points would get rusty or, for no reason, just quit buzzing. I used to fly with toilet tissue stuffed in the chest pocket of my jump suit as an emergency lighter system. In the case of a complete no-relight, I was prepared to light the wad of tissues and send it hurling up into the throat of the balloon to ignite the propane. Fortunately it never came to that, but a couple of times I thought it might happen.

There are many additional and interesting quirks about flying the Stokes and its very long after-burn because of the length of fuel hoses to the burner.


Some Stokes Recollections from Tom Oerman

In February, 1973 I went to try out for the First World in Albuquerque and was one of three who made the cut for the U.S. team (Denny Floden and Bill cutter were the other guys). As I recall, the 1972 National Champion, Bruce Comstock, was considered automatically qualified and each country could only field four pilots. At that time, I met George Stokes and was impressed with his super pressure London Bridge balloon. I knew there would be a lot of pressure (no pun intended), to tether for Thermogas so shortly after the Worlds, I made arrangement to buy a new Stokes for this contract. I took delivery of the balloon in early May of '73 and flew it on tether for the first time on May 14, 1973 for the Thermogas dealer in South Bend, Indiana. I also flew this balloon in the '73 Nationals and came close to winning (But that's another story!). I think Thermogas was the first George built for someone other than himself. In addition to this balloon, my next major corporate balloons were Stokes. In '74 I sold Bandag an AX-7 and in '76 the first shaped Stokes for Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Popping Corn. I have a small web site at where Bandag is illustrated.

George and I were very good friends. We did a lot of balloon things together. I happened to be in California when he first attached the hang gliders to the Big balloon and he asked me to pilot it (on tether). George never cared to be in the balloon on a tether. He had more control of the operation on the ground, setting and adjusting the tether ropes...and taking pictures. When I got Thermogas, he told me, by phone, how to operate and tether and I never had a problem with it.

The beauty of George's design was you would always inflate with super pressure but, if you wanted to go into free flight, you only needed to remove the pressure panel, a disk of fabric attached with Velcro to the skirt and burner ring (a rope hung down from the panel for removal); disconnect the 120 volt drop cord from the fan's electric motor; add heat and go. This was the only super pressure system made like this (Raven's could only be tethered). Also, the four basket cables went to a heavy steel ring above where four shorter cables went to the burner ring structure. Attaching the basket tether ropes to this ring allowed the burners to move with the envelope and the basket to hang straight below with no tipping. There was no reason to ever burn the balloon when tethering...if you were sure the balloon was totally full and tight with air before you added heat.

FYI (and very few people know this!), the Raven Rally looked like a Stokes 'cause I sent them a Stokes (and a Barnes!) so they could evaluate it (HON Industries [Oerman's former employer. -Ed.] always brought in competition furniture to do the same). George's design used all straight gores except for the little ones in the center; a very economical, time saving design; and it was a natural shape, too.


I am indebted to many for the images and words on this page, but no one more than Tom Oerman, who sent me an unbelievable collection of memorabilia, heavy on the Stokes, which had long been at the top of my "must know more" list. I'm also thankful for Tom's terrific firsthand accounts, some of which I'm almost a year late in adding to the site. Also to thank are Lance Terry, the loan of whose Ballooning magazines added to just about every page on this site, and Glen Moyer and the BFA, for the kind permission to scan images from Ballooning. Finally, I'm grateful to "Professor Bob" Willbanks for sending along some of his Stokes memories, along with a wealth of other information.

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