Thunder Balloons, Colt

The Thunder Z-Type was a great success, and the author's personal favorite

The Thunder Z-Type, introduced in 1977, won over commercial and
sport pilots alike, with its favorable performance and up-to-date good looks.

Thunder was there early, if not right at the beginning, helping to define sport ballooning in Britain and the rest of the world.

Dick Wirth was an architecture student when he teamed up in the early 1970s with fledgling architect Tom Donnelly, and the two recruited businessman Kenneth Simmonds to form Thunder Balloons, Ltd. David Barker recalls that production took place at 75 Leonard St, London (should be 'long about here). "Thunders were on the first and second floors of a warehouse building and everything had to be lifted up and down using an outside hoist. Thunders production commenced in late 1972 when Jumping Jack was registered; it made its debut at the Icicle meet, January 1973."

The firm built what grew into a line of attractive, well-performing aerostats that quickly amassed market share around the world. The early "Series One" Thunders were distinctive for their bulbous gores and sharply tapering profile. Thunder began production of the smooth-envelope A-Type in 1974, and with the introduction of the Z-Type in 1977, had a thoroughly modern aircraft - lightweight and with a narrow shape favored for its performance in turbulence and at high rates of ascent and descent (presaging the narrow "competition balloons" now all the rage on the rally circuit). Thunder innovated constantly, introducing gimbaled burners, turning vents and the (production) parachute rip to the British market. Wirth penned what is perhaps the greatest ballooning book ever, Ballooning - A Complete Guide to Riding the Winds in 1980, and died in an infamous crash in Albuquerque in 1982. With much of its soul torn out, Thunder continued, having recently merged with Colt, but was ultimately bought by rival Cameron. Solid as the product was in its later years, the vigor and innovation of the Dick Wirth era will surely be the company's lasting legacy.

I've been quite fortunate in finding things I was looking for for this page. Still, I know there's a lot I don't have, like deatils on non-parachute venting systems, anything at all on the Sky Chariot, a color photo of the Colt Bullet, etc. If there's anything you can contribute to the content on this page, whether by e-mailing images or words, or mailing materials for me to scan and return at my expense, please, by all means, drop me a line!

Click on any of the images below to open a new window with a MUCH larger version.
Some files approach 300KB, so downloads may take a while.

" ¤ " symbol indicates photo scanned with permission from BALLOONING magazine and the BFA.

The first Thunder was Jumpin' Jack (sometimes listed as Jumpin' Jack Flash), a well-traveled envelope by the time of her retirement. She's shown here in 1978, at the age of 6, competing in a race across the English Channel.

Photo: Peter Bish, collection of George Garcia Jr.
Colorized by the author

One of the early "Jack" balloons, TigerJack was built in 1973, and first flown in January, 1974. The 12-gore "Series One" envelope, patterned after Jumpin' Jack, could be had in 5 sizes: 42, 56, 65, 77 and 84.

Photo: Peter Bish, collection of George Garcia Jr.
Colorized by the author

Another early "Jack" balloon, Jack Tar was also built in 1973 (original black-and-white photo here). Jack O' Newbury (Photo: Peter Bish, colorized by the author) was built for the Newbury Balloon Group, and first flown in September, 1973 (original black-and-white photo).

Thunder's first U.S. sale was Cactus Jack, sold to Bob and Marge Ruppenthal, the Albuquerque couple at whose house the Thunder contingency stayed while campaigning Jumpin' Jack in the '73 Worlds. After modifications, the balloon was re-registered as a "Ruppenthal Eagle."

Introduced in 1974, the A-Type (I think this is another) had a flat envelope with a parachute rip, and came in three sizes: 56, 69 and 77 (24-32 vertical-cut gores). Now, how come no one ever pointed out my error in calling Z-Types the first smooth-gored parachute-top Thunders?!?

Two Z-Types flank a Barnes, late '70s. The Z-type, a vertical-cut design from '77 to mid-'79, had fewer gores (16-24), and came in a wider range of sizes (31, 56, 65 and 77) than the A-Type. (Here's another). Here's a B&W shot of Thunder 3, the company's promotional balloon from 1978 (Photo: Kevin Meehan, collection of George Garcia Jr.)

Thunder's '70s baskets can be identified, in part, by their nearly-vertical uprights. Here's a B&W shot of a typically stocky, thickly-padded Thunder basket from '80. (¤)

The heavy and underpowered Mk. I burner (another shot), which was replaced by the Mk. II "Hot Tom" (pics, pleease?), much improved, but which leaked, and was promptly replaced upon the company's merger with Colt (see David Barker's better-executed take on the Hot Tom concept, still his main burner, here).

Photo: © '79 Bill Vandouris, ¤

Starting in 1978, Thunder built the Bolt as an answer to Cameron's successful Viva. Note the slim profile, which made the Bolt very stable when changing altitude. Here's another (Photo: collection of George Garcia Jr.)

This ad features 3 Z-Types, a Bolt, and a Sky Chariot (missing are the A Series, and Series One and Two)

A final check of lines and cables, pre-takeoff, in this Z-Type.

For those preferring a more bulbous envelope, Thunder continued making the Series One (and the larger, 20-gore Series Two) on into the '80s.

Hokan (or Hakan) Colting began building balloons in Ireland with fellow Swede Per Lindstrand in 1976, drawn, like many others, by that country's abundance of available skilled labor (much of the company's output went to Sweden).  Production of Colt balloons by Eire Colting Balloons, Ltd. continued until the company moved to London in 1978, and changed its name to Colt Balloons Ltd. The company had half the staff of a giant like Cameron, but innovated with the best of 'em. Building many challenging special shapes, and fabricating most of the components itself, Colt made a name as a scrappy player in the industry, not to be underestimated. Perhaps because that image so resembled Thunder's in the '70s, the two companies merged in 1980. ThunderColt continued production of Colt balloons, bringing the marque's ultimate output to 99 before production ceased.

Photo: Lance Terry

Colt built some very attractive balloons, modeled after Thunder Z-Types, before merging with Thunder in the late '70s. (Here's an Alternate angle, from below.) Here is a Colt that I saw often around Albuquerque, and Here is another.

Photo: © '87 Mike Newman, collection of Lance Terry

Here's another vertical-cut Colt, made of an experimental (and uncommonly heavy) fabric. Although unwieldy on the ground, the envelope lasted well into the '90s (the blue load tapes were, apparently, just a cool bonus). The odd shape here is due to stresses on takeoff - the balloon's natural shape was the same as the Colt 56 to the left.

Photo: Lance Terry

The basket of the Colt 77 to the left. Thunder lost no time in adopting Colt's burner, produced in-house, following the two companies' merger (.

Photo: John A. Baker

Colt made several special shapes (whether or not you consider this to be one, [also flown, I believe earlier, with teeth]). The well-known Pomperipossa was flown by Hokan Colting himself at the '81 Worlds in Michigan.

Colt's original burner design may not have looked too advanced, but it was widely noted for its efficient burning characteristics and focused flame pattern. A later redesign was adopted by Thunder after the two companies merged (though this one looks SO much like the Thunder Mk.2 "Hot Tom"...).

Colt offered the uniquely-shaped Bullet as a lightweight sporting balloon, but only built a handful. Seems like a "love-it-or-hate-it" shape (I don't hate it!). Alternate (B+W) shot (Photo: Peter Bish).

Some Colts, like the Cameron N-series and (some?) MMs, had load tapes that converged into points at the mouth. This one is a 77A, c/n 078, built in 1980.

Photo: Peter Bish

One of the last Irish Colts, this balloon was registered in '79, the year after Eire Colting Ballons, Ltd. moved to London and became Colt Balloons, Ltd. (It's yellow with irregular green verticals).

Photo: Bill Flynt, ¤

Dick Wirth developed a fascination with solo balloons. Here, at 'Fiesta in '80, he flies a Colt Cloudhopper (?), sister to Thunder's own Sky Chariot.
Thanks to Peter Bish for the use of a great many photos on this site. Many thanks to David Barker for extensive details and fact-checking over the years. Extra-special thanks to Lance Terry, for the loan of his '78-'81 Ballooning magazines (and the use of his great Colt photos, above), to George Garcia, Jr. for the loan of some great resources, and to Glen Moyer for the generous permission to reproduce images from Ballooning.

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