Aerial dispersal using silk (‘ballooning’) has evolved in spiders (Araneae), spider mites (Acari) and in the larvae of moths (Lepidoptera). Since the 17th century, over 500 observations of ballooning behaviours have been published, yet there is an absence of any evolutionary synthesis of these data. In this paper the literature is reviewed, extensively documenting the known world fauna that balloon and the principal behaviours involved. This knowledge is then incorporated into the current evolutionary phylogenies to examine how ballooning might have arisen. Whilst it is possible that ballooning co-evolved with silk and emerged as early as the Devonian (410–355 mya), it is arguably more likely that ballooning evolved in parallel with deciduous trees, herbaceous annuals and grasses in the Cretaceous (135–65 mya). During this period, temporal (e.g. bud burst, chlorophyll thresholds) and spatial (e.g. herbivory, trampling) heterogeneities in habitat structuring predominated and intensified into the Cenozoic (65 mya to the present). It is hypothesized that from the ancestral launch mechanism known as ‘suspended ballooning’, widely used by individuals in plant canopies, ‘tip-toe’ and ‘rearing’ take-off behaviours were strongly selected for as habitats changed. It is contended that ballooning behaviour in all three orders can be described as a mixed Evolutionary Stable Strategy. This comprises individual bet-hedging due to habitat unpredictability, giving an underlying randomness to individual ballooning, with adjustments to the individual ballooning probability being conferred by more predictable habitat changes or colonization strategies. Finally, current methods used to study ballooning, including modelling and genetic research, are illustrated and an indication of future prospects given.