Beanery Online Literary Magazine

March 1, 2008


Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s prominent role in the history of ballooning made him the first true professional aeronaut in a period having many more or (most often) less pure amateurs.

He was born in Les Andelys, Normandy, France, on July 4, 1753. His parents were poor. What he lacked formal education he made up for in creativity. As a youth he displayed a bent for mechanics and an interest in science, inventing a rat trap with a pistol, a velocipede, and later a hydraulic pump system that raised water 400 feet (122 meters) from the Seine River to the Chateau Gaillard. In 1769 he invented a crude bicycle.

In the 1770s his attraction to the problems of flight led to his work on designing heavier-than-air flying machines. His bird-like aerial bicycle with flapping wings—a pedal-powered flying machine that never flew—was based on a theory propulsion by rowing in the air currents with oars and a tiller. He also unsuccessfully attempted to develop a manually powered airplane and helicopter.

The balloon achievements of Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier inspired Blanchard. On November 21, in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, the brothers launched a 70-foot high balloon carrying Jean Francois Piltre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Artandes. This first manned untethered balloon flight initiated experimental flights in nearly all of Europe. Both men and women adventurers built balloons to take them to the skies.

Blanchard proved himself to be the most enthusiastic of all the aeronauts, determined to make a profession of it. During the spring and summer of 1784, conducted a number of experiments combining the lifting power of the balloon with flapping wings for propulsion. His trials didn’t attract much attention.

On March 2, 1784 Blanchard made his first successful ascent from the Champ de Mars in Paris in a hydrogen balloon he had built himself. After that he flew from Rouen and Bordeaux. In August 1784, after the French ballooning scene became so unbearably crowded it offered him little chance of winning the fame he sought so desperately. He moved to the more promising surroundings of England, where a man with his own balloon could find many wealthy patrons willing to pay handsomely for the chance of a flight.

Blanchard, accompanied by one of his patrons, Dr John Sheldon, accomplished his first successful balloon ascent in London on October 16, 1784. This flight finally convinced Blanchard that neither the wings he had brought along nor his newly developed ‘moulinet’ (a kind of revolving airscrew) contributed to the lift or propulsion.

In London he quickly became the central figure in a small group of balloon enthusiasts, which included an American physician, John Jeffries. The Boston native hired Blanchard to fly him from England to France. Their lack of a common language didn’t prevent them from achieving a fine mutual dislike as they skirmished over funding and credit for the flight. On November 30, 1784, Blanchard and Jeffries made their first flight.

After Vincent Lunardi’s successful free flight (from England to Ware on September 15, 1784) demonstrated that flight was possible, the balloonist’s challenge was flying over the English Channel. This was considered the first step to long-distance ballooning. Pilatre de Rozier’s attempted to cross the channel using his experimental system, a hydrogen balloon and a hot air balloon tied together. Shortly after takeoff the balloon exploded, ending Rozier’s flight and his life.

The story of Blanchard and Jeffries decision to complete an aerial crossing of the English Channel is one of the most dramatic stories in the annals of aviation history. The flight was Blanchard’s most spectacular exploit.

At the end of 1784 their balloon and its hydrogen production equipment were brought to Dover Castle, where the balloon was filled.

Jeffries wanted to fly with Blanchard. Although Jeffries bankrolled the project, Blanchard did not want to share the honor the achievement. Jeffries was permitted to join Blanchard only when he pledged to jump overboard, if necessary.

To everybody’s surprise, the lift proved less than calculated when the weight, including that of the two pilots, was included. Since they carried only thirty pounds of ballast, Blanchard doubted the balloon’s ability to carry two passengers.

However, before liftoff it was discovered that Blanchard, in an underhanded way to leave his sponsor behind, had donned an abdominal leather belt filled with lead. Blanchard’s ego was deflated when he had to decrease his ‘own’ weight by the removal of this contraption. Jeffries must have been good-natured to deal with all the wily tricks of the irascible little Frenchman.

On a clear, calm, January 7, 1785, there was only a slight north-north-westerly breeze. At 1:00 p.m., hundreds of people watched the two brave men rise from the edge of the cliffs of Dover, England, in their hydrogen balloon, and soar across the water.

Once the pilots were out of view of land, the balloon repeatedly threatened to go down. It was loaded with a lot of superfluous equipment, including Blanchard’s useless wings. The ballast was quickly spent.

The balloon never climbed to a safe altitude. At times it almost skimmed the waves, seeming like it would land down in the sea. By the time the French coast was but a few miles away, the balloon had sunk so low that the men began frantically jettisoning everything they could. The first items tossed were the extravagant gondola decorations, followed by Blanchard’s steering gear.

Jeffries later confided to friends that at one point there was a ludicrous angle to the balloon, at which point “they did their utmost to relieve themselves as much as possible.”

Still perilously close to the water, they pitched overboard the anchors, the two men’s coats, and then their trousers. Then they put on the cork life-savers in preparation for jumping “ship.”

Instead, their remedy worked. A favorable breeze helped the balloon climb higher than ever, before finally carrying the men to the French coast. At three in the afternoon they were deposited safely on terra firma, twelve miles inland, outside Calais. Their balloon was brought to a stop by a tree in the Forest of Felmores. The help that arrived found them dressed only in their skivvies, “almost naked as the trees.” Thus ended Blanchard’s most memorable feat.

Later, had a marble monument crowned with a balloon was erected on the spot where he landed, and the balloon basket was put on display at a museum in Calais, which made them honorary citizens.

Although Jeffries had to be content with the glory alone, Blanchard received a prize from Louis XVI, and a life pension. He used his new-found means to set up a ballooning school in London. After one flight, he claimed to have returned precisely to his starting point, to prove his skill at balloon flying. In fact the balloon had landed some way away, and had been towed back to the start by two horsemen. He made other equally untrue claims, and in the end a disappointed crowd wrecked the school. Blanchard took his balloons on the road and became the first barnstormer.

In Great Britain in June 1785 Blanchard gave the first successful demonstration of the use of a parachute. From his balloon he dropped a small silk parachute, which was attached to a cat, and it parachuted to earth. He later tried parachute jumping himself. The same year he tried unsuccessfully to use sails in order to add maneuverability and facilitate propulsion in balloons.

Between 1785 to 1789. Blanchard ascended in both hot-air and hydrogen balloons in various European countries (Germany, Belgium, Poland, and the Netherlands), where such an event was often still a novelty. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, Blanchard was arrested by the Austrians in Tyrol and charged with the distribution of revolutionary propaganda literature. He managed to escape to America.

The experienced 34-year-old flyer arrived in 1792 with a parachute, a balloon, four thousand two hundred pounds of vitriolic acid and an announcement that, God willing, he would “go up” from the prison-yard at Philadelphia on the ninth of January. (click on  AMERICA’S FIRST MANNED HOT AIR BALLOON to read details about it)

His was not the first balloon ascension in America. Honors for that were claimed by 13-year-old Edward Warren, who volunteered in June 1784 to go aloft in a tethered hot-air balloon constructed by Peter Carnes, lawyer and tavern. However, Blanchard’s flight was the first untethered flight in America.

Eventually Blanchard returned to Europe and, with his wife, Marie, who had also learned to fly balloons, performed many other exhibitions.

In February 1808, he made his sixtieth and last hot-air balloon ascent at The Hague in Holland, during which he suffered a heart attack. His balloon fell more than fifty feet. He never fully recovered from the fall. He passed away peacefully in Paris on March 7, 1809.

After his death, his widow, Madame Blanchard, became an aeronaut in her own right. The slender little woman became a favorite of the Parisians, thanks to her colorful balloon ascents, often at night. She made the tactical error of improving the show with aerial fireworks.

She preferred the use of hydrogen over hot air for her balloons, as had Blanchard. Her flights were fine successes until 1819. On July 7, during an ascent from the Tivoli Park in Paris, her balloon caught fire from the fireworks. The gas burned off allowing the balloon to make a rough landing on the roof of a house in the Rue de Province. Madame Blanchard plunged from the roof to the ground, meeting her death on the street.



1 Comment »

  1. Very awesome post! Truely.

    Comment by Abby Yeager — May 27, 2010 @ 2:06 pm | Reply

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