Up, Up and Away!

Today’s the anniversary of the first crossing of the English Channel in 1785 by intrepid balloonists Jean Pierre Blanchard of France and Dr. John Jeffries, an expatriate Bostonian. Blanchard had made his first balloon ascents in London in the previous year, and also made some parachuting experiments. Jeffries was the money behind the venture and Blanchard seems to have had a rather ambivalent attitude toward his sponsor. He made an attempt to claim that their combined weight was too much for the balloon, suggesting Jeffries should stay on land, but it was discovered that the Frenchman was wearing a belt of lead weights.

They left from Dover at about 1:00 in the afternoon and landed in France a couple of hours later in a tree outside Calais but the trip did not go as smoothly as planned. The two aviators found the balloon losing altitude and had to rid themselves not only of ballast but any extraneous weight including books, food, scientific instruments and even their clothes, thus becoming the first male strippers in flight. Neither of them could swim.

Here’s Jeffries’ account of the flight:

Heaven crowned my utmost wishes with success: I cannot describe to you the magnificence and beauty of our voyage…When two-thirds from the French coast we were again falling rapidly towards the sea, on which occasion my noble little captain gave orders, and set the example, by beginning to strip our aerial car, first of our silk and finery: this not giving us sufficient release, we cast one wing, then the other; after which I was obliged to unscrew and cast away our moulinet; yet still approaching the sea very fast, and the boats being much alarmed for use, we cast away, first one anchor, then the other, after which my little hero stripped and threw away his coat (great one). On this I was compelled to follow his example. He next cast away his trowsers. We put on our cork jackets and were, God knows how, as merry as grigs to think how we should splatter in the water. We had a fixed cord, &c to mount into our upper story; and I believe both of us, as though inspired, felt ourselves confident of success in the event.

They were both feted, made honorary citizens of Calais and Louis XVI awarded Blanchard a substantial pension. Blanchard continued with his balloon and parachute experiments, including the first American ascent in 1793 from Philadelphia. His wife Sophie Blanchard also made her name as a balloonist. Sadly–or perhaps they appreciated dying with their boots on–they both died in ballooning accidents.

Jeffries, however, never flew again, returning to America and resuming the medical practice so rudely interrupted by the War of Independence.

Here’s a very nice paper cut out model of the balloon (with paper dolls!) on sale at fiddlersgreen.net and more information.

Have you done anything brave, innovative, or just plain daft recently? (and, yes, writing is all of the above).

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