A few weeks ago I posted some fun stuff about ballooning but today I’ll talk about the risks taken by the early aeronauts.
Pilatre de Rozier, along with the Marquis d’Arlandes, was one of the first aeronauts to go up in a hot air balloon (Montgolfiere). He was also the first to die in a balloon accident. After a number of hot air balloon flights, De Rozier planned a Channel crossing. Since a Montgolfiere could not carry enough fuel for such a flight, he devised a hybrid hot air/hydrogen balloon. De Rozier himself may have been concerned about this combination of airborne furnace and a highly flammable gas, but nevertheless he and his companion, Pierre Roumain, set off in June of 1785. Accounts I’ve read vary as to whether the balloon actually caught fire or not. What is certain is that the balloon crashed, killing both aeronauts.
The earliest English balloonist, James Sadler, had many misadventures. During one flight, the balloon dragged him for several miles, illustrating the difficulty of landing in windy conditions. Another time he ended up in the Bristol Channel, where he was rescued by a boat. Sadler’s son Windham was the first to cross the Irish Channel in 1816. But sadly, he died in 1824 when his balloon struck a chimney stack during an attempted landing.
Another famous tragedy was that of Sophie Blanchard, the wife of balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard. After his death she continued ballooning, making over 60 ascents. However in 1819 her luck ran out. During an exhibition over the Tivoli Gardens in Paris, the fireworks she was letting off ignited the hydrogen. Her balloon crashed onto the roof of a house and she fell to her death.
Another English balloonist, Thomas Harris, died in 1824. He was trying out a new safety mechanism: a gas discharge valve intended to quickly deflate the balloon and thus prevent the balloon from dragging the car (basket) and its passengers on landing. Theories differ on how it happened, but the valve must have discharged prematurely, setting the balloon plunging. Thomas Harris was killed but his companion, Sophia Stocks, survived. According to one account (possibly romanticized), Harris jumped out early to lighten the balloon and thus save Sophia’s life.
So now I leave it to you to guess which of these perils might threaten my balloonist hero.
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