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Even in these days of frequent flying, the idea of flight still holds a special fascination in our minds. Now, acclaimed aviation writer T. A. Heppenheimer captures the essence of that eternal obsession with a thrilling narrative that carries readers from the dawn of flight to modern day travel. Along the way, readers will meet a host of colorful characters—brilliant innovators Howard Hughes and Bill Lear, "Red Baron" Manfred...
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Even in these days of frequent flying, the idea of flight still holds a special fascination in our minds. Now, acclaimed aviation writer T. A. Heppenheimer captures the essence of that eternal obsession with a thrilling narrative that carries readers from the dawn of flight to modern day travel. Along the way, readers will meet a host of colorful characters—brilliant innovators Howard Hughes and Bill Lear, "Red Baron" Manfred von Richthofen, and Jimmy Doolittle; plane builders Donald Douglas, William Allan, and Jack Northrup; entrepreneur Juan Trippe of Pan Am; and today's inventors Paul MacCready and Burt and Richard Rutan. No one who has ever been moved by the sight of a rising balloon, or watched in awe as a jumbo jet gracefully lifts off the tarmac will be able to resist this wonderful history of mankind's adventures in the air.
About the Author:
T.A. Heppenheimer (Fountain Valley, California), has written six books, including Countdown: A History of Space Flight and Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation. He holds a PhD in aerospace engineering and is an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Aerospace.
More than two hundred years ago, King Louis XVI ruled at Versailles. The U. S. Constitution had not yet been written; Napoleon was merely a young lad in his teens. Yet it was in this era that aviation, complete with pilots, first began to take shape. More than a century before the Wright brothers, two Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Étienne, invented the hot-air balloon. Their invention then took to the skies with astonishing rapidity. Men crossed the English Channel by air before they did so using steam, for steamships still lay well in the future.
Joseph and Étienne were two of sixteen children born to Anne and Pierre Montgolfier, a prosperous paper manufacturer in the French town of Annonay, near Lyon. Joseph, born in 1740, was a large man of powerful build, casual in his clothes, nondescript in his general appearance. He married a cousin, Thérèse, who was quite attractive. They had two children, and were happy together.
Joseph had a fine memory, readily learning lengthy songs and long poems by Voltaire. Yet he could forget the most basic things. Once he stayed with Thérèse at an inn, went out for a stroll the next morning, and left her in the room as he walked onward, lost in thought. His casual ways extended to his general attitudes, for he rarely became angry or lost his temper. They also encompassed his business practices, for he took little heed in his borrowing and spending, often calling on his father or other family members to rescue him from creditors.
When he was young, his father had sent him to a school run by Jesuits. He rebelled against its strictness and escaped into the country. Here he lived as a vagabond, working on farms and sleeping where he could. This did not last long, for the family soon retrieved him and sent him back to school. He put up with lessons in theology as best he could, but he also nurtured a growing interest in arithmetic, chemistry, and mechanics. A clerk in a bookstore slipped him texts, which certainly were not part of the approved curriculum, and Joseph devoured them, writing essays and drawing extensive diagrams in notebooks. This self-education proved critical to his eventual success.
A cousin, Mathieu Duret, had studied science in Paris and had some familiarity with a burgeoning new field: the chemistry of gases. Joseph Black, a Scottish chemist, had discovered carbon dioxide in 1756, as the first gas distinguishable from common air. England's Henry Cavendish followed in 1766 with "inflammable air," hydrogen, while Joseph Priestley found oxygen in 1774. Duret told Montgolfier what he knew of these matters when they spent time together during 1777, with hydrogen drawing particular interest. This gas took effort to prepare, but it had less than one-tenth the density of air. A lightweight bag of paper or cloth, filled with hydrogen, might rise into the sky.
During the next several years, Montgolfier continued to pursue his checkered career. He went to Avignon and enrolled in a local diploma mill, studying law, while helping himself to the new books that circulated freely within that town. His legal training did him little good, though, for early in 1782 he spent several days in a debtors' prison in Lyon. His family bailed him out, again, and he returned to Avignon.
One evening in November, sitting in his room, Joseph contemplated a picture that showed a recent siege of the British fortress of Gibraltar. It had withstood assault both by land and by sea, and Montgolfier asked himself: might it be taken by air? The evening was cool, with a fire close at hand. As he watched the hot smoke rise, he considered that fire-heated air might be buoyant like hydrogen, and far easier to prepare.
He built a lightweight framework of thin wood and covered it with taffeta fabric. It had a large hole in the bottom, and he inserted paper and ignited it. It worked! The device rose from its support and bumped against the ceiling. With fire now burning in his mind, he wrote a brief letter to his brother Étienne: "Get in a supply of taffeta and of cordage, quickly, and you will see one of the most astonishing sights in the world."
Whereas Joseph Montgolfier was casual and largely self-educated, Étienne was a sound business manager who had received a good technical education. Born in 1745, he was the youngest, which gave him little hope within the family business. He nevertheless was marked for a professional career, and went to Paris to study architecture. This field included elements of civil and mechanical engineering, and Étienne won the attention of a well-known architect, Jacques-Germain Soufflot. Soufflot gave him commissions, and Étienne proceeded to build his reputation.
Pierre Montgolfier, the family patriarch, had placed his hopes in the oldest son, Raymond, and in 1761 had selected him to be the next head of the paper factory. But Raymond died in 1772, at age forty-two, and Pierre bypassed his intermediate sons as he turned to Étienne. Though only twenty-seven, this young man had already shown that he was solid and reliable. His career in Paris now was flourishing, but he saw that it was up to him to take charge of this factory, which was the source of the family's modest fortune. He returned to provincial Annonay and threw himself into running the plant. He improved its manufacturing methods, leading it to renewed prosperity.
After sending his letter, Joseph hastened home to repeat the experiment, this time in the open air. He built a similar fabric-covered box and sent it to a height of seventy feet, as it stayed aloft for a full minute. Just as Joseph had hoped, Étienne indeed was astonished, and they proceeded to build a much larger version, nine feet across. They tried it in mid December, working at the bottom of a ravine. Even before they had finished heating its air, it developed so much lift that it broke a restraining cord and flew freely, finally coming down after a flight of nearly a mile.
Truly, Joseph and Étienne had hold of something exciting. They talked of little else during the next several months, as they pursued a program of experiments. Drawing on experience from the impromptu flight of December, they learned to measure lifting force by having test devices break cords of known strength. Their early versions resembled box kites, with fabric-covered wooden frames, but a spherical cloth bag offered more promise. Taffeta and similar fabrics leaked heat readily; paper used as backing held the heat in, and there certainly was no shortage of paper at the home of Montgolfier.
By April 1783, they were ready with the real thing: a bag of sack-cloth lined with three thin layers of paper, weighing 500 pounds. It was 35 feet across and enclosed 28,000 cubic feet, holding more than a ton of air. A large open mouth at the bottom allowed it to inflate without catching on fire. The brothers built it in segments, fastening them together with 1,800 buttons. It was globe shaped; Joseph and Étienne called it a ball, or ballon.
Initial trials took place during that month, and again the ballon showed its power. Ropes held it in place during the initial experiment, which showed that it could be safely inflated. Four strong laborers held it during the second test, three weeks later. Its lift increased so rapidly that two of these men let go of their tethers, whereupon the balloon raised the other two off their feet. They saved themselves by releasing their own lines, and the big gas bag again flew free before landing on a nearby farm.
The brothers now arranged for a public demonstration, to be held in the marketplace of Annonay on June 5. A regional assembly of deputies was meeting in that town during this week, representing nobles and the Third Estate, and could send a report to Paris. The day was rainy, but the Montgolfiers nevertheless went ahead. They piled dry straw and wool within a brazier, added alcohol, and set it alight. As its hot air swelled the balloon, the brothers suspended this heater below its gaping mouth to counteract cooling from the rain.
Four husky peasants held it down, pulling on ropes. Étienne told them to let go, and the balloon rose suddenly, quickly reaching three thousand feet. Winds aloft carried it for a mile and a half before it landed in a vineyard. The brazier tipped over and ignited the cloth, and in a foretaste of many such aeronautical disasters to come, the flight of this balloon ended in a fire that consumed it.
Nevertheless, the thing had been done; the onlookers indeed had seen the achievement of flight. The minutes of the assembly duly included a discussion of this curious event, and by late June this report was in Paris and in the hands of the controller general of finance, Lefèvre d'Ormesson. He saw that the matter was worth pursuing and sent a letter to the marquis de Condorcet, head of the Academy of Science. Condorcet set up an investigative panel that included Antoine Lavoisier, a founder of the science of chemistry. Another member, Nicolas Desmarest, had known Étienne for some time through a mutual interest in papermaking, and had letters from him describing the Montgolfiers' work on balloons in Annonay.
Newspapers in Paris also picked up the story. The Feuille Hebdomadaire ran a letter from a landowner near Annonay on July 10; the Journal de Paris published a more informative article on July 27, apparently drawing on Condorcet's committee as a source. Jacques Charles, a well-born gentleman with a strong interest in science, also heard of the new invention. He was widely known in Paris for his public lectures and demonstrations. He resolved to build his own balloon and to fly it as a public spectacle, with one of his friends arranging to sell tickets and to charge admission to the show. Further, Charles would use hydrogen.
England's Henry Cavendish had first produced this gas in 1766, by treating shavings of iron, zinc, and tin with sulfuric acid. Lavoisier was quite familiar with this gas, and had coined its name. Charles knew it as well, for he had often prepared it in demonstrations, arranging for it to flow through a glass tube and blow soap bubbles. These rose toward the ceiling, and he would touch them with a candle flame to make them pop. Hydrogen was difficult to prepare in quantity, and Charles had not stretched his imagination beyond bubbles. But when he learned of the events in Annonay, he quickly made the mental leap.
Paris had resources far surpassing those of any provincial town; if Charles was to produce hydrogen in substantial volumes, this certainly was the place to try. Moreover, a local artisan had developed a suitable material for Charles's balloon: a lightweight taffeta made gas-tight with a solution of rubber in turpentine. People called this hydrogen balloon a charlière; Charles and his promoters set August 27 as the date of its ascent. The location, the Champ de Mars, was a military parade field that in time became the site of the Eiffel Tower.
The new charlière was thirteen feet across, considerably smaller than the hot-air montgolfière of Annonay. This reflected the fact that hydrogen had far greater lifting power. Charles expected to produce his hydrogen by using iron filings and dilute sulfuric acid, with the iron in a barrel and the acid added through a bunghole. Problems arose during the inflation, and Charles improvised solutions on the spot.
The chemical reaction produced heat and evaporated some of the acid, which condensed within the balloon, threatening to eat through its lining. Workers responded by interrupting the inflation repeatedly to remove this vitriol. They also wrapped wet cloth around a copper tube that channeled hydrogen into the balloon, for this tube was becoming excessively hot. The balloon's undersurface also became quite warm, and had to be cooled with sprays of water from a pump.
"Let the modern reader imagine what was going on here," the historian Charles Gillispie has written. "In a small, enclosed courtyard in a densely populated section of the city, a handful of largely inexperienced people were collecting an unprecedented quantity of the most inflammable gas known through a tube too hot to touch into the confinement of a rubberized bag that was close to catching fire if it was not first chewed through by sulfuric acid."
It took a thousand pounds of iron and five hundred pounds of acid to produce enough hydrogen to fill the balloon to capacity. Charles had allowed several days for such preparations, and had it one-third full by the end of the first evening. On the next day, his men had to do it all over again, for one of them had mistakenly opened the valve. This time the effort went more smoothly. Charles had kept these preliminaries from public view by working within a secluded courtyard, and now told his ground crew to move the balloon to the Champ de Mars. The men did this in the dead of night, to avoid causing a public commotion.
Ticket holders began to enter the grounds in midafternoon, as the balloon received its final addition of hydrogen. This took time; rain clouds gathered, and the mood of the crowd became stormy as well. Then, at 5: 00 P. M. a cannon fired, and the fully inflated balloon was released. It soared upward swiftly, remaining in sight for only two minutes before vanishing into the clouds at fifteen hundred feet. It continued onward, rising higher and higher until it burst, due to the reduced air pressure at altitude.
The collapsing gas bag, still with plenty of hydrogen, fell to the ground near the present-day location of Le Bourget Airport, after a flight of some fifteen miles. Curious peasants watched it bound on landing, as if it were alive. As its hydrogen continued to escape, it gave off a foul odor. This resulted from impurities within the gas, probably including hydrogen sulfide, which produces the stench of rotten eggs. These people now set upon it with pitchforks, then tied the remains to the tail of a horse.
Meanwhile, Étienne had arrived in Paris during July. He began meeting with members of Condorcet's commission early in August, and secured a promise of funding. Then, when his costs became too large for the Academy, the Ministry of Finance stepped in with further help. The controller general, d'Ormesson, knew his way around the king's court, and helped Étienne make arrangements for a new flight that would take place at Versailles, in front of the royal family. This was indeed astonishing; it was as if the Wright brothers had gone directly from Kitty Hawk to the White House. But King Louis XVI was easily bemused by novelties. The date was set for September 19.
An old friend of Étienne's, Jean-Baptiste Reveillon, had been a client during his days as an architect. Reveillon owned a wallpaper factory, with plenty of room on the grounds, and allowed Étienne to use it freely. The new balloon placed paper both outside and inside the taffeta envelope, and Reveillon was quick to contribute his artistic talents. For King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette, the design had to be elegant indeed. Reveillon colored it azure blue, with the king's initial stylized in gold, along with painted bands and draperies that might have been velvet and that certainly were fustian.
A preliminary test, on September 11, went superbly. It took only nine minutes to fill the balloon with heat from a brazier, and this balloon lifted eight men who had tried to hold it down with ropes. Others took hold of the restraining lines and brought the balloon under control. Étienne had previously arranged to demonstrate his balloon for Condorcet's commission, and he sent word requesting the presence of its members for the following morning.
Daylight brought rain, but no commissioners. Nevertheless, other dignitaries showed up, leaving Étienne with no choice except to proceed. He inflated the balloon--and the rain turned into a downpour. Soon the decorated blue paper covering was a soggy mess, with no hope of salvaging it for use at Versailles. To meet the king's schedule, he and his colleagues worked frantically through the next four days and nights, crafting an entirely new balloon. It was fifty-seven feet tall and forty-one feet in diameter, making it somewhat shorter than the balloon of September 12, and it used varnished taffeta, avoiding the need for paper. Reveillon nevertheless took care to paint it a royal blue, with large stylized letter Ls set between circling bands of gold.
The hydrogen-filled charlière had already demonstrated free flight, and Étienne knew he had to do more. He thought of having the balloon carry a sheep. His brother Joseph, with whom he was exchanging letters, urged him to "take a cow. That will create an extraordinary effect, far more so than a panicky sheep that no one will be able to see." But cows were heavy, so Étienne stuck to his guns--and his sheep. He added a duck and a rooster, with the three passengers riding within a cage, through which their heads and tails protruded.
Across two centuries, Étienne himself describes the flight at Versailles, for he wrote of it in a lengthy letter to his wife:At one o'clock, we set off a round of ammunition and lighted the fire. Two or three puffs of wind raised doubts about the feasibility of the experiment. . . . The machine filled in seven minutes. It was held in place only by ropes and the combined efforts of fifteen or sixteen men. A second round went off. We redoubled the gas, and at the third round, . . . everyone let go at once. The machine rose majestically, drawing after it a cage containing a sheep, a rooster, and a duck. A few moments after takeoff a sudden gust of wind tilted it over on its side. Since there was insufficient ballast to keep it vertical, the top afforded the wind a much larger surface than the part where the animals were. At that instant I was afraid it was done for. It got away with losing about a fifth of its gas, however, and continued on its way as majestically as ever for a distance of 1,800 fathoms where the wind tipped it over again so that it settled gently down to earth.
Paris in 1783 was the Paris of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, with most of its people being poor, preoccupied with the daily matters of working and eking out a living. But its more privileged residents had time for other things, and they went wild over the new invention. A baron wrote that among the people he knew, "all one hears is talk of experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars, journeys in the sky." The excitement even reached the world of fashion, as a designer crafted a gown for an elegant lady in la mode au ballon. Her fan displayed drawings, while pumpkin-shaped appurtenances festooned the hat, sleeves, and billowing skirt, though not the bodice.
"The balloon excitement was now building toward a peak," writes the aviation historian Tom Crouch. "Hair and clothing styles, jewelry, snuffboxes, wallpaper, chandeliers, bird cages, fans, clocks, chairs, armoires, hats, and other items were designed with balloon motifs." Party guests sipped Crème Aerostatique liqueur and danced the Contradanse de Gonesse, which took its name from the village where the charlière had met its untimely end.
Though there indeed was much talk of journeys in the sky, no person had yet made one. This was the next item on the Montgolfiers' agenda, and other people were urging them on. One of them, François Pilâtre de Rozier, was known for his public lectures on physics and chemistry, which resembled those of Jacques Charles. Rozier was well connected, holding the patronage of the king's younger brother, while his personal circle included the king's cousin.
Like Charles, Rozier became a balloon enthusiast at an early date. At the end of August, shortly after the flight of the charlière, he met with members of the Academy of Science and proposed that he should fly in a balloon built by Montgolfier. He failed to receive assent at first, but three weeks later the successful flight of the sheep, the duck, and the rooster made it clear that there soon would be a demand for aeronauts.
Another volunteer, François d'Arlandes, was a minor nobleman who had grown up near Annonay and had known Joseph Montgolfier for over a decade. He won an early promise from Étienne that when the time came for a manned flight, he, d'Arlandes, would be the pilot. He reminded Étienne of this promise in the wake of the flight at Versailles. Étienne not only took him on as a pilot but set him to work as a foreman, as he pursued his man-carrying project.
The launch site was a château in the Bois de Boulogne, west of the city. The place of construction again was the Reveillon wallpaper factory, and this time, both Reveillon and Étienne outdid themselves. The new balloon was considerably larger than its predecessors, being 46 feet in diameter and 70 in height, with a capacity of 60,000 cubic feet. A circular gallery of wicker, with a tall exterior wall, surrounded the orifice at the bottom, which was 15 feet across. A brazier hung near the neck of the balloon, adjacent to the gallery, and a pilot standing within it could feed its fire while in the air, to develop more lift. He did this with a pitchfork, pushing straw through a hole in the side.
The decorations were certainly the most elaborate to date, far surpassing those of Versailles. Reveillon started with his stylized gold bands and king's initial on a background of azure, and then went much farther. He added royal suns that recalled the Sun King of a century earlier. Friezes at the top showed fleurs-de-lis and portrayed the twelve signs of the zodiac. The bottom displayed painted draperies and curtains, along with eagles whose outspread wings were to bear the contrivance aloft. These embellishments were certainly pretentious; still, while they are far removed from our present taste, we can see that they were appropriate. They represented a salute to the first manned aircraft ever to fly.
Étienne conducted several tethered test flights during mid October, giving his balloon more than three hundred feet of rope. Rozier made out his will, said goodbye to friends, then climbed aboard for flights that proved successful. He had a live fire for his third ascent, and he needed it, for a wind blew the balloon toward the branches of a large tree. Undismayed, he added straw and wool to his burner and rose above the danger. There was time that day for two more flights, and Rozier carried a passenger on each of them. On his last ascent, his companion was the marquis d'Arlandes.
Rozier and d'Arlandes became the first men to fly freely, on November 21, with d'Arlandes setting down his recollections immediately afterward. D'Arlandes had charge of the brazier, but found himself repeatedly distracted by the view. Early in the flight, Rozier chided him: "You're not doing a thing, and we're not climbing at all." D'Arlandes apologized, tossed some straw onto the burner, then went back to sightseeing. Soon they were over the Seine, and Rozier again called to him: "There's the river, and we're dropping. Come on, my good friend, the fire!" When a new helping of straw surged into flame, they felt themselves "hauled up as if by the armpits."
Suddenly they heard a popping sound, followed by another. D'Arlandes looked inside the envelope--and saw that sparks from the heater had burned holes in the fabric. He dampened some smoldering edges with a sponge on his pitchfork, then discovered that threads were loosening within an important seam. "We've got to put down," he insisted, even though there was no open ground below, for they were still over the city.
Rozier assured him that there was no damage on his side, and when d'Arlandes looked more closely, he saw that the seam was holding and the holes were not growing larger or more numerous. He agreed that they could continue to sail on, and he still had plenty of fuel. They entered the countryside and soon let the fire die down, for they expected to come down soon. Then, dead ahead, they saw windmills. Another bale of straw lifted them clear of the danger, and they landed just beyond a pond. They had spent some twenty-five minutes in the air and covered five miles, while their supply of straw would have allowed them to fly considerably farther if they had wished.
Jacques Charles, with his hydrogen balloons, was also preparing his own manned flight. The royal family granted favor to him as well as to the Montgolfiers, for Charles received permission to make this ascent from the palace of the Tuileries. His new balloon was only twenty-six feet across, reflecting the great lifting power of his gas. Even so, it needed 9,200 cubic feet of hydrogen, ten times more than the charlière of August, and Charles addressed this problem by introducing an improved chemical generator. He used several barrels, each filled with iron filings and acid. When any of them needed recharging, this could be done while the others continued to work. The hydrogen flowed through pipes to a central enclosure filled with water, bubbling through the water before rising into the balloon. This washed the gas by dissolving some of its impurities. To keep the equipment from overheating, Charles diluted his acid.
He also introduced improvements that drew on lessons from the August flight. That balloon had continued to rise until it burst, and Charles saw that he needed a means to relieve internal pressure if an aeronaut rose too high. He installed a valve, operated by a cord, that could open to allow some of the gas to escape. Then, because a pilot might release too much, Charles decided that balloons should carry ballast. If a flight started to descend prematurely, or if it was falling rapidly and heading for a rough landing, an airman could toss some of this weight overboard.
Charles lacked the artistic touch of Reveillon, but his creation was attractive enough, with a spherical envelope striped vertically in yellow and red. He also introduced a gondola suspended by ropes, with the shape of a stylized ship's hull. Its stern showed fleurs-de-lis surmounted by a crown, and it might have ridden on a merry-go-round in a later age. He stocked it with a mercury barometer and thermometer, a telescope, and a set of maps.
Through his work, in the summer and after, he had had a great deal of help from two brothers, Jean and Noel Robert. Noel accompanied him, with the ascent taking place on December 1, only ten days after the flight of Rozier and d'Arlandes. Charles, ever the showman, had arranged for a large amount of publicity, which swelled the crowd to record levels. He again charged admission, with the choicest seats going for as much as $400 in present-day currency.
Charles and Robert, the two adventurers whose last names were first names, took their places within the gondola. Charles toasted the project by opening a bottle of champagne, with the two men lifting their glasses high. A ground crew had been holding the balloon with ropes; now Charles told them to let go, and they sailed into the sky. The crowd fell silent, caught up in astonishment.
They approached two thousand feet in altitude, as measured by the barometer. Charles allowed excess gas to escape through an "appendix," a long and narrow neck that he could open or close with his hand. He slowed his ascent, then tossed out small amounts of ballast to stay close to this altitude. The wind set the course; then, fifty-six minutes after launch, they heard the report of a distant cannon. It was at the Tuileries, signaling that they were lost to view.
They continued onward, with Charles navigating by barometer, releasing gas and then dropping ballast to stay close to his desired altitude. It now was late afternoon, and with the sun descending, it was time for the flight to descend as well. They were well beyond the city, over a clear extent of fields, and Charles allowed the balloon to sink slowly. His course threatened to take them into a row of trees, but he threw out a few more pounds of ballast and flew over them. They skimmed along the ground for a hundred feet, then came to rest. Their greeters included several dozen peasants--and two dukes, who had kept them in view while riding on horses.
There still was light in the sky, and Charles saw that by ascending alone, without Robert, he would lighten his craft and soar aloft with ease. It took him only ten minutes to reach nine thousand feet. He now showed that a balloon could allow an observer to make meteorological observations at high altitude, for he noted that his barometer had fallen by over nine inches, with the temperature having dropped from fifty to twenty degrees Fahrenheit.
He was above the clouds, and he later wrote of his "inexpressible delight, this ecstasy of contemplation":The cold was sharp and dry, but not at all unbearable. . . . I stood up in the middle of the gondola, and lost myself in the spectacle offered by the immensity of the horizon. When I took off from the fields, the sun had set for the inhabitants of the valleys. Soon it rose for me alone, and again appeared to gild the balloon and gondola with its rays. I was the only illuminated body within the whole horizon, and I saw all the rest of nature plunged in shadow.
These two flights, on November 21 and December 1, capped the events in aviation of this dramatic year. It now was clear that people could fly with the speed of the wind, and Benjamin Franklin, living in Paris as a diplomat from the nascent United States, wrote in a letter, "A few months since, the idea of witches riding through the air on a broomstick, and that of philosophers upon a bag of smoke, would have appeared equally impossible and ridiculous." He also looked to the future:The invention of the balloon appears to be a discovering of great importance and what may possibly give a new turn to human affairs. Convincing sovereigns of the folly of wars may perhaps be one effect of it, since it will be impractical for the most potent of them to guard his dominions. Five thousand balloons capable of raising two men each, could not cost more than five ships of the line; and where is the prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defense that 10,000 men descending from the clouds might not in many places do an infinite mischief before a force could be brought to repel them.
This form of warfare awaited the paratroop attacks of 160 years later, but even as Franklin wrote those words, a mere two men in a balloon was already becoming out of date. Joseph Montgolfier, the original inventor, had not joined Étienne in Paris, but had remained close to home in Lyon. There, during the summer and fall, he proceeded with calculations and designs for a balloon that would be enormous indeed, with a diameter of a hundred feet. Its volume of 560,000 cubic feet gave it nearly ten times the hot-air capacity of the balloon of Rozier and d'Arlandes, which had been large enough. Joseph expected that the new one would carry up to a dozen people. He named it Flesselles, in honor of the chief officer of government of his city.
He built it of coarse sackcloth, which quickly developed holes during a preliminary inflation, late in December. Rozier showed up the next day and recommended rebuilding the top of the balloon, which received the most strain, using two layers of taffeta with paper between them. He also recommended cutting the number of passengers to six. Two weeks later, during another inflation, someone tossed in a bale of straw that had been soaked in alcohol. The sudden surge of heat further damaged the fabric, which split seams and developed new holes.
Rozier and Joseph Montgolfier were working in the open, and a few days later came rain and sleet. The envelope became soggy, and when Joseph tried to inflate it in order to dry it, they set part of it on fire. Water pumps put out the blaze in good time, and workers repaired the burned portion with new fabric and paper. However, the rest of the balloon was still sodden and wet, and when freezing weather blew in, it froze into stiffness. The ground crew thawed it anew, this time more gently, by using heat from charcoal burners. Then they inflated it slowly. An official poked his head into the swelling envelope--and saw blue sky through an array of new holes.
Nevertheless, everyone expected a launch. A large crowd had gathered, and four young men, all with titles of nobility, climbed aboard. Rozier objected that the balloon was too weak to stand the strain of carrying them, that only three men should make the attempt, and that he should be one of them. The four noblemen responded by drawing pistols and threatening to shoot, as they shouted to the ground crew to cut the restraining ropes. With this, Rozier leaped on board, followed closely by Joseph and by one of the latter's close collaborators. Rub-a-dub- dub, instead of three men in a tub there now were seven.
They cast off and began a hesitant ascent, with Rozier using the balloon's brazier to add as much lift as possible. They took nearly fifteen minutes to struggle to twenty-five hundred feet. Then a four-feet rip opened near the top, in the area that had been damaged by fire and repaired, and Flesselles began descending much more rapidly than it had risen. Rozier stoked the burner vigorously, while the sheer size of the envelope allowed it to act somewhat like a parachute. The landing was rough but caused no injuries. Nevertheless, those elegant noblemen had to make their way through mud produced by melting snow, to avoid having the fabric collapse all around them.
Joseph had financed this project in the fashion of Charles, by selling tickets. He designed one more balloon, financed by the marquis de Brantes, an enthusiast from Avignon. However, after that he made no further such effort. Étienne, with government funds, built a fourth balloon, Marie Antoinette. It flew in front of that queen at Versailles in June 1784, honoring Sweden's King Gustav III, a visitor who had expressed a wish to see a balloon ascent. Rozier again was the pilot, accompanied by a chemist, Joseph Proust. However, this was Étienne's last project. His grants came to 14,000 livresÑ$ 70,000 in today's money--and while this would pay for a king's amusement, it was nowhere close to what it would cost to develop balloons as a serious enterprise. The Montgolfiers proceeded with their careers, riding through the French Revolution amid little difficulty. But they made no further contributions to aviation.
New pilots now were taking to the skies, with Jean-Pierre Blanchard in the forefront. He had dreamed of flying machines and had tried to build one, with wings driven by springs; when he learned of the Montgolfiers, he found his calling. He became the world's first professional airman, earning his income through fees charged for his public ascents. He flew some sixty times, lived until 1809, and died in bed.
He launched this career in February 1784, selling tickets for his flight in a hydrogen balloon from the Champ de Mars. Just before take-off, a young cadet from the nearby École Militaire approached with sword in hand, demanding to ride aloft as a passenger. Rebuffed, he swung his weapon and wounded Blanchard in the hand. Blanchard did not scrub the mission, even though he was bleeding. He rode alone, and set a new altitude record of 12,500 feet.
He nevertheless concluded that Paris was not the place to hone his skills, and continued his activity in Rouen, capital of his native province of Normandy. He made two more public flights, in May and July, and then set a goal that was ambitious indeed. He would try to become the first man to fly across the English Channel.
He knew that a hydrogen balloon could make such a journey; the first manned version, flown by Charles and Robert, had covered twenty-seven miles during its flight of December 1, which was more than the distance from Dover to Calais. He left for England in mid August and quickly introduced himself to the small community of London men who shared his interest in ballooning. These included John Jeffries, an expatriate American who had spent his early life in Boston but remained loyal to King and Crown. He earned a good living as a physician, spending much time at theaters in Drury Lane and the Strand, while making himself familiar in the city's most fashionable brothels.
Difficulties with customs had prevented Blanchard from bringing his balloon from France, and he needed a sponsor of means if he was to resume his ascents. He found his initial angel in an anatomist, John Sheldon, with the two men making an initial flight in mid October of 1784. Jeffries was part of the large crowd of onlookers, and watched with enthrallment. "I resolved to gratify this," he later wrote, "which had finally become my ruling passion."
He arranged to meet Blanchard, and quickly agreed to meet the latter's expenses in return for the opportunity to accompany him on his next flight. This took place late in November; it was the first for Jeffries, and only the fifth for Blanchard. The launch was shaky, as they blew against a building and sent a chimney pot crashing to the street. But they recovered and flew for two hours, traversing the whole of London and proceeding eastward before landing near the Thames.
Now they were ready for the cross-Channel flight. They left London on December 17 and reached Dover two days later. Then, amid unfavorable wind and weather, they waited through Christmas and New Year's, while Blanchard's expenses also mounted. Their tempers rose as well, for it was becoming increasingly clear that the two men could not get along. Jeffries was appalled at the rising cost, while Blanchard hoped to make the flight alone, thereby winning sole glory. He went so far as to obtain a lead belt, with which he hoped to add so much weight that Jeffries would have to leave the gondola.
Finally, at six in the morning of January 7, 1785, Blanchard came into Jeffries' room and told him that the wind and weather were fair. Indeed, the day was beautifully clear; when they ascended, they were visible from the French coast. Liftoff came shortly after 1: 00 P. M." We rose slowly and majestically from the cliff," Jeffries later wrote. The Channel resembled "a fine sheet of glass." They gained altitude; the balloon expanded, and they valved off hydrogen. They released too much of this gas, and had to drop ballast. Their gas bag appears to have been leaky, for they dropped more ballast, until all of it was gone.
An hour into the flight, and still not halfway across, they began to throw overboard some of the items they had brought with them. By 2: 30 they had jettisoned their food supply. Blanchard had built his gondola with silk-covered aerial oars, a rudder, and a hand-cranked propeller, all of which went over the side as well. A bottle of brandy soon followed. Nearing the three-fourths mark, they threw grapnels and rope into the water, then dispensed with the heavy clothes that they had worn, to guard against the cold of January. Blanchard threw in his trousers, leaving them with little more than cork life jackets. Still they failed to climb, remaining below the level of the cliffs of Calais. With only four or five miles to go, they felt that their only hope was to climb onto the balloon's ropes in an attempt to remain afloat once they hit the water.
Suddenly their luck turned, as a change in the wind carried them aloft once again. They crossed the French coast, still rising. They had done it; they had crossed the Channel! However, they still had to come down safely, and they needed something to throw overboard to control their final descent and landing. It occurred to Jeffries, a physician, that he and Blanchard both had a good deal of urine in their bladders. The gondola had air-filled sacs for flotation, and both men put them to an unintended use.
The wind blew them into a tree. Jeffries grabbed hold of a branch; Blanchard frantically valved gas. Then they worked their way from branch to branch until they could drop to the ground. They stood shivering in the cold, but a search party found them and gave them warm clothing. The hard part was finished; now came an extensive round of honors, including a visit to Versailles. They met the king and queen, and while in Paris, Jeffries soon found his way to other women of the city.
The ubiquitous Rozier, a veteran of the first manned flight more than a year earlier, expected to follow with his own cross-Channel voyage. By now it was clear that both hot-air and hydrogen balloons were capable of traveling long distances, but through very different means. Hydrogen balloons relied on valves and ballast, whereas the hot-air variety used an onboard heater and a fuel supply, to add lift and to control the descent. Rozier's new model sought to combine the best features of both, for it used a thick cylinder that held the hot air, surmounted with a hydrogen-filled sphere. It amounted to a two-stage balloon, for Rozier could control its altitude using hot air until he exhausted his fuel, then fly onward by relying on hydrogen with its valve and ballast. In overall appearance, it resembled the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb. However, it showed the usual elaborate decorations on a field of blue, including paintings of Aeolus, the Greek god of the wind.
Rozier certainly needed help from such a source, for he wanted to fly from France to England, whereas Blanchard and Jeffries had ridden prevailing winds in the other direction. Those winds continued to prevail until June of 1785, five months after their flight, but in the middle of that month, conditions were finally to Rozier's liking. He took along an assistant, Pierre Romain, and launched in the early morning, with the weather still cool and the balloon developing its maximum lift.
Something went wrong, for shortly after takeoff, at around five thousand feet, the hydrogen-filled globe suddenly burst into flame. It may have ignited due to a spark from the hot-air burner, which could have started a smoldering fire at the top of the cylinder. Perhaps the spark was of static electricity, within a hydrogen valve that was built of copper and steel. The cylindrical hot-air section remained largely intact, but proved wholly inadequate as a parachute. The remains of the balloon fell to the ground, with Rozier perishing almost instantly and Romain following only a few minutes later. This was history's first air disaster, and the first aircraft to crash.
Despite its clear risks, the first two years of ballooning established the broad forms of this activity according to patterns that persisted through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The principal further innovation was the parachute, which might have saved Rozier and Romain. André-Jacques Garnerin made the first such descent, in October 1797. His parachute was attached to his car; he released his balloon and remained within this gondola as it descended from twenty-three hundred feet into a Parisian park. For use with parachutes, hot-air balloons remained in vogue, for they did not use costly hydrogen and did not fly far after the pilot bailed out.
For serious ballooning, hydrogen stayed in the forefront. An English inventor, Charles Green, cut the cost by introducing common coal gas, which is rich in hydrogen. In 1836 his balloon, Royal Vauxhall, took him and two companions from London to Germany's Duchy of Nassau, covering 380 miles and setting a record that stood for decades. For sheer size, no one could top Le Géant, built in 1863 by a famous Parisian photographer who called himself Nadar. It approached 200 feet in height, with a capacity of 212,000 cubic feet, and lifted a two-story gondola that carried fourteen people.
Balloons also made voyages of exploration and discovery. The meteorologist James Glaisher rode with an experienced pilot, Henry Coxwell, and claimed to have reached 37,000 feet on a flight from Wolverhampton in 1862. He didn't; they used no oxygen, and the historian Charles Gibbs-Smith writes that they may have reached "19,000 feet, or a bit higher." Thirteen years later, France's Gaston Tissandier tried to top this record by using oxygen. His equipment did not work well, as he and two companions passed out at around 25,000 feet. He regained consciousness on the way down, but the others were dead.
The century ended with the dramatic flight of Sweden's Salomon Andree, who flew from Spitsbergen in July 1897 with two other men, in an attempt to reach the North Pole. They went only one-third of the way before they had to set down on the ice, but salvaged their equipment and walked southward toward their base. They nearly made it, but all three of them died within sight of Spitsbergen, probably from eating the infected meat of a polar bear. The world learned of this in 1930, when hunters found their bodies, diaries, and photos.
Significantly, the balloons of these flights did not differ fundamentally from those of Charles and Blanchard. Only months after the balloon's invention, during the single day of December 1, 1783, Charles demonstrated that a hydrogen balloon could fly long distances and reach high altitudes. With these achievements in hand, the record flights and achievements of the subsequent century amounted largely to embellishments. Yet while the technology of balloons quickly matured, their flights also stimulated thoughts of true airplanes, powered perhaps by steam.