History Behind The Card: First Successful Crossing The Channel, 1785
Card #4 of 50, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1910
- Jean-Pierre Blanchard, July 4, 1753 in Les Andelys, France – March 7, 1809, The Hague, Netherlands;
- Dr. John Jefferies, February 5, 1744 in Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America – September 16, 1819 in Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America.
Dr. John Jefferies—acting as the financier of the trip—rode alongside the curmudgeonly, yet very real balloon pioneer, Jean-Pierre Blanchard to make the first successful voyage by air across the English Channel on January 7, 1785.
A year earlier on March 2, 1784, Blanchard had made his first successful balloon flight over Paris in a hydrogen gas balloon launched from the Champ de Mars. In fact, on November 30, 1784, Blanchard had first teamed up with the aforementioned Dr. Jefferies in a balloon flight from Mayfair, London to Ingress in Kent.
Despite of his past history with Jefferies, or perhaps because of it, prior to the voyage to cross the English Channel, Blanchard had tried many a time – and failed – to leave Jefferies behind. Blanchard was a bit of a glory hound, and did not want to share the honor of the achievement with Jefferies.
Even just prior to lift-off, Blanchard tried to stymie Jefferies who was only let aboard by the Frenchman after promising to jump out of the balloon if it proved unable to properly carry aloft two persons.
Nice guy that Blanchard!
The two men alit from the cliffs of Dover, England at 1PM on January 7, 1785 in their hydrogen balloon carrying only 13.62-kilograms (30-pounds) of ballast.
Unfortunately, they soon encountered difficulties, as the balloon was over-laden with equipment and a set of Blanchard’s wings that he would ideally flap up and down like a bird to create lift—it did not perform as advertised.
Faced with the prospect of ditching in the English Channel (I suspect Dr. Jefferies forgot about his earlier promise to jump out if there was a problem with the flight), the two men began tossing overboard various ballast and when that proved ineffective, all removable objects including ropes, the silken wings and even decorations on the balloon in order to lighten it to create more lift.
They eventually threw their clothing overboard and put on their cork life-preservers.
It is said that Jefferies eventually confided to a few friends that the two balloonists in their efforts to lighten the load, relieved themselves time and time again, as much as humanly possible. Could this have been the first attempt at using a toilet while flying?
Just as they were about to give up the flight—they were in sight of the coast of France—a gust of wind blew and carried them aloft again, managing to stay in the air before being snagged in a tree outside Calais, France at 3PM.
Jefferies and Blanchard became the first men to cross the English Channel by balloon.
Blanchard is also known for his experiments utilizing a form of parachute. In June of 1785 he dropped a small parachute made of silk from a balloon with a cat attached, though he also makes two unsubstantiated claims of having parachuted himself on two occasions, first in 1777 and again 1793.
After fleeing the French Revolution in 1789, Blanchard was arrested in Tyrol (now Austria) for distributing revolutionary propaganda. Escaping to the United States, he made the first ever balloon flight in the western hemisphere in Philadelphia on January 9, 1793 with then U.S. president George Washington in attendance.
As for Jefferies… well, he is known as the Father of U.S. weather observation – or at least one of its earliest scientific observers, as he began taking daily weather measurements in Boston starting in 1774. And, it is reported that while doing this ballon flight with Blanchard, he performed the first scientific weather observations over London. I’m guessing he managed to convince Blanchard to not toss his equipment overboard when it looked like the balloon might crash into the waters!