Across the Channel in 150 Minutes: The Story of the First Balloon Crossing

History Hit

3 mins

07 Jan 2016

On 7 January 1785, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and his American co-pilot John Jeffries completed the first successful crossing of the English Channel in a balloon.

Their achievement was another milestone in the already eventful history of hot air ballooning.

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Auspicious beginnings

Joseph Montgolfier was the first to begin experimenting with hot air balloons. The idea struck him one evening when he found he was able to inflate his shirt over the fire.

Joseph and his brother Etienne began experimenting in their garden. On 4 June 1783 they made the first public demonstration using a balloon made of cotton and paper carrying a basket of wool.

The Montgolfier brothers’ first demonstration of ballooning. Credit: Library of Congress

The brothers next set their sights on a manned flight. They had a willing test pilot in local chemistry teacher Pilatre de Rozier, but first they had to make sure a living thing could survive the change of altitude.

As a result the first manned balloon flight carried an audacious crew of a duck, a cockerel and a sheep. After a three-minute flight, performed in front of King Louis XVI, the balloon landed and the Montgolfier brothers were relieved to discover their indomitable menagerie had survived.

Humans in flight

Convinced that if a sheep could survive a balloon flight then a human probably could too, de Rozier finally got his chance. On 21 November 1783 de Rozier and a second passenger (required for balance) achieved a 28 minute flight, reaching 3000 feet.

De Rozier’s first manned flight, on 21 November 1783. Credit: Library of Congress

In the months that followed, “balloonomania” swept across Europe.

In September 1783, Italian Vincenzo Lunardi attracted 150,000 spectators to witness the first balloon flight in England. According to the Morning Post  St Paul’s Cathedral even increased its entry price for balloon enthusiasts wanting to climb the dome for a better view.

Balloon pilots became the celebrities of their day. But they were also bitter rivals.

In competition with the Montgolfier brothers’ hot-air balloons, scientist Jacques Charles developed a hydrogen balloon, capable of rising higher and travelling further.

Crossing the Channel

The first goal of long-distance balloon flight was to cross the English Channel.

De Rozier planned to cross in a hybrid balloon design, a combination of a hot-air balloon with a small hydrogen balloon attached. But he wasn’t ready in time.

Jean-Pierre Blanchard was inspired by the Montgolfier brothers’ early demonstrations and took his first flight in a balloon in March 1784. In England Blanchard met American doctor and fellow balloon enthusiast John Jeffries, who offered to fund a flight across the Channel in return for a place in the basket.

On 7 January 1785 the pair made their ascent in a hydrogen balloon over Dover and headed for the coast. The flight almost ended early when the pair realised their basket, loaded with equipment, was much too heavy.

Blanchard’s successful crossing. Credit: The Royal Aeronautical Society

They dumped everything, even Blanchard’s trousers, but kept hold of a letter, the first airmail. They completed the flight in two-and-a-half hours, landing in the Felmores Forest.

Superstars of flight

Blanchard and Jeffries became international sensations. Blanchard subsequently became the first person to make a balloon flight in North America, conducted in front of President George Washington on 9 January 1793.

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But ballooning was a dangerous business. After losing out to Blanchard, de Rozier continued to plan a crossing of the Channel in the opposite direction. He set off on 15 June 1785 but the balloon crashed and both he and his passenger were killed.

The perils of flight also caught up with Blanchard. He suffered a heart attack during a flight in 1808, and fell more than 50 feet. He died a year later.

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