The basic story of the Montgolfier brothers and their invention of the hot-air balloon is fairly well known. They first successfully released an empty test balloon on July 4, 1783; followed by a flight on September 19, with a sheep, a duck, and a rooster aboard; and then, on October 15, they tried tethered human flight.
It was time for the first free human flight. At first, King Louis XVI wanted to send up two convicts in case the balloon failed, but he was persuaded instead to send two noblemen: Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent, marquis d’Arlande.
The flight took off November 21, 1783, at 1:54 p.m., on the then-western outskirts of Paris, at the Bois de Boulogne. About 20 minutes later, the aeronauts had crossed Paris and landed at the Butte-auxCailles, a journey of some four miles. The age of flight had begun.
But there’s more to the story, involving usually overlooked, all-too-human details. The flight had its troubles, with the balloon nearly catching fire, for instance. Also, de Rozier and d’Arlande proved rather quarrelsome colleagues during their historic flight.
The balloon itself was 74 feet high, 48 feet in diameter, and 15 feet wide at the neck. It was powered by burning moist straw in an iron brazier in the gondola.
As d’Arlande was clambering into said gondola, the nearby king expressed some concern over the dangers involved. But d’Arlande replied, “Sire, your majesty’s minister of war has made me so many promises in the air, and has suffered me to build so many castles in the same place, that I am going to take a look at both.” In other words, d’Arlande, having served in the army, had repeatedly been promised a promotion, which he had never received.
As for de Rozier, he was so confident as he entered the gondola, he felt that the balloon could even travel as far as Russia. Among the supplies the two aeronauts brought, along with the straw, were two wet sponges in case of trouble with fire.
At first, both men enjoyed the trip, waving their hats to the spectators below. In particular, d’Arlande was enjoying himself so much that he neglected to feed the fire, and de Rozier had to admonish him to help with the job, saying, among other things, “You are doing nothing, and we are not rising!” and “See the river [Seine]; we are dropping into it!” The freshly tended fire eventually carried the balloon up to 3,000 feet, and d’Arlande grew apprehensive at such a height. He demanded his companion stop adding straw to the fire and that it was time to descend, but for the moment de Rozier ignored him.
Now the two nobles found that sparks had started a few isolated fires in the balloon. According to one account, the resulting small holes, plus a cracking sound somewhere above, led d’Arlande to threaten to throw de Rozier overboard if he didn’t let the balloon descend. At least d’Arlande offered to accept the blame for cutting short the flight.
And de Rozier listened. Down they went. Using the wet sponges they had wisely brought along, they were fortunately able to extinguish the sparks in the balloon.
But as they neared the ground, they now risked getting impaled on one of several church steeples in the neighborhood, so they briefly rose above the churches by adding more fuel. They finally landed, with some two-thirds of the straw still unused. The brief voyage—part delightful, part nerve-racking— was over.
Later, in 1785, de Rozier perished while trying to cross the English Channel in a balloon.
As for d’Arlande, he got his promotion. The king gave it to him in person, adding, “You have gone higher, sir, of yourself than I can ever raise you.”