Ar­gu­ing Aero­nauts

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - by John Lock­wood

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.”

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