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The aviation pioneer with the balloon sized ego

An oil painting made c 1840 by E W Cocks depicts Jean-Pierre Blanchard's balloon arriving at Calais Harbour in 1785. Photo by SSPL/Getty Images - Credit: SSPL via Getty Images

Charlie Connelly explores the life of Jean-Pierre Blanchard – the balloonist with an inflated sense of his own importance.

The morning of January 7, 1785, dawned bright and clear and the coast of France was clearly visible across the Channel from the castle overlooking Dover. The Channel had always made England a fortress. Twenty one miles across even at its narrowest point, not to mention a notoriously unpleasant sea crossing, it lent a level of security that had ensured only two successful major military invasions in the previous 1,700 years, first by the Romans, then the Normans. That perception was about to change.

Jean-Pierre Blanchard emerged from his castle quarters and looked up at the flags. He’d been there for days waiting for the wind to turn. The previous day there had been indications and he was delighted to see that while he slept it had stopped blowing from the east. Not only that it was coming from the north-west, the perfect direction for his planned voyage. He roused his co-pilot, an American physician named Dr John Jeffries, and the pair set about inflating the hot air balloon for a flight that, if successful, would make Blanchard and Jeffries the first people to cross the Channel by air.

Blanchard’s plan was an incredibly dangerous one. It was only a little over a year since Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier had made the first ever manned flight in a balloon, a gentle 25-minute, five-mile drift over Paris. The Channel presented a flight of at least 21 miles, wind dependent, with nowhere in between to land. There was a significant risk of ditching in the sea with only a minimal chance of rescue, not to mention the danger of the wind changing and carrying the aircraft out over the North Sea. It’s not even as if Blanchard was an experienced balloonist: before that day he’d only made five ascents, but what he lacked in experience he more than made up for with ambition and an enormous ego.

Blanchard had always felt he was destined for great things. He’d developed a keen interest in physics and engineering at a young age in his home town of Rouen and despite relatively humble origins – his father was a joiner – forged an ambition to become an inventor whose innovations would see his name known around the world. At 16 he produced a velocipede, an early form of the bicycle that created enough of a stir to have investors willing to support future projects.

By 1782 Blanchard had turned his attention to flying machines and while his Vaisseau Volant, a wooden contraption with four flappable wings, proved to be a humiliating failure to the extent that satirical pamphlets were produced in Paris and sold by the cartload, the success of the Montgolfier brothers’ prototype hot air balloons focused his attention in that direction instead. On March 2, 1784, at the Champ de Mars in Paris, where the Eiffel Tower stands today, Blanchard unveiled a 26ft high, silk-covered green and yellow balloon with a boat-shaped gondola suspended beneath, hoping an impressive demonstration might attract investment for more ambitious projects.

The capital came to a standstill. A huge crowd had assembled by the time the balloon was fully inflated. Just as Blanchard was about to launch, a student named Dupont, a classmate of Napoleon Bonaparte, hopped into the gondola and announced he was coming too. When Blanchard demurred Dupont produced a sword and set about slashing at the balloon and its ropes, causing serious damage and wounding Blanchard in the hand in the process. Despite the damage and his injury Blanchard not only managed to ascend but stayed in the air for an impressive two hours.

When this display and a further demonstration at Rouen failed to attract the kind of extra cash he was after Blanchard folded up his balloon and headed for London, announcing himself as the world’s finest aeronaut, trumpeting an attempt to cross the Channel by air and reeling off a number of startling balloonatic accomplishments in France, nearly all of which he had made up.

His salesmanship was enough to attract the interest and cash of Jeffries, who offered to cover the costs of the attempt as long as he could make the flight too. The Frenchman agreed reluctantly but, seeking the glory entirely for himself, put almost as much work into keeping Jeffries out of the gondola as he did in preparation for the crossing. Blanchard drew up a contract with a clause requiring Jeffries to jump out during the flight if it was necessary to save the balloon. Once they’d reached their base at Dover Castle Blanchard sent Jeffries on an errand, bolted the castle gates and only let him back in when Jeffries returned with soldiers of the militia. Even on the day of the flight, once the balloon was inflated and they had loaded their equipment into the gondola, including a pair of cork lifejackets, promotional pamphlets Blanchard planned to throw out over France, 30lb of ballast and Jeffries’ meteorological instruments, the two men stepped into the gondola, Blanchard loosened a couple of mooring ropes – and frowned.

Normally the balloon would be straining to rise at this point, he said, but they were clearly too heavy. He was very sorry but the doctor’s weight was clearly the difference between the success and failure of the expedition. Jeffries would have to let Blanchard go on alone. Jeffries, however, had already noticed his colleague filling out his clothes a little more than usual. He first asked, then insisted the Frenchman open his coat upon which it became clear Blanchard had fashioned himself a belt from which he had hung a series of lead weights.

Despite Blanchard’s chicanery, when the balloon’s mooring ropes were released and the balloon began to ascend both men were in the gondola, marvelling at the view.

Halfway across, however, the balloon began to lose altitude. Out went the ballast, arresting the descent for a while, but the closer they drew to the French coast the lower the balloon seemed to be sinking. Over the side went the pamphlets, their food supplies, the bottle of brandy they’d brought as a defence against the cold and even the cloth lining of the gondola, yet still they were heading straight for the chalk cliffs outside Calais. Things became desperate enough for the two men to strip down to their underwear and jettison their clothes then prepare for the most drastic action of all: to cut the gondola loose and hang from the ropes in an attempt to save themselves.

Just as the situation appeared hopeless the balloon suddenly started to rise. Two hours after they had set out, as the men stared at the approaching cliffs the aircraft lifted gracefully over them. Not only that, they were carried several miles inland before the balloon began to descend again, by which time the pair were, in Jeffries’ words, “benumbed with cold”. Eventually they were able to make a controlled crash landing in a forest near Guînes where the pair were found in a clearing huddling together for warmth. Unconventional it may have looked, not least with both men clad in just their underwear, but Blanchard and Jeffries had just become the first humans to cross the Channel by air.

They were escorted first to Calais for some wild celebrations and then to Paris for an audience with Louis XVI, who immediately awarded Blanchard a royal pension that set him up financially for life.

Having achieved the fame he’d always craved the Frenchman worked hard to maintain it, touring Europe giving demonstrations, chalking up the first recorded balloon flights in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland and in 1791 making a commemorative flight to mark the coronation of the King of Bohemia. Two years later Blanchard travelled to America and made the continent’s first balloon flight, from Philadelphia to Deptford, New Jersey, in a journey witnessed by the president George Washington as well as future president Thomas Jefferson.

Occasionally Blanchard appeared to lead a charmed life – on one occasion his balloon silk ruptured at altitude but he happened to be carrying a prototype parachute that saved his life – but in February 1808 while giving a demonstration at the Hague he suffered a heart attack in the gondola, staggered to its edge and fell 50ft to the ground. He died as a result of his injuries a year and a month later, aged 53. For all his bluster Blanchard’s crossing was a huge achievement and a key moment in British relations with the rest of Europe. When his balloon sailed over the cliffs at Calais that sunny morning the continent and its northwest archipelago drew closer than ever before.

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