First Airship to Cross the Seas – Jean-Pierre Blanchard

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In 1785 a balloon fitted with flapping wings for propulsion and a birdlike tail for steering flew across the English Channel from England to France. The vehicle was invented and piloted by French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard who also achieved many other firsts in the development of airship technology.

The very first hydrogen gas balloon flight was on December 1st, 1783, when Professor Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert launched La Charlière from the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. The following year Blanchard had his first successful hydrogen balloon flight on March 2nd, 1784; his balloon took off from the Champ de Mars and flew across Paris.

Blanchard Paris 680Blanchard’s flight, however, was nearly a disaster when the hot headed Dupont de Chambon was denied a spot aboard the balloon; in his anger he took his sword and slashed at the balloon’s mooring ropes and oars. The flight was plotted to travel northeast to La Villette by means of “rowing,” but winds blew the balloon across the Seine to Billancourt and back again, landing in the rue de Sèvres. 

In August of 1784, Blanchard moved to London, however, the first flight in Britain was made by Italian Vincenzo Lunardi when he flew from Moorfields to Ware on September 15th, 1784; Blanchard’s first British flight was on October 16th, 1784. The following year, however, would be when Blanchard earned his place in airship history.

Blanchard English ChannelOn January 7th, 1785, accompanied by American Dr. John Jeffries, Blanchard made the first flight across the English Channel. Leaving from Dover Castle the flight took about two and half hours to cross the water and land at Guînes in France. For his achievement, Blanchard was awarded a generous pension by Louis XVI.

Blanchard toured Europe, demonstrating his balloons. Blanchard holds the record of first balloon flights in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland. Among the events that included demonstrations of his abilities as a balloonist was the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia in Prague in September 1791.

Following the invention of the modern parachute in 1783 by Sébastien Lenormand in France, in 1785 Jean-Pierre Blanchard demonstrated it as a means of safely jumping from a hot air balloon. While Blanchard’s first parachute demonstrations were conducted with a dog as the passenger, he later had the opportunity to try it himself when in 1793 his hot air balloon ruptured and he used a parachute to escape. Subsequent development of the parachute focused on it becoming more compact. While the early parachutes were made of linen stretched over a wooden frame, in the late 1790s, Blanchard began making parachutes from folded silk, taking advantage of silk’s strength and light weight.

Jean_Pierre_BlanchardOn January 9th, 1793, Blanchard conducted the first balloon flight in the Americas. He launched his balloon from the prison yard of Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and landed in Deptford, Gloucester County, New Jersey. One of the flight’s witnesses that day was President George Washington, and the future presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe were also present. Blanchard left the United States in 1797.

He married Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant (better known as Sophie Blanchard) in 1804. On February 20th, 1808, Blanchard had a heart attack while in his balloon at the Hague. He fell from his balloon and died roughly a year later (March 7th, 1809) from his severe injuries. His widow continued to support herself with ballooning demonstrations until it also killed her.


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