It happened today - January 7, 2016
The adventurous monsieur in question was Jean-Pierre Blanchard and, along with an American named John Jeffries, he took off from Dover in a gas balloon and by the skin of his teeth, or his knees, reached Calais alive.
Along the way, as they sank ever closer to the angry waves of the Channel, the two intrepid travelers jettisoned a variety of key instruments and implements now thoroughly familiar to us as useless in air travel, from anchors to a hand propeller to silk-covered oars for rowing through the air. In a final desperate effort to lighten the balloon Blanchard even threw his pants over the side which apparently did the trick. Which makes me wonder what ponderous material they were made of and for what unrealized purpose.
Amazingly, this feat was accomplished just 14 months after the first ever hot air balloon flight, over Paris, by inventor Jean Francois Pilatre de Rozier and army officer Francois Laurent. Rozier was also keen to be the first to cross the Channel but perished in a balloon fire a few days before Blanchard pulled it and his pants off.
Doubtless he and Jeffries felt much the way the Wright brothers did in 1903. They had not merely managed something technically challenging and scarily risky, but they had taken a giant leap for mankind. Except airplanes soon gave us fighter aces, really bad food and atomic bombs while balloons are the eight-tracks of manned flight.
Yes, they work. And it’s intricate and keen and a few enthusiasts love the medium and even insist that one day its time will come. But instead of proving to be an effective method of transporting goods, moving people or waging war, they’re just these big quaint bags of gas drifting about the sky, often in charming or commercially pushy shapes.
On the plus side, the occupants almost always arrive safely now, wearing all the pants they started with.