Washington Watches a Balloon – It Happened Today, January 9, 2017

Regular readers of this feature will know that I have a soft spot for the incorrigible enthusiasts for hot air balloons, dirigibles and all those lighter-than-air craft that preceded the airplane, were rudely shoved aside by it, and yet whose backers continue to dream. You just can’t keep a hot air balloon down.

It is also remarkable that for some reason the French were especially keen enthusiasts. I won’t make any hot air jokes here. But I will note that French pioneers included Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who in 1785 boldly demonstrated the value of a parachute in escaping a troubled hot-air balloon by … um… throwing his dog out wearing one. (See "It Happened Today" for October 22, 2016.) Dogs being what they are, the pooch was probably enthusiastic about it. But I do not suggest you try it with a cat or it may well sharpen its claws on your balloon before your next flight. Or on you as you seek to ease it out of the contraption or into the parachute.)

Blanchard's interest in the subject of escaping alive from a balloon gone bad was doubtless stimulated by his own very nearly lethal trip from Dover to Calais on January 7 of 1785 in which (see "It Happened Today" for January 7, 2016) he and his co-lunatic only escaped a plunge into the Channel en route by jettisoning all the ballast they could think of including Blanchard’s pants. And the danger was very real; an effort by another Frenchman, Pilâtre de Rozier, to cross the Channel the other way later that year ended in a fatal crash.

Well, on January 9, 1793, Blanchard was at it again. No, I don’t mean the animal cruelty stuff or the mid-air striptease. I mean a historic balloon flight. The first in the Americas, taking off from the yard of Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia and reaching Deptford in New Jersey. Which may not sound like the acme of glamour. But in fact the flight was witnessed by America’s first, incumbent President George Washington along with her future 2nd president John Adams, 3rd president Thomas Jefferson, 4th president James Madison and 5th president James Monroe.

Sadly, Blanchard suffered a heart attack and fell from a balloon in the Hague in 1808 and died about a year later from his injuries. And his widow continued ballooning demonstrations until she too died in an accident. And it’s also sad to see how France, which was somehow still a world leader in many ways at the turn of the 19th century despite a long tradition of bad government that was about to get worse, has gradually faded as excessive if no longer vicious government seems gradually to have stifled much of the French genius for bold innovation.

Obviously ballooning continues to have adherents, and I cannot look up on a beautiful day and watch balloons cruising over Ottawa without wishing I were in one. But given all the passionate commitment, interest and courage that went into their early development I do hope that one day that somehow the first and most graceful form of manned flight will become more important relative to the dominant, convenient but loud and increasingly tawdry airplane travel that dominates today.

Who knows? Maybe they'll even serve good food. Especially if the French are involved.