Blanchard’s Extraordinary Experimental Flying Ship

Jean-Pierre Blanchard (1753-1809) was a French pioneer in aviation and ballooning. On the Victorian Picture Library website you can see a fascinating illustration showing the hydrogen gas balloon (or ‘aerostatic globe filled with inflammable air’) in which he made his first successful balloon flight from the Champ de Mars, Paris on 2 March 1784. The parachute below the balloon was a safety device, intended to break the fall if there was an accident to the balloon; the boat was fitted with oars moved alternately by the travellers, and with a rudder.

The ascent was preceded by high drama: Pierre Blanchard and his companion Pech, a Benedictine monk, were attacked by a contemporary of Napoleon at the Military School named Dupont de Chambon. Obstinately determined to set out with them, he forced his way, sword in hand, into the gondola, wounded Blanchard, tore the rigging, and broke the oars; Blanchard set off alone some hours later, after having mended his balloon as well as lie could.

Blanchard had been beaten to the record for the first successful balloon ascent by the Montgolfier brothers, whose balloon (manned by Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes) rose at the Palace of Versailles in November 1783. Blanchard might have learnt from the inventors the uselessness of his oars, and of the flapping wings and windmills which he tried in several subsequent ascents. The brothers Mongolfier had considered, among many other means of guidance, the use of oars, and had rejected them. Joseph Montgolfier wrote to his brother Etienne in 1783: ‘I do not see any efficient means of guidance, except in the knowledge of the different currents of air which it is necessary to study; they generally vary according to the elevation’.

In October 1784 Blanchard was in London, where with John Sheldon he made a balloon flight of about 115 kilometers from Chelsea to Romsey. That November he flew with Dr John Jeffries from London to Kent, and in 1785 the intrepid pair made the first flight over the English Channel. Blanchard was awarded a pension by Louis XVI.

Blanchard toured Europe demonstrating ballooning, and also the use of a parachute – he was the first to make parachutes from silk on account of its strength and lightness. In 1793 Blanchard made the first balloon flight in North America, starting in Philadelphia and landing in Deptford, New Jersey. This feat was witnessed by President George Washington.