US Flight No. One: January 9, 1793
On January 9, 1793, not quite ten years after the birth of aeronautics, the first manned flight above American soil took place. A French balloonist, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, lifted off from the jail yard of the Walnut Street Prison in Philadelphia and floated into New Jersey.
Air travel had begun in France in 1783, when Joseph Montgolfier, a paper manufacturer, inspired by the smoke sweeping up a chimney above a fire, pieced together a balloon of taffeta and paper and sent it aloft by setting a flame under it (the simple principle involved is that heat expands air, and thus a given volume of heated air weighs less than the same volume unheated). Less than three months later the physicist Jacques-Alexandre-César Charles sent up a balloon containing the lighter-than-air gas hydrogen, which had been discovered by Henry Cavendish in 1766. In the race that followed to put a man in air, the Montgolfier hot-air balloon won, flying over Paris on November 21, 1783. Benjamin Franklin was present at several of the first flights, and when asked what use the device might have, he replied, “What good is a newborn baby?” On December 1, 1783, Charles achieved his first manned hydrogen-balloon flight. Thereafter he and the Montgolfier brothers, serious men of science and of business, gave way to the barnstormers.
Blanchard, who came on the scene in March 1784, was the world’s first professional airman. He flew regularly, he flew for a living, and he had no other means of support. He preferred hydrogen because of its relative tidiness and greater levity. Eleven times lighter than hot air, hydrogen permitted the design of balloons small enough to make dirigibility at least imaginable. After his maiden voyage, from the Champ de Mars in Paris, he claimed to have been able to steer across and against the wind by a combination of tacking and paddling.
The disadvantages of hydrogen were its expense and extreme flammability. To produce the gas for one balloon, three thousand pounds of sulfuric acid had to be poured over a like amount of iron scraps in oak barrels. Despite the hazards of his profession, however, Blanchard died in his bed in 1809 after a career of sixty ascensions; his wife assumed his mantle and, after fifty-nine flights, plunged into Turin amid flames, a victim of her practice of setting off fireworks from the gondola.
Meeting at the outset with reverses in France, Blanchard had tried his fortune in London, with an eye toward a first Channel crossing. He found a patron in John Jeffries, an expatriate American doctor who advanced him one hundred guineas for the privilege of accompanying him across Surrey and Kent and posted a£500 bond against the prospective expenses of the Channel crossing. Blanchard quickly irritated Jeffries with his habit of soaking up money while affecting to be above it, and at the same time Blanchard resented the scientific pretensions of his passenger, who wanted to study properties of the atmosphere. Confused recriminations—neither spoke the other’s language—marred their take-off from Dover Castle on January 7,1785. The two quarreled all the way across the Channel, agreeing only that they must throw everything loose overboard, including breeches and coats, as their aircraft steadily lost altitude. It began rising again five miles short of Calais and carried them almost naked to a rough landing, close to where Henry VIII had met Francis I on the Field of Cloth of Gold.
A contemporary observer described Blanchard as “an unpleasant creature—a petulant little fellow not many inches over five feet, and physically suited for vaporish regions.” Eight years and forty flights later, the Frenchman arrived in America. “How superior to all the reports of fame Philadelphia appeared,” he noted in his Journal of My Forty-first Ascension and the First in America . He wrote that his object was to “convince the new world that man’s ingenuity is not confined to earth alone, but opens to him new and certain roads in the vast expanse of heaven.” He also wanted to make money, and he immediately opened a subscription to support a first flight.
The walled prison yard was chosen as the only large space in the city where privacy would be ensured during preparations and where the audience for the launching could be restricted to paid subscribers. Nor was the site depressing. These were the early days of prison reform, and the Quakers had made their jail a model. The cells contained thirty-eight felons, ten of them women, and half-a-dozen debtors.
The subscription, at five dollars a ticket, was advertised in the local Federal Gazette , and interest ran high. Blanchard’s response to inquiry tended to be gracious but condescending. A correspondent wrote in an open letter, “As many among us would wish to follow you on horseback … inform us of the [jail yard] doors that will be opened, that we may know where to order our horses to stand.” Blanchard replied: “If the day is calm, there will be full time to leave the prison court without precipitation, as I will ascend perpendicularly, but if the wind blows, permit me, gentlemen, to advise you not to attempt to keep up with me …. ”
To the many who wrote to him asking to ascend with him, he responded, again in a public letter: “As it appears to me that most of those who do me the honor of writing on this subject are unacquainted with the increase of expense that a compliance … would occasion, you will be pleased to inform them that the quantity of vitriol [acid] necessary could not be found in this city and that if it could be procured, it would cost at least 100 guineas. All my aerial companions in Europe have agreed to defray my expenses.”
The promised day, Wednesday, January 9, 1793, was hazy and mild. Cannons began to herald the event at six in the morning. Ticket sales had been disappointing—receipts were only $405—but outside the prison, thousands of people thronged the streets and climbed on roofs and steeples. Blanchard arrived at nine, clad in a plain blue suit and a cocked hat with white feathers. Inflation proceeded smoothly. Philadelphia society was present in good number, and shortly before ten, President Washington drove up in his white coach-and-six. He wished Blanchard godspeed and handed him a “passport” to “recommend to all citizens of the United States, and others, that in his passage, descent, return or journeying elsewhere, they oppose no hindrance or molestation to the said Mr. Blanchard; and, that on the contrary, they receive and aid him with that humanity and good will which may render honour to their country, and justice to an individual so distinguished by his efforts to establish and advance an art, in order to make it useful to mankind in general.”
A final round of artillery and Blanchard rose straight up, saluting the multitude with his flag, which showed the Stars and Stripes on one side and the French tricolor on the other. At six hundred feet he encountered a northwest breeze, which carried him across the Delaware River and into New Jersey. At fifty-eight hundred feet a little black dog that a friend had sent along for company began to whine and droop, and Blanchard vented hydrogen to arrest his climb. Once at a stable altitude, he turned to the promotion of useful knowledge, making various observations that Philadelphians had commissioned. He opened six bottles containing different liquids to bring back samples of the upper atmosphere. He took his pulse and found that it had increased from eighty-four to ninety-two. He measured the effect of altitude on magnetism with a lodestone, which he found would lift only four ounces instead of the five and a half it had carried on the ground.
His researches completed, Blanchard strengthened his stomach with a “morsel of biscuit and a glass of wine.” He then noticed that friends had added a bottle of ether to his picnic basket, and he took a few drops—"which refreshed me very much"—and prepared to put down. As he descended, he had to throw ballast several times to stay clear of forests and swamps. He finally landed in a dry clearing in Gloucester County, New Jersey, at 10:56 A.M., after forty-five minutes of flight. His barometer was broken by the shock, but he still had half-a-dozen biscuits, two-and-a-half bottles of wine, and a compass.
Shortly after, somebody appeared. “It was indeed a countryman,” Blanchard wrote. When the frightened man started to run away, Blanchard called out. The two could not understand one another, but the bottle of wine and the passport bridged the gap. A second man, with a gun, appeared, dropped his weapon, and raised his hands to heaven. The wine reassured him too. Together the three folded the balloon, loaded it into a cart, and repaired first to a neighbor’s house and then to a tavern in the direction of the Delaware River. There they met a group that had tried to track Blanchard from Independence Square but had lost view of him while crossing the river on a ferry. The whole assemblage dined together, and the flier then returned to Philadelphia in triumph. “My first care,” he wrote, “was to go and pay my respects to President Washington, and to inform him of the happy effects of the passport he had been pleased to grant me.”