The First Aerial Crossing of the English Channel

On 7th January 1785, Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries became the first humans to triumphantly fly across the English Channel in a balloon, from Dover, England to Calais, France.

In the history of ballooning, Jean-Pierre-François Blanchard is remembered as much for his courage and skills as a ballooning pioneer, as his abilities to spin colorful yarns. Whatever quirks he may have had, Blanchard was dedicated to achieving the flying dream, and struggled with building the first practical flying machine. Born on 4th July 1753, in Petit Andelys, near Paris, he fled his poverty-stricken home as a teenager. He did not have proper formal education but made up for that with his inventive mind.

Jean-Pierre Blanchard, engraving after a portrait by Richard Livesay
Dr. John Jeffries

In 1783, came the historic balloon flights of the Montgolfier brothers and Jacques Charles which accelerated Blanchard’s mechanical impulses. Since the ballooning honors were already taken by other pioneers in France, Blanchard’s ascents in Paris did not get him the fame he was looking for, so he moved to England.  Within a year of the first balloon flight, and with only a handful of ascents to his credit, the daredevil that he was, he decided to negotiate the English Channel in a balloon.

Between the White Cliffs of Dover, England, and the rocky northern coast of France lies 21 miles of sea. The Strait of Dover is the narrowest part of the English Channel, which separates the British Isles from the European continent. Even today crossing the channel in a frail balloon can be a daunting experience and try crossing it with the crude balloon that Blanchard used, and you get a sense of the danger. In those days they did not have prior knowledge of the weather, as we can have now. What if the hydrogen leaked or if the balloon got caught in a sudden storm?

Instead of worrying about the many risks, Blanchard worried about the money to make the right balloon and he soon found a sponsor, Dr. John Jeffries, who was born in 1744 in Boston. Jeffries was a physician, scientist, and a military surgeon with the British Army in Nova Scotia and New York during the American Revolution. He had graduated from Harvard College and had received his medical degree from the University of Aberdeen. The good-natured doctor well known for his interest in science, especially meteorology, paid an astronomical 700 pounds to cover the cost on the condition that he would be allowed on the journey.

The 79-foot round taffeta-fabric balloon, covered with net, was ready by the end of 1784. Its car suspended by long cords from the hoop above. Among other Blanchard’s innovations, it also carried a parachute to slow descent if the balloon should burst and had wings that moved by rack-work. A frosty night gave way to a fine, clear morning with a light north-westerly breeze on 7th January 1785, the day of the flight. In the early hours, the balloon was carried to the edge of the cliffs at Dover, to launch from the English side to fly across to France.

The hydrogen-filled balloon burdened with Blanchard’s unnecessary gear and furnishings, rose sluggishly over the harbor at 1 p.m. with the two intrepid flyers in its small, black, boat-shaped gondola. Almost fighting to stay aloft, reaching the French coast seemed like an impossible mission. Not even half way yet, the balloon threatened to crash in the English Channel. To make the balloon lighter and to keep it afloat, Jeffries was compelled to throw away his instruments. Still the balloon refused to ascend, and the aeronauts were forced to dump everything, including their clothes. Eventually, their balloon caught a rising warm air current, and after two hours and forty-seven minutes of flight, they landed in Calais, France, as naked as the trees, writes Jeffries; thankful to be alive and for achieving the triumphant crossing of the dangerous English Channel.

Forest of Guînes where Blanchard and Jeffries landed.

For the first time, humans had achieved a historical aerial voyage across the Channel. King Louis XVI who had shown a keen interest in balloon flights awarded Blanchard with a prize of 12,000 livres and a life pension. Jeffries who was content to see his copilot get all the glory, is credited with being among America’s first weather observers and his birthday 5th February is celebrated as National Weatherperson’s Day in his honor. — By Sitara Maruf

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