The First Human Flight Was by a Balloon, 235 Years Ago

On 5th June 1783, brothers Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier released the first balloon in the air in Annonay, a small town in France. Their craft rose to 6,000 feet and flew for ten minutes. Knowing that their balloon flight was safe, the Montgolfier brothers proceeded to build a giant envelope to fly the first people. Their objective was to find out whether it was impossible or dangerous in some ways for humans to fly.

A 1780’s portrait of Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, French scientist, lecturer, and balloonist, blowing hydrogen gas into a flame.

Twenty-nine-year-old Pilâtre de Rozier had joined the Montgolfiers on their ambitious project and had experimented with many tethered balloon ascents. Rozier, a brilliant scientist and a physics and chemistry lecturer at the Academy in Reims, was accompanied by the spirited nobleman Marquis d’Arlandes  on humankind’s historic first flight. Their balloon “the Réveillon” was almost the size of a six-story building – 70 feet high, 46 feet in diameter, and about 70,000 cubic feet in capacity. It weighed 1,600 pounds.

The intense excitement of the earlier balloon ascents would only be surpassed by a free flight with human beings and an eager crowd gathered to witness the launch. On November 21, 1783 preparations to launch from the gardens of the Chateau La Muette in the Bois de Boulogne began amidst blustery wind conditions. Fortunately, the wind died down and Rozier and d’Arlandes took off at 1:54 p.m. To maintain the balloon’s equilibrium, they were into opposite sides of the gallery, invisible to each other.

Marquis François Laurent le Vieux d’Arlandes

For the public, it was a majestic sight, but their minds were churning with unforeseen dangers that lay ahead for the two airmen riding the uncharted, unpredictable, and unlimited ocean of air, with a catastrophic risk – a suspended, blazing fire burning close to the huge fabric-and-paper tent. Their balloon neck did not have the fire-resistant fabric, or the clean, safe propane burners used in modern hot-air balloons, but they had equipped themselves for such a disaster – with a bucket of water and few sponges!

As the balloon rose, the Marquis d’Arlandes was struck by the seeming absence of movement and the silence of the flight. He looked below at the waves of wonderstruck spectators and was enchanted by the spectacular scenery all around him. He was still gazing, when he heard Rozier.
“You are doing nothing, and the balloon is scarcely rising a fathom (six feet).”
“Pardon me,” answered the Marquis and placed a bundle of straw upon the fire and slightly stirred it.
During their flight they skimmed the roofs sometimes or appeared to head straight into the towers of St. Sulpice or Luxembourg. Each time the Marquis panicked and cried out to descend.
“But the intrepid Roziers, who never lost his head, and who judged more surely than I, prevented me from attempting to descend,” wrote the Marquis.

The world’s first flight covered five miles and descended gently, touching down at Butte-aux-Cailles at what is now Place d’Italie in Paris. As they made their way to the nearest house, they were greeted by the Duc de Chartres who had followed their balloon on horseback. The folded balloon was transported on a cart to the Reveillon gardens.

Their flying adventure proved that humans could survive at reasonable altitudes away from the surface of the earth, and their balloon flight had achieved a dream of centuries; a dream for which many brave souls had lost their lives. Rozier and the Marquis were the first aeronauts, recognized as world heroes.

Tragically, Rozier, the first aviator was killed in the first aerial disaster on 15th June 1785, when he and his companion Pierre Roman attempted the crossing of the English Channel by a balloon, from France to England. This was a severe challenge due to the unfavorable winds and currents.

Top featured image: The first aerial voyage. Depiction of Pilatre de Rozier’s and the Marquis d’Arlandes first flight on November 21, 1783, over the river Seine. The colors of the balloon vary in some paintings.

by Sitara Maruf

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