The Tragic and Spectacular Death of Sophie Blanchard – The First Woman Pilot Balloonist
Sophie Blanchard was the world’s first female aeronaut. She is not only remembered for her incredible achievements and bravery in early ballooning, but for her dramatic and tragic death.
Sophie Blanchard, commonly known as Madame Blanchard, was born as Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant on the 25 th of March 1778 in Les Trois-Canon, not far from the southwestern French city of La Rochelle. Little is known about her early life. Her husband was the ballooning pioneer, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, after whose death, Sophie continued his legacy and made a name for herself as a professional balloonist.
The First Hot Air Balloon
Hot air balloon experiments began in France shortly after Sophie’s birth. The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne, discovered in 1782 that heated air, when collected in a lightweight paper or fabric bag, would cause the bag to rise in the air. On the 4 th of June 1783, the brothers made their first public demonstration of their discovery at the marketplace of Annonay.
The Montgolfiers brothers, however, were not the only people interested in flying. In another part of the country was Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who had been working on the design of flying machines, most notably one which, in theory, would sail through the sky by rowing in the air currents with oars and till, much like how a boat would operate on water. After the Montgolfier brother’s public demonstration, however, Blanchard decided to ditch his ideas and to become a balloonist himself.
Blanchard’s first ascent in a balloon took place on the 2 nd of March 1784 in Paris. In the following year, he ascended over Dover, England with John Jeffries, an American physician, and made the first aerial crossing across the English Channel. Additionally, this ascent is also notable for being the first delivery of mail by an aerial vehicle. Blanchard went on to make balloon flights in various parts of Europe, as well as the first balloon flight in North America. Blanchard’s career as a balloonist came to an end in 1808, when he suffered a heart attack while flying over The Hague and fell to the ground. He never recovered and died in the following year.
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Crossing of the English Channel by Blanchard and Jeffries on 7 January 1785. (Trialsanderrors / Public Domain)
Sophie Blanchard’s Beginning as a Balloonist
In the years prior to his accident, Blanchard’s wife, Sophie, had learned to fly a balloon herself and made balloon flights with her husband. Sophie, however, was not the first woman to ascent into the sky in a balloon and this title belongs to Elizabeth Thible, who flew in 1784. Nevertheless, while Thible flew with a male companion, Monsieur Fleurant, Sophie did so on her own after her husband’s death.
Blanchard shown in an 1859 engraving by Jules Porreau. (Materialscientist / Public Domain)
Sophie flew balloons professionally partly out of necessity. Sophie’s husband had poor business sense which drove the pair to bankruptcy. They realized, however, that a female balloonist had the potential to attract crowds and therefore get them out of their financial problems. Additionally, Sophie enjoyed the thrill of ballooning. Although she is reported to have been extremely nervous on the ground, the air was her element and she flew balloons fearlessly.
Sophie’s ability as a professional balloonist received recognition from most the rulers of France. In 1804, Sophie was appointed by Napoleon as the ‘Aeronaut of the Official Festivals’, after dismissing its previous incumbent, Andre Jacques Garnerin. Sophie’s predecessor was responsible for sending up a balloon to mark Napoleon’s coronation in Paris. Unfortunately, he lost control of the aircraft, which drifted all the way to Rome, causing the emperor much embarrassment.
In her position, Sophie was responsible for organizing balloon displays at festivals and other events. Apparently, Sophie was even appointed as Napoleon’s Chief Air Minister of Ballooning and is alleged to have drawn up plans of an aerial invasion of Great Britain. Ten years after her appointment as Napoleon’s ‘Aeronaut of the Official Festivals’, the French monarchy was restored and Louis XVIII was the new King of France. Sophie’s position was not affected by this change in regime. Like Napoleon, Louis enjoyed Sophie’s balloon displays and appointed her as the ‘Official Aeronaut of the Restoration’.
Sophie makes her ascent in Milan on 15 August 1811 to mark the 42nd birthday of Napoleon. (Durova / Public Domain)
Sophie Was Famous Throughout Europe
Sophie was famous not only in France, but throughout Europe as well and she performed in various parts of the continent. On the 16 th of September 1810, for instance, she performed in Frankfurt and drew a crowd that was larger than the one watching von Weber’s opera Silvana, which debuted in the city on the same day.
Sophie was also an innovative performer who experimented with novel ideas to please her fans. One of these was the use of fireworks during her performances, which would ultimately lead to her death. On the 6 th of July 1819, Sophie was due to perform at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris, where she made regular performances. Although she had been warned repeatedly of the dangers of using fireworks while ballooning, she decided to carry on the fireworks display this time, which in fact was supposed to be more impressive than usual.
A few minutes after her ascent Sophie began her fireworks display. As the balloon continued to rise, disaster struck, and the balloon suddenly burst into flames. The balloon descended rapidly, but the gas in it provided sufficient lift to prevent it from plunging directly to the earth. The strong wind, however, blew it away from the Tivoli Gardens.
As the balloon continued to descend, Sophie is reported to have done all she could to slow it down. As the balloon drifted above the rooftops of the Rue de Provence, it ran out of gas and struck the roof of a house. Sophie was caught in the netting of her balloon, fell on the side of the roof and then into the street below. When the crowds arrived at the scene Sophie was already dead.
Death of Madame Blanchard, an illustration from the late 19th century. (Juulijs / Adobe)
When the owners of the Tivoli Gardens heard of Sophie’s unfortunate accident and death, they announced that they would support her children by donating the admission fees to them. After raising 2400 francs, they found out that Sophie had no children. Instead, they decided to use the money to build a memorial (a replica of her balloon in flames) for her, which can still be seen in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery today.
Top image: Sophie Blanchard’s unfortunate accident and death. Source: Trialsanderrors / Public Domain.
By Wu Mingren
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