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The Montgolfier brothers were the first to launch a hot air balloon and their first public demonstration of a hot air balloon took place in Annonay, France on June 4, 1783.		Source: Public domain

The Naked Hot Air Balloon Aeronauts Who Conquered High Altitude Mayhem


In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci dreamed of people flying through the air, but it wasn’t until 19 September 1783 that history’s first aerostatic flight was achieved by the Montgolfier brothers at Versailles. While aerodynamics refers to the study of gases in motion, within any given system, aerostatics refers to the study of gases that are not in motion. Da Vinci’s dreams of people flying in the air manifested on November 21, 1783, in the form of the ‘aerostatic-globe’ – now known as a hot air balloon.

The first official free balloon flight, without security ropes, occurred on this date in Paris, France, when the Montgolfier brothers flew a hot air balloon made from silk and paper. Standing on a circular platform and feeding a fire below the balloon, Francois Pilatrê de Rozier and Francois Laurent reached an altitude of at least 152 meters (500 feet), and they floated about 8.85 kilometers (5.5 miles) before landing 25 minutes later.

Only two years later, on January 7, 1785, with hot air balloon technology still in their infancy, two men boldly crossed the English Channel. But not everything went to plan, and the two aviators went to extreme lengths to survive. John Jeffries, the expedition financer, was a wealthy American doctor and his partner, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard, was one of the principal innovators of ballooning. The two men had organized a sizable crowd on England’s Dover cliffs and with only 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms) of ballast weights onboard, some personal items and a bag of mail, at 1:00 p.m., Blanchard and Jeffries took off on their 21-mile (33.8-kilometer) journey to Paris, France, across the English Channel.

The hot air balloon crossing of the English Channel by Blanchard and Jeffries on 7 January 1785. (Public domain)

The hot air balloon crossing of the English Channel by Blanchard and Jeffries on 7 January 1785. ( Public domain )

The Lucky First Hot Air Balloon English Channel Crossing

All was well when the hot air balloon left Dover’s famous cliffs , but after a couple of miles the craft began heading towards the sea. And with neither man knowing how to swim, a state of controlled panic ensued. They needed to lose weight, fast.

The 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms) of ballast was first to go, but still the balloon was slowly descending and got as low as 6 meters (20 feet) from the killer waves. The balloon’s supporting wings were next to go, followed by the mailbag and a celebratory bottle of brandy , but they kept falling.

An article on Today I Found Out says Jeffries, “much to his dismay, threw away his thermometer, barometer, and his telescope.” But nothing seemed to make a difference. It was at this moment that Blanchard began stripping off his clothes and throwing them into the sea. Doctor Jeffries, however, was a more dignified type and it went against his creed to even consider landing in France in his birthday suit, so he kept on his underwear. But still, the water came closer.

If you’ve ever been up against a wall, and your life's been on the line, you will understand what I mean when I say, “reality becomes higher resolution.” The adrenaline causes one to see the world differently. Everything in your environment becomes a potential survival tool . When doctor Jefferies' survival-mind kicked in, it came to him that neither of the two men had been to the bathroom since breakfast. Jeffries, it seems, wasn’t quite so dignified in private.

Another engraving of the amazing crossing of the English Channel by Blanchard and Jeffries in 1785. (Public domain)

Another engraving of the amazing crossing of the English Channel by Blanchard and Jeffries in 1785. ( Public domain )

Wait, Pee, It’s More Weight.

Urinating into the Channel, “We were able to obtain, I verily believe, between five and six pounds of urine,” Jeffries later wrote in his diary. However, the pair of adventurers were still flying too close to the sea and at one point the bottom of the balloon carriage scraped dangerously against the wave tops. Terrified, Jeffries began climbing the balloon ropes, but Blanchard demanded he come back down and put on his life jacket and prepare for a crash landing in the sea.

If what happened next had occurred in ancient Greece the sea god Poseidon might have been blamed, for just as the French coastline came into view an updraft lifted the balloon into the relative safety of the sky. I said “relative” safety because as soon as the immediate threat of crashing into the sea had subsided a whole world of new complexity presented itself. We might accuse Blanchard for having panicked when he threw away all his clothes, the wings and ballast, for not only were the pair freezing in the bitter air, but they had no means of controlling the balloon.

The balloon tossed and toiled in the air and eventually crossed the French coast at about 3.00 pm, but glory was not yet in their sights. They again prepared to land hard, this time in the Felmores Forest. If the doctor hadn’t grabbed the tops of some trees and slowed the balloon down both men might have died, but the balloon got caught up in branches and the platform made a gentle impact on French soil. After local farmers delivered the pair to Calais, they were united with French officials who confirmed their successful completion of the first crossing of the English Channel in a flying craft.

The Fates Of The Two Aviation Greats

In front of President George Washington Blanchard later became the first person in history to fly a balloon in the U.S.

However, in 1809 when he was ballooning over the Netherlands he suffered a heart attack and died in the air, halfway there, figuratively.

Doctor Jeffries, it seems, perhaps had an ulterior motive for having kept his underwear on. Stuffed inside his underpants Jeffries kept a single letter addressed to “Benjamin Franklin,” who was at that time the American Ambassador to France. This letter, from Benjamin’s father to his son, will be remembered in history as the first ever ‘airmailed’ letter.

Top image: The Montgolfier brothers were the first to launch a hot air balloon and their first public demonstration of a hot air balloon took place in Annonay, France on June 4, 1783. Source: Public domain

By Ashley Cowie


Châteaux de Versailles . 2017. The first hot air balloon flight. Available at: https://en.chateauversailles.fr/discover/history/key-dates/first-hot-air-balloon-flight#:~:text=The%20first%20hot%20air%20balloon%20flight%2019%20September%201783&text=The%20first%20'aerostatic'%20flight%20in,surface%20of%20the%20earth%20below

Encyclopedia Britannica. n.d. Blanchard, Jean-Pierre-François . Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jean-Pierre-Francois-Blanchard

National Balloon Museum. History Of Ballooning . . Available at: https://www.nationalballoonmuseum.com/about/history-of-ballooning/

Glines, C. V. 2006. Jean Pierre Blanchard: Made First U.S. Aerial Voyage in 1793 . Available at: http://www.historynet.com/jean-pierre-blanchard-made-first-us-aerial-voyage-in-1793.htm

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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