Grateful American® Foundation

Who made the first balloon flight across the English Channel?

January 7th

400px-Jean_Pierre_BlanchardJanuary 7, 1785 — The first balloon flight across the English Channel is accomplished today by Jean-Pierre Blanchard (pictured right) and his friend, American-born John Jeffries. It took about 2½ hours to travel from Dover Castle, England, to Guînes, France.

It wasn’t Blanchard’s first flight, however. That occurred from the Champ de Mars on November 21, 1783 — and it nearly ended in disaster when a spectator slashed at the balloon’s mooring ropes and oars with his sword after being refused a place onboard. The broken balloon was pushed by the wind across the Seine to Billancourt and back again, landing in the rue de Sèvres. Blanchard adopted the Latin tag Sic itur ad astra (“thus one journeys to the stars”) as his motto.

In 1785, the brave Blanchard tested the first parachute — invented by Sébastien Lenormand of France in 1783. At first, a dog was the passenger. But in 1793, Blanchard had the opportunity to try it himself when his hot-air balloon ruptured and he used the parachute to escape. Soon after, he began designing parachutes from folded silk.

The same year, on January 9, 1793, Blanchard conducted the first balloon flight in the US — from a prison yard of the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia. He landed in Gloucester County, New Jersey as President George Washington, future presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe looked on.

Blanchard died as he lived. On February 20, 1808, he had a heart attack on his balloon at the Hague. He fell to the ground, but lived for about a year, until March 7, 1809, when he died from his severe injuries. Sophie Blanchard, his wife of only four years — the former Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant — continued to support herself with ballooning demonstrations, until they killed her as well.

Words of Wisdom

Early balloon flights triggered a phase of public balloonomania, with all manner of objects decorated with images of balloons or styled au ballon, from ceramics to fans and hats. Clothing au ballon was produced with exaggerated puffed sleeves and rounded skirts, or with printed images of balloons. Hair was coiffed à la montgolfier, au globe volant, au demi-ballon, or à la Blanchard.


— Gas balloons became the most common type from the 1790s until the 1960s. Balloonists sought a means to control the balloon's direction. The first steerable balloon (also known as a dirigible) was flown by Henri Giffard in 1852. Powered by a steam engine, it was too slow to be effective. Like heavier than air flight, the internal combustion engine made dirigibles—especially blimps—practical, starting in the late 19th century. In 1872 Paul Haenlein flew the first (tethered) internal combustion motor-powered balloon. The first to fly in an untethered airship powered by an internal combustion engine was Alberto Santos Dumont in 1898.

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