“AERONAUT OF OFFICIAL FESTIVALS”
By Captain Nancy Aldrich
There is little known about Sophie’s early childhood. Born Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant, in March, 1778, she was a small, very shy and timid child. She was easily frightened and intimidated. She was terrified of loud noises, and afraid to ride in carriages. Because of this history, it is amazing that she became the first female professional balloon pilot, performing all over Europe in the early 1800s.
At the early age of 16, she married 51 year old Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the world’s first professional balloonist. He had deserted his wife and four children in order to pursue a career as a balloonist. Balloonomania had taken Europe by storm, and crowds would gather to see his act. He toured Europe and America as a balloonist. He and Dr. John Jeffries were the first to fly across the English Channel to France, in a balloon. That flight lasted 2 1/2 hours, on January 7, 1785.
He took shy and timid, little Sophie up in his balloon, and she loved it. It was peaceful and quiet, and she seemed to be very happy in the balloon. She described flying as, “sensation incomparable.” They were married not long after.
While Jean-Pierre was a showman, and was invited to perform at many important events of the day, he was a terrible businessman. He was facing bankruptcy. In 1805, they came up with the idea that the novelty of having Sophie in the balloon would draw bigger crowds, and would bring in more money. They began to perform together. She seemed to be much more relaxed and at home in the air than she had ever been on the ground, so she was quite happy to fly with him. She was described as having “sharp bird-like features.” (It is interesting to note that as her popularity grew her description changed, and she was eventually described as being quite attractive.)
Their performances were quite popular and things were working out well for them until an accidental crash, in 1807, in which Jean-Pierre sustained a head injury. The shock of the crash and his injury left Sophie mute for a while. Soon they both recovered and they were able to resume their performances. Their show was popular and things were working out well for them until 1809. During a performance, flying tethered over The Hague, Jean-Pierre was standing in the balloon next to Sophie. He suffered a heart attack and fell from the balloon to his death.
Sophie was distraught, but she was also saddled with debt which had to be addressed. Since she knew she could raise money as a balloonist, she decided to continue to perform alone. She needed to raise enough money to pay off Jean-Pierre’s debt and support herself. She decided that without him in the balloon, she could use a much smaller basket and change from hot air to hydrogen gas. That would save money and also eliminate the need to constantly be minding the burner for the hot air. After making the alterations, her basket was little more than an enclosed chair.
To make her show even more interesting and exciting, Sophie began setting off pyrotechnic displays. She was warned that this combination of hydrogen, silk, altitude, and fire was dangerous, but she loved the spectacular displays. She would drop fireworks over the side of the basket, or launch them up toward the sky. This meant flying at night, which she loved to do. In fact, sometimes she would stay up in the air all night long. These were most likely tethered flights. She did make distance flights. On one such occasion, flying over the alps she passed out from the altitude and the cold. It is not clear if she actually passed out or simply went to sleep, but during that time she was certainly not in control. On one occasion, flying in the area of Naples, she could not stop her descent and landed in a swamp, nearly drowning. She was not deterred, and continued putting on her shows.
She gained the attention of Napoleon, and he loved her performances. He began calling her the “Aeronaut of Official Festivals.” He had her perform over his wedding to Marie Louise, in 1810. He also appointed her “Chief Air Minister of Ballooning.” Not understanding that balloons are carried by the prevailing winds, he thought he could invade England from France. His plan was to have his troops carried in balloons. He asked Sophie to help plan the invasion. Of course, the prevailing winds are westerly, so it soon became apparent that this was not feasible.
Her fame was spreading and she was able to pay off all the debts left when her husband died. When the French Monarchy was restored, King Louis XVIII named her, “Official Aeronaut of the Restoration.” She was at the peak of her career, having been the first female to become a professional balloon pilot. She had made long distance flights in Italy, flown across the Alps, and had done all the things Jean-Pierre had dreamed of doing, including paying off all his debts, and had become famous in her own right!
She knew her pyrotechnical displays were dangerous, but she loved putting on the shows. On July 6, 1819, at the age of 41, she was described as “still young, sprightly, and amiable.” As she boarded her balloon during a gala fete at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris, she said, “Allons, ce sera pour la derniere fois” (Let’s go, this will be the last time.) She did not realize how prophetic that statement was.
She had planned her “Bengal Fire” display. She had been warned that the winds were too strong, but she wanted to put on her show. She boarded the balloon in an elegant white dress and matching hat, complete with ostrich plume, and carrying a torch. She began her ascent. Because of the winds she was blown into the trees. She threw ballast overboard to lighten the balloon and clear the trees. Once above the trees, she began her show, throwing fireworks from the basket. The “Bengal Lights” hung beneath the basket. As she lit them, something went terrible wrong. Perhaps her being blown into the trees had moved the “Lights” out of position. Suddenly, there was a flash, and popping sounds, then flames shot up from the top of the balloon.
The crowd thought this was a new display and were captivated, screaming, “Beautiful! Beautiful! Viva Madame Blanchard!” Then it became clear that this was not planned. They could hear her screaming for help, but there was no help. She tried to bring the balloon down safely. She threw out more ballast to slow the descent and it looked like she might make it, but it was not to be. She crashed into the roof of a building, fell out of the basket, tumbled along the roof and finally fell onto the street below. The newspaper account said, “she was picked up dead!”
As Europe mourned her death, some said that a balloon was no place for a woman. She was buried Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, beneath a tombstone representing her balloon in flames, with the epitaph “Victime de son Art et de son Intrepidite” (Victim of her art and intrepidity).
Some reports say Sophie Blanchard was the first woman to pilot a balloon, however, that is not correct. If you have been reading my articles, you know that there were several before her, and that title belongs to Jeanne Genevieve Garnerin, who flew solo in 1798. (see my previous article, Who Was The First Female Pilot?)
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
Captain Nancy Welz Aldrich