​The Daredevil Life and Pyrotechnic Death of Sophie Blanchard

Live by the balloon, die by the balloon.

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Mar 25 2015, 8:30pm

Death of Mme. Blanchard.

Since the advent of planes and spaceships, hot air ballooning has become a kind of recreational novelty, reserved for quaint family excursions. But when the first ballooners took to the skies in 1783, these flying machines completely captivated the public consciousness, creating a "balloon mania" that raged for decades.

"For the first time in history, a human being had gotten further away from the Earth than the distance one can jump," wrote spaceflight historian Ron Miller in his book Dream Machines. "It seemed to the most enthusiastic and imaginative of dreamers that if it were possible for a human being to lift himself from the surface of the Earth even half a mile, then a flight to the Moon was merely a matter of magnitude."

No figure in the history of early ballooning represents this intrepid spirit of discovery—as well as its deadly risks—more than the indefatigable Sophie Blanchard. Born on this day in 1778, Blanchard was the first female aeronaut in history, and was selected by Napoleon Bonaparte as France's Chief Air Minister of Ballooning.

An 1859 engraving on Blanchard. Credit: Jules Porreau

Over the course of her high-flying career, Blanchard gained a massive fanbase nad pioneered new flight techniques. Her test flights resulted in multiple near-death experiences before she finally perished in a fatal blaze of glory in 1819. It was a dizzyingly eventful life of 41 years, and worth celebrating on Blanchard's 237th birthday.

Despite how flagrantly Blanchard flirted with death her whole life, she was a shy, nervous person, terrified of loud noises and riding in carriages. But when she married the ambitious early ballooner Jean-Pierre Blanchard in 1804, she finally discovered her ideal habitat—the quiet bliss of high altitudes.

She described the feeling of her first ascent with her husband as an "incomparable sensation," and was hopelessly addicted to ballooning thereafter. She made a second ascent with Jean-Pierre a few months later, but after that, she started flying solo, becoming the first woman ever to pilot a balloon.

Her husband actively encouraged her to develop her ballooning skills, primarily because he thought he could make bank off of a female aeronaut. Jean-Pierre Blanchard was about as reckless as a person can get, and showed no regard for personal safety or financial security. He had already abandoned his first wife and their four children before his marriage to Sophie, and he accrued mountains of debt chasing his ballooning buzz.

But though he was about as reliable as Time Warner internet, Jean-Pierre got one thing right: Sophie was an instant hit. Her aeronautic performances attracted enormous crowds wherever the couple went, and she quickly became an international celebrity. From her very earliest ascents, she displayed a flair for the theatrical, especially pyrotechnics. In addition to launching fireworks off of her balloon, she brought dogs attached to parachutes on her ascents, kickstarting a long and thriving tradition of canine skydivers.

But like so many of her male counterparts, Sophie Blanchard wasn't satisfied with public performances alone. She wanted to explore. Her daredevil ambitions weren't swayed in the slightest by the loss of her husband in 1809, who fell to his death on one of their shared ascents. If anything, the debts that Jean-Pierre left to Sophie spurred her to kick her career into overdrive, and she began to attempt increasingly insane aeronautic feats.

She flew from Rome to Naples in 1811, and then ballooned over the Alps the following year. While passing Turin, she had to cross at such high elevations and cold temperatures that her face and hands were covered in hoar frost when she finally descended. She was so much more comfortable in her balloon than on land that she often took off in the evenings, so she could fall asleep in the night sky.

Naturally, she almost killed herself plenty of times. She frequently lost consciousness due to oxygen deprivation, because she insisted on traveling upwards of 12,000 feet. On September 21, 1817, she almost drowned after crash-landing in a swamp, and found herself tangled in her balloon's netting, unable to get loose until help arrived.

Postcard from Sophie's ascent to mark the 42nd birthday of Napoleon. Credit: Luigi Rados

These near-fatal episodes didn't faze Blanchard, and the public was all the more enamored with her because of her apparent invincibility. Napoleon was particularly taken by her bravado and courage, and showered her with honorary titles. She regularly performed at his behest, and even advised him on a potential aerial invasion of England.

But alas, like so many other aviation pioneers, Sophie Blanchard's luck eventually ran out. On July 6, 1819, she was scheduled to perform a particularly dangerous trick at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris. She loaded up her balloon with a powerful pyrotechnic called "Bengal fire," and for once, she recognized the gravity of what she was doing. Witnesses claim that she was nervous before the show, proclaiming that it would be the "last time" she worked with these fireworks.

It was, but not for the reasons she thought. Blanchard ascended over an enormous crowd around 10:30 PM, steadying herself against the windy summer evening. Dressed in a stylish white dress and ostrich-plume hat, Blanchard launched her inadvisably large payload of fireworks, and watched on in horror as her balloon went up in flames. Ironically, some of the audience below were yelling "Vive Madame Blanchard," believing that this sudden fireball was part of the show.

Despite the fire raging above her, Blanchard kept a cool head, and very nearly made it to the ground intact. But as she was rapidly descending, she clipped a house on the Rue du Provencale, and was hurtled out of the balloon's basket onto the sloped roof.

Death of Mme. Blanchard.

Caught in the balloon's rigging, Blanchard was powerless to slow her tumble off the side of the house, and was killed on impact when she hit the street below. This was the last of Blanchard's "firsts"—just as she was the first woman aeronaut, so too was she the first woman to die in an aviation accident.

Her final flight was gruesome, public, and characteristically theatrical, and it was deeply traumatizing for the audience. She was mourned by her friends, fans, and those she had inspired, even as some took her death as an opportunity to write off women explorers.

"A tale of disaster like that of Madame Blanchard," wrote the unfortunately named Congressman Grenville Mellen in 1825, "is dire proof that a woman in a balloon is either out of her element, or too high in it." Apparently, Mellen hadn't read up on the astonishingly high number of fatalities among early male ballooners, which far eclipse that of women aeronauts.

Indeed, even Blanchard's epitaph has a tinge of condescension built into it, calling her a "victim of her art and intrepidity." While there's no question that she died due to her ballooning obsession, it was a choice she made consistently, with full awareness of the risks, and it seems a bit much to cast her as a victim of her admirable ambitions.

To that point, Blanchard has been primarily remembered for the breathtaking heights she reached, as much as she is for the ultimate price she paid for them. Her story inspired writers like Jules Verne, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and proved that women can and should join men in exploring new frontiers and developing new technologies. As the spectators at her shows often joyfully exclaimed: "Vive Madame Blanchard!"

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