Above and Beyond

When Philly touched the sky, and propelled a family into aviation history.

Quick: where was the first flight in America? Most of us would say Kitty Hawk, but we’d be wrong: it’s Philadelphia!

Way before airplanes, people learned to fly using giant balloons held aloft with hot air or hydrogen gas. France pulled off the first piloted balloon flight in 1783; ten years later, a different French guy flew his balloon from 6th and Walnut to a farmer’s field in South Jersey, making the first successful human flight on this continent.

The event was witnessed by thousands, including President George Washington, along with future presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. It’s a remarkable story, but just one blip in the extraordinary life of Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who followed a passion that would mortally consume him and the two people he loved most in this world.

Jean-Pierre Blanchard was born in France on July 4, 1753 into relative poverty. Growing up, he earned a bit of a reputation as a boy genius, after inventing a sophisticated rat trap and a pedal-operated, two-wheeled conveyance that was the precursor to the bicycle. As he grew older he took particular interest in birds, and designed a human-powered flying machine with four flapping wings operated with foot pedals and hand levers. Unfortunately, when Blanchard tried to demonstrate his prototype in Paris, it crashed spectacularly before even getting off the ground.

Though he became the butt of many jokes and much ridicule, nothing would deter him in his drive to the skies. Taking inspiration from aviation pioneers experimenting with hot-air buoyancy at the time, he built his own a hydrogen-filled balloon with oars and a propeller to help him steer through the atmosphere. In 1785, accompanied by his American co-pilot (and benefactor) Dr. John Jeffries, they became the first humans to cross the English Channel by air, proving that long distance flight was possible.

Blanchard was an instant celebrity — King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette even feted him at Versailles! For the next few years, he toured his balloon around Europe, until political winds shifted in France, and rumblings of the Reign of Terror began. So he left his wife and family 😮 to attempt the first air voyage in the Americas, arriving in Philadelphia in December 1792 with his balloon and a teenage son to assist him.

Blanchard caused a hubbub advertising in newspapers from Philadelphia to New York, selling tickets for $5 (equivalent to about $150 today). He also agreed to perform in-air experiments for local physicians including Caspar Wistar and Benjamin Rush. On the morning of January 9, 1793, to the sound of cheers, cannons, and brass band music, Blanchard climbed into his yellow silk balloon’s spangled blue basket. At 10:09AM, he ascended from the courtyard of Walnut Street jail, and into American history. 🔥🌬️🎈🙌

Though his event was extremely successful, it had not been profitable — ticket sales for the launch hadn’t even covered the cost of his flight (most spectators had been happy to view the balloon in the sky for free). To compensate, Governor Mifflin let him set up a small museum in his backyard at 8th & Chestnut where visitors paid admission to see his balloon and flight memorabilia. People would also pay to see Blanchard send dogs, cats, squirrels, and other bewildered creatures up in small hot-air balloons with fuse-operated parachutes to float them back to earth for their amusement. 😬😬😬

With the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1795, Blanchard moved to NYC only to have his son die in a freakish balloon-related accident. He returned to Europe and fell in love with Sophie Armant, a shy 18-year old who became his 2nd wife. Sophie was game to ride with her new husband – and a flying female was a novel sight at the time, quite a draw for paying crowds. Blanchard taught her how to work the balloon, too, and in 1805 Sophie made her first solo ascent to become the world’s first woman in flight!

Alas, their good fortune was fleeting. Not even five years after Sophie’s achievement, Blanchard suffered a heart attack while he and Sophie were ballooning over the Hauge in 1809. As he collapsed, he fell over the side of their basket and plummeted to his death. Sophie soldiered on for ten years, paying off all the couple’s debts by risking her life in daring, crowd-wowing balloon feats.

In particular, fans could not get enough of her high-altitude pyrotechnics, which she synched with concert music from below. High up in her hydrogen-filled balloon, Sophie set off fireworks in bigger and bolder displays in two shows per week over Paris’s Tivoli Gardens. (You see where this is going, right?)

On July 6, 1819, she attempted a special “Bengal fire” trick, which featured a slow-burning and exceptionally dangerous sequence of flares and explosions. A strong wind intervened, and within minutes – and before a horrified crowd — the first woman of flight would soon become its first female casualty.

There is so much more to Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s incredible local legacy! Historian Bob McNulty has all the details of his record-setting takeoff over Philadelphia: weather, wardrobe, Washington’s speech – and the curious gifts Blanchard accepted for his momentous adventure. His landing was a whole other ordeal, too, where he confronted confused farmers who couldn’t understand his broken English, and cobbled a ride home from random wealthy patrons in a local tavern.

All that scoop and more in Bob’s fascinating Philadelphia Story on Facebook (originally published June 7, 2015). And click the links here for deeper dives into aviation history (including the somewhat-gruesome details of Sophie’s tragic demise).

What do you think? 

This article is a Local summary of Bob McNulty’s article featured in December 2023’s Local paper (thanks, Bob!) Read Bob’s last Local column HERE.  Don’t miss the next great tale from local history, follow @PhiladelphiaStoriesbyBobMcNulty on Facebook.

Comments welcome! Please leave below, or email editor@nwlocalpaper.com.

About Philadelphia Stories By Bob McNulty 19 Articles
Philadelphia Stories by Bob McNulty. Lifelong Philadelphian Bob McNulty tells fascinating tales about ordinary citizens and extraordinary events from the city’s long history. Ranging from whimsical to tragic (sometimes in the same story!), Bob’s tales are meticulously researched and bring to life figures and events largely forgotten today. Philadelphia Stories is a dramatic archive that spotlights everyday Philadelphians of all kinds -- men and women, Black and white, immigrant and native-born, many of whom, in Bob’s words, “didn’t have anyone to tell their story.”

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