“Up, up and away.”
Europeans were fascinated with ballooning in the 18th and 19th centuries, including prominent leaders and royalty. Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis XVIII promoted it and novels like Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon romanticized the sport.
Viewed as a male venture, ballooning was rarely a female pursuit, except as a passenger, although only a few women had participated.
In 1804, Sophie Blanchard made her first ascent in a hot air balloon with her French husband, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a well known ballooning pioneer in France. She was not the first woman to go up in a balloon. Three other women had gone up in tethered balloons, and two more in untethered balloons.
However, life circumstances intervened and changed Sophie’s course a few short years later. Sophie was about to become the first woman to pilot her own balloon and the first woman to adopt ballooning as a career.
Sophie (Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant) was between 16 and 19 years old when she married Jean-Pierre Blanchard, 35 years older. They never had children. As a young woman, Sophie had a nervous temperament and startled easily. Loud noises and riding in a carriage could be challenging events. It might explain why Sophie did not go up in a balloon until the age of 26. A more practical explanation is the couple desperately needed money. They faced bankruptcy. They hoped that by placing Sophie in the balloon’s basket, more fans would pay to see the exhibition. It worked, and as it turned out, Sophie loved the experience. She called it an "incomparable sensation."
Five years later, in 1809, an accident tragically took Jean-Pierre’s life. He fell from his balloon after suffering a heart attack and died from his injuries. Still in financial debt after his death, Sophie continued the balloon exhibition on her own, becoming the first woman to operate a balloon solo. Just as Jean-Pierre had done, she parachuted dogs from the balloon as part of the show and lit fireworks in special night flights. Sophie used a hydrogen-filled gas balloon (a Charlière).
Word spread of the female balloonist. Large crowds gathered and soon she was ballooning all over Europe. Napoleon Bonaparte discovered her and assigned her the role, “Aeronaut of the Official Festivals,” as designated organizer of ballooning displays at all major events. In 1814, Louis XVIII further made her “Official Aeronaut of the Restoration,” during restoration of the French monarchy.
Taking greater risks in her eagerness to please, Sophie began to suffer physically in her travels. She lost consciousness more than once when ascending to high altitudes (upward to 12,000 feet), faced a threatening hailstorm, suffered freezing temperatures, spent long hours in the air (up to 14-1/2 hours), and nearly drowned in 1817 when she accidentally landed in a marsh.
Sophie’s final flight was in 1819. At an exhibition in Paris, Sophie planned to drop small baskets of fireworks with parachutes from the balloon to light up the night sky. Sophie had lit fireworks at exhibitions before. While the danger of fireworks near a gas fired balloon seems obvious, the Paris show must have been in excess. Others warned her not to. Sophie didn’t listen. Dressed in a white dress and white hat with ostrich plumes, carrying a white flag, she must have appeared undaunted, although it appears she did heed the warning. Her parting words were: “Let’s go, this will be for the last time.” Sparks ignited the gas, which was soon exhausted, and the balloon crashed on the roof of a home. Sophie died on impact.
Sophie made 67 ascents in a hot air balloon, and managed to clear the debts her husband had left behind. At a time when debtor’s prison was all too real in France, Sophie’s courage and self-sufficiency are admirable. This nervous young woman who startled easily made her own way. An epitaph at her grave site reads: “victime de son art et de son intrépidité” (“victim of her art and intrepidity”).
Pancho Barnes (1901-1975) USA
Ann G. Baumgartner (1918-2008) USA
Janet Waterford Bragg (1907-1993) USA
Helene Boucher (1908-1934) France
Maryse Bastié (1898-1952) France
Mary Bailey (1890-1960) UK
Amelie Beese (1886-1925) Germany
Elly Beinhorn (1907-2007) Germany
Jean Batten (1909-1982) New Zealand
Mary Bell (1903-1979) Australia
Susana Ferrari Billinghurst (1914-1999) Argentina
Sources: http://forgottennewsmakers.com/2010/09/15/sophie-blanchard-1778-%E2%80%931819-first-women-to-fly-solo-in-a-hot-air-balloon/; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophie_Blanchard