Everyone knows the names of Neil Armstrong, Charles Lindbergh, Ferdinand Magellan, and other brave pioneers who were the first to accomplish feats that were theretofore only dreamed of. Although you may know about the first man on the moon, the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, or the first explorer to sail around the earth, how much do you know about the first brave passengers who left the ground in a hot air balloon?
When brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier demonstrated their first lighter-than-air device on June 4, 1783, people began to immediately wonder if such a contraption could be used for transportation of people. The unmanned flight rose to about 6,000 feet and travelled more than a mile in ten minutes. It was made of silk, lined with paper, and although it seemed so fragile, the prospects for its future appeared to be limitless. Only one big question remained: was it safe?
The Montgolfier brothers were pioneers in a great field of mystery. Could humans endure such alien conditions as high altitude? King Louis XVI proposed using convicted criminals as test subjects, but the brothers settled on a more humane idea. With great deliberation, they selected those who would be given the honor of being the first passengers in a hot air balloon: a sheep, rooster, and a duck.
The choice was far from random. The sheep was chosen because its physiology was thought to be similar to that of a human. The duck was the control subject, since it was used to flying at high altitudes. The rooster was included because, although it is a bird, unlike the duck, it does not fly at high altitudes. The Montgolfiers reasoned that a comparison between the three passengers would allow them to extrapolate the effect of such a flight on a human.
The balloon and its animal passengers lifted off on September 19, 1783. The 8-minute flight covered about two miles before landing safely. The passengers were examined, and aside from an injury sustained by the rooster when it was kicked by the sheep, the three emerged from their flight unfazed.
Nearly a month later the Montgolfiers were ready for their first human passenger. Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a chemistry and physics teacher, boarded a balloon on October 15, 1783. Held secure by a tether, his first flight lasted nearly four minutes. About a month later, on Nov. 21, Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes made the first free ascent in a hot air balloon. The pair flew from the center of Paris to the suburbs, about 5.5 miles in 25 minutes. Among the spectators was none other than Benjamin Franklin, who wrote in his journal:
“We observed it lift off in the most majestic manner. When it reached around 250 feet in altitude, the intrepid voyagers lowered their hats to salute the spectators. We could not help feeling a certain mixture of awe and admiration.”
While the first three animal passengers lived out the rest of their lives in relative obscurity, the same cannot be said for the first human passenger. Nearly two years after this flight, Pilâtre de Rozier died on June 15, 1785, when his balloon, filled with a combination of hydrogen and hot air, exploded during an attempt to fly across the English Channel.
Read more fun facts about aviation.
Read more fun facts about great accomplishments.