On January 7, 1785, the first cross-channel crossing by balloon took place between England and France. The balloon carried Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American physician, Dr. John Jeffries, who had served as a military surgeon on the British side in the American Revolution.
On that winter’s morning, the two aeronauts (a newly coined term for the balloon age) lifted off from the top of Dover cliff to attempt the first ever Channel crossing. As they began to drift toward Calais, they steadily lost height over the water. “By two-thirds of the way across they had progressively jettisoned all the sand ballast, all their food, and most of their technical equipment, except the precious barometer and one bottle of brandy. But the balloon continued to drop, until it was well below the level of the approaching cliffs of the Pas de Calais. They now began to perform an aerial striptease.”*
Jeffries noted in his diary: We were again falling rapidly towards the sea, on which occasion my noble little captain gave orders and set the example by beginning to strip our aerial car, first of our silk and finery… We cast away first one anchor, then the other, after which my little hero stripped and threw away his coat. On this I was compelled to follow his example. He next cast away his trowsers [and eventually they had to empty their bladders as well].”**
“With nothing remaining as ballast…, they were left standing in their underclothes, wearing their cork jackets. But this made the crucial difference. Less than 120 yards above the sea, the balloon steadied and began to rise. As they caught the onshore wind, their ascent turned into a great triumphant arc, taking them high over the cliffs of Calais and twelve miles inland. Blanchard now revealed that he had concealed a small sack of publicity letters, and these were thrown out, to become the first ever airmail delivery.”*
After slowly releasing the hydrogen, the balloon crashed through the canopy of the Forest of Guines. Like Charles Lindbergh of another era, they were greeted by a crowd of well-wishers, many of whom had followed them on horseback. They were carried back to Calais in triumph. Once in Paris, they were presented to the king of France and lauded by the Academie des Sciences. “Jeffries spent several quiet evenings with Benjamin Franklin at Passy discussing the future of flight and the beauty and intelligence of French women.*
Blanchard would go on to make a total of 63 more flights. However, Jeffries never flew again. In his diary, he “thank[ed] God” that he survived. On a visit to Dover, he remarked “My heart filled, I hope, with sincere and grateful acknowledgments to the kind protections of that day. Oh Gracious Father, may I be influenced by it as I ought, through my life.”
I am sure that Jane Austen, who would have been ten at the time, would have been aware of this epic event in the history of flight.
*The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes, Vintage Press 2009.
**Narrative of Two Aerial Voyages with M. Blanchard by Dr. John Jeffries