The First Solo Flight

Alone in a hydrogen balloon in 1783.

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A drawing showing the descent of the first manned hydrogen gas balloon flight, which departed from Paris, France on Dec. 1, 1783. Library of Congress

Wondering who wrote the first description of flying over a landscape, I came across this charming passage by Jacques Charles, French scientist and inventor of the hydrogen balloon. Charles wasn't the first to fly—that honor goes to Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes, who flew a Montgolfier brothers' balloon over the countryside near Paris on November 21, 1783. Less than two weeks later, on December 1, Charles made his own free flight accompanied by Marie-Noël Robert, the younger of two brothers who had built the balloon. Charles later wrote:

"Nothing will ever equal that moment of joyous excitement which filled my whole being when I felt myself flying away from the earth. It was not mere pleasure; it was perfect bliss...

To this sentiment succeeded one more lively still—the admiration of the majestic spectacle that spread itself out before us. On whatever side we looked, all was glorious; a cloudless sky above, a most delicious view around. 'Oh, my friend,' said I to M. Robert, 'how great is our good fortune! I care not what may be the condition of the earth; it is the sky that is for me now."

After flying over the countryside for two hours, during which time "The peasants ran after us without being able to catch us, like children pursuing a butterfly in the fields," the pair landed their balloon in a field and were surrounded by a crowd. Charles then ascended again, by himself—the first solo flight:

"I said to the duke, 'Monseigneur, I go.' I said to the peasants who held down the balloon, 'My friends, go away, all of you, from the car at the moment I give the signal.' I then rose like a bird, and in ten minutes I was more than 3,000 feet above the ground. I no longer perceived terrestrial objects; I only saw the great masses of nature...

I passed in ten minutes from the temperature of spring to that of winter; the cold was keen and dry, but not insupportable. I examined all my sensations calmly; I could hear myself live, so to speak, and I am certain that at first I experienced nothing disagreeable in this sudden passage from one temperature to another...

At the end of some minutes the cold caught my fingers; I could hardly hold the pen, but I no longer had need to do so. I was stationary, or rather moved only in a horizontal direction.

I raised myself in the middle of the car, and abandoned myself to the spectacle before me. At my departure from the meadow the sun had sunk to the people of the valleys; soon he shone for me alone, and came again to pour his rays upon the balloon and the car. I was the only creature in the horizon in sunshine—all the rest of nature was in shade. Ere long, however, the sun disappeared, and thus I had the pleasure of seeing him set twice in the same day. I contemplated for some moments the mists and vapours that rose from the valley and the rivers. The clouds seemed to come forth from the earth, and to accumulate the one upon the other. Their colour was a monotonous grey—a natural effect, for there was no light save that of the moon.

I observed that I had tacked round twice, and I felt currents which called me to my senses. I found with surprise the effect of the wind, and saw the cloth of my flag: extended horizontally.

In the midst of the inexpressible pleasure of this state of ecstatic contemplation, I was recalled to myself by a most extraordinary pain which I felt in the interior of the ears and in the maxillary glands. This I attributed to the dilation of the air contained in the cellular tissue of the organ as much as to the cold outside. I was in my vest, with my head uncovered. I immediately covered my head with a bonnet of wool which was at my feet, but the pain only disappeared with my descent to the ground.

It was now seven or eight minutes since I had arrived at this elevation, and I now commenced to descend. I remembered the promise I had made to the Duke of Chartres, to return in half an hour. I quickened my descent by opening the valve from time to time. Soon the balloon, empty now to one half, presented the appearance of a hemisphere.

Arrived at twenty-three fathoms from the earth, I suddenly threw over two or three pounds of ballast, which arrested my descent, and which I had carefully kept for this purpose. I then slowly descended upon the ground, which I had, so to speak, chosen."

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