A Voyage in the Clouds: The Heartening Illustrated Story of the First International Flight in 1785
By Maria Popova
“I am finished with the Earth. From now on our place is in the sky!” So proclaimed Dr. Alexander Charles in December of 1783 as he landed from the first manned balloon flight before a stunned Benjamin Franklin.
A little more than a year later, two men — Dr. John Jeffries, a Boston-born Englishman who funded balloon expeditions but lacked experience flying, and Jean-Pierre Blanchard, his seasoned French pilot — would bridge the sky and the fragmented Earth in the first international fight by crossing the English Channel in a hot air balloon.
On January 7, 1785, Blanchard and Jeffries boarded their balloon to undertake the unprecedented feat. But beyond the ample natural and technical hazards, their expedition was bedeviled by one monumental human problem: they could barely stand each other.
In the two hours and forty-seven minutes it took them to accomplish this groundbreaking triumph, they weathered a series of perils that nearly sank their balloon and performed the most Herculean feat of all: They overcame their differences and their biases about one another, and landed not only as fellow victors but as friends.
Baltimore-based writer Matthew Olshan tells their story in A Voyage in the Clouds: The (Mostly) True Story of the First International Flight by Balloon in 1785 (public library), illustrated by the inimitable Sophie Blackall, whose warm and wonderful art further amplifies the humane dimension of this story of human achievement.
Olshan draws mostly on the facts of the expedition as recounted in Jeffries’s autobiographical account, but he does take a few imaginative liberties, the most delightful of which are the French and English bulldogs accompanying their respective masters. Although Blanchard was famous for taking a lapdog on his balloon flights, Olshan could find no record of whether or not there were any canine companions on the historic flight across the English Channel. Still, who could resist the flight of fancy that gave us Henry and Henri?
The adventure is off to a contentious start when Jeffries, dressed up and ready to command, goes to wake Blanchard up in the morning, only to find that the Frenchman has gotten a head start by filling up the balloon and summoning a military band to drum up the occasion.
Blanchard then presents to Jeffries, already aggravated by being shortchanged about his speech, a piece of “bad news” — the balloon, he claims, can only carry the weight of one man, not two, so he, being the pilot, should be the only one to sail into the skies.
But Jeffries, having funded the expedition and attended to its physics with meticulous care, had already weighed all the items the two men had planned to take on the balloon — including, amusingly enough, a violin and a bow, one roast chicken, and a bottle of brandy. So he simply does the math and uncovers that Blanchard has put on a lead-lined vest to increase his weight and claim the total load was too much to accommodate Jeffries.
Disgruntled that his trick had failed, Blanchard reluctantly proceeds with the two-man voyage as planned.
Soon, their mutual detestation is carried into the clouds. They break out their feast. Blanchard even slips into a nap — another of Olshan’s charming fictional flourishes on the true story.
But before they’ve had too much time to quibble, Jeffries decides to release some gas from the exponentially swelling balloon and instead unscrews the entire valve.
The balloon exhales a hiss and begins to shrink rapidly. By the time Blanchard refastens the valve, the damage is done — the balloon is sinking.
Here, it’s worth remembering that all of this is taking place a mere century after Newton stood on the shoulders of giants and introduced the world to gravity. Standing on his shoulders in turn, Jeffries and Blanchard begin throwing items into the water to lighten the load of their balloon — out go the sacks of sand, then the violin, then even the gold tassels decorating the basket.
After they throw out their national flags with a heavy heart, they strip to their undergarments and throw the rest of their clothes overboard. And in that singular way that crisis has of catalyzing camaraderie, Jeffries and Blanchard begin becoming human to each other:
“Time to put on our cork jackets,” said Blanchard.
“Oops,” said Jeffries. “I seem to have thrown mine overboard.”
“Then I’ll throw mine away, too.”
Jeffries looked at Blanchard. Blanchard looked at Jeffries.
“Call me John.”
“Call me Jean-Pierre.”
They shook hands.
Now the aerial car was skimming the waves. Water was starting to seep up through the wicker.
Suddenly, Jeffries had a brilliant idea.
“Jean-Pierre,” he said, “we must evacuate!”
“No, John. We should stay with the balloon. It will float until we can be rescued.”
“That’s not what I mean…”
Inch by inch, the balloon crawls back into the skies before making a dramatic landing on the French coast, dragging atop the tree canopy until Jeffries wraps his arms around a branch while Blanchard empties the remainder of the gas.
Half-naked, bruised, but befriended, Jeffries and Blanchard have accomplished the first international flight — an act of heroism to the spectators on the ground and a feat of humanity over hostility for the two men, reminiscent of Primo Levi’s beautiful case for how space exploration unifies humankind.
Complement A Voyage in the Clouds with the improbable and touching story of the real-life baby bear who inspired Winnie the Pooh, also illustrated by Blackall, then revisit Fanny Kemble’s astonishing account of riding the world’s first passenger train.
Published December 6, 2016