Madam Sophie Blanchard - "Official Aeronaut of the Restoration"
Sophie Blanchard, a French aeronaut and the wife of ballooning pioneer Jean Pierre Blanchard, was the first woman professional balloonist. After her husband Jean Pierre Blanchard died, she continued ballooning and made more than 60 ascents. She became known throughout Europe for her ballooning skill and Napoleon Bonaparte promoted her to the role of “Aeronaut of the Official Festivals.” King Louis XVIII named her “Official Aeronaut of the Restoration.”
Sophie Blanchard couldn’t claim the title of the first woman balloonist. On May 20, 1784, the Marchioness and Countess of Montalembert, the Countess of Podenas and a Miss de Lagarde had taken a trip on a tethered balloon in Paris. Elizabeth Thible, an opera singer, had also made an ascent in Lyon on June 4, 1784. Sophie also wasn’t the first women to ascend in an untethered balloon. Citoyenne Henri had ascended with Andre Jacques Garnerin in 1798. Sophie was the first women to pilot her own balloon and the first to make ballooning her career.
Sophie Marries a Balloonist and Discovers the “Incomparable sensation” of Ballooning
Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant was born on March 25, 1778, at Trois Canons, near La Rochelle, France. The date of her marriage to Jean Pierre Blanchard, the first professional balloonist in the world, is uncertain. Some sources say 1794 or 1797 and others state 1804, the year of her first balloon ascent. Although Jean Pierre Blanchard had abandoned his first wife Victoire Lebrun and their four children to travel Europe pursuing his ballooning career Sophie married him.
Sophie made her first balloon flight with Blanchard in Marseilles on December 27, 1804, and although earthly things like carriage rides terrified her, she was fearless in the air. She described the feeling as “an incomparable sensation.” Blanchard’s poor business sense had brought the couple to bankruptcy and they believed the novelty of a female balloonist would untangle their finances. Sophie continued to make balloon flights with her husband.
In 1809, Jean Pierre Blanchard died after he fell from his balloon in the Hague after he suffered a heart attack. Sophie continued to ascend, specializing in night flights and often staying up all night. Sophie and her husband had still been in debt when he died, so she economized in her choice of balloon. She used a hydrogen filled gas balloon which allowed her to ascend in a basket a little larger than a chair and freed her from having to tend a fire to keep the balloon in the air. Since she was small and light, she could cut back on the amount of gas she needed to inflate her balloon.
Madame Sophie Blanchard, Official Aeronaut of the Restoration
Napoleon championed Sophie and in 1804, he appointed her to replace Andre Jacques Garnerin who had disgraced himself by not controlling the balloon that he had sent up to mark Napoleon’s coronation in Paris. The balloon eventually drifted to Rome and crashed and Napoleon had to endure many jokes at his expense. Napoleon made Sophie the “Aeronaut of the Official Festivals,” making her responsible for organizing ballooning displays at festivals and other events. He probably appointed her his Chief Air Minister of Ballooning, and she is reported to have drawn up plans for an aerial invasion of England.
On May 4, 1814, when Louis XVIII entered Paris after being restored to the French throne, Sophie ascended from the Pont Neuf in her balloon as part of the celebration. The King enjoyed her performance so much that her appointed her “Official Aeronaut of the Restoration.”
Sophie’s fame spread throughout Europe and she attracted large crowds to watch her ascents. In Frankfurt, she drew larger crowds than the debut performance of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Silvana on September 16, 1810. She crossed the Alps by balloon, and on a trip to Turin on April 26, 1812, she dropped so low that she suffered a nose bleed and icicles formed on her hands and face.
Sophie Ascends over the Tivoli Gardens
On July 6, 1819, Sophie made an ascent to start a fireworks display over the Tivoli Gardens in Paris. She had performed regularly at the Tivoli Gardens, making ascent twice weekly when she was in Paris. She had been warned repeatedly of the danger of using fireworks in her exhibitions, but this display was to be a particularly impressive one with more fireworks than usual. Some of the spectators implored her not to make the ascent, but others were eager to see the show and urged her to continue. One report said that she decided to go and stepped into her chair saying, “Allons, ce sera pour la derniere fois-“ let’s go, this will be for the last time.”
Accounts of the event give different times for her ascent but about 10:30 p.m. on July 6, 1819, Sophie began her ascent in her balloon lit by baskets containing Bengal fire, a slow burning colored firework. She carried a white flag and wore a white dress and a white hat topped with ostrich plumes. A strong wind blew and the balloon struggled to rise. Sophie shed ballast and managed to get some lift, but the balloon brushed through the trees as it climbed. Once she had cleared the treetops, Sophie began the display by waving her flag.
A few minutes after Sophie began her display and while the balloon still climbed, it burst into flames. Some reports says that the balloon temporarily disappeared behind a cloud and when it reappeared it was burning. However it happened, the gas in the balloon was burning. Sophie began to rapidly descend, but the wind caught the balloon and continued to move it off from the Tivoli Gardens as it went down. Some spectators thought these developments were part of the show and applauded and shouted their approval.
Sophie is Calm During Her Balloon’s Death Descent
The balloon had not climbed very high and while the escaping gas burned, the gas within the balloon maintained sufficient lift for a time to prevent the balloon from plunging directly to the ground. Sophie managed to slow her descent by shedding ballast and most reports said that she appeared to be calm during the descent. Others said that she wrung her hands in despair as her balloon approached the ground. Rumors later said that she had gripped the chair of her balloon so tightly that “several arteries had snapt through the effort.”
Directly above the rooftops of the Rue de Provence, the balloon ran out of gas and it struck the roof of a house. Perhaps Sophie would have survived if the balloon had stopped there, but the ropes holding the chair to the body of the balloon may have burnt through or the impact threw Sophie forward. Sophie was trapped in the netting of the balloon and she pitched over the side of the roof into the street below. Eyewitness John Poole described her final moments: “There was a terrible pause, then Mme Blanchard caught up in the netting of her balloon, fell with a crash upon the slanting roof of a house in the Rue de Provence, and then into the street, where she was taken up a shattered corpse.”
Crowds of people rushed to help Sophie and desperately tried to save her, but she had either died instantly from a broken neck or just a few moments after the accident. Investigators believed that the fireworks attached to her balloon had been knocked out of position by a tree as she ascended, possibly because the balloon was heavily loaded and didn’t rise quickly enough. When Sophie had lit the fuses the fireworks headed towards the balloon instead of away from it, and one of them had burned a hole in the fabric, igniting the gas. Reportedly one man spotted the problem and shouted to Sophie not to light the fuses, but the cheering of the crowd drowned out his warning. Later reports suggested that Sophie had left the gas valve open, allowing spark to ignite the gas and set fire to the balloon. Other reports suggested that her balloon was poorly constructed and allowed gas to escape throughout the ascent.
When the proprietors of the Tivoli Gardens heard that Sophie Blanchard had died, they announced that the admission fees would be donated for the support of her children. After about 2,400 francs were raised, they discovered that she had no surviving children, so instead they used the money to build a memorial for her. A replica of her balloon in flames was erected above her grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Her tombstone was engraved with the epitaph, “victim de son art et de son intrepidite” –victim of her art and intrepidity.”
Although she wasn’t rich, at the time of her death Sophie had cleared her husband’s debuts and was financially secure. Altogether, she had made 67 balloon ascents.
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Kalakuka, Christine. Hot Air Ballloons. Friedman/Fairfax Publishing, 1998
Spindlar, Alisa. Hot Air Balloons. New Line books, 2005