We skimmed along 30 feet above the English Channel in the basket of a balloon, close enough to see the foam, hear the slap of the waves, and feel the mist. After tossing two bags of sand ballast over the side, we began to rise. As we climbed to 3,000 feet, we could see the white cliffs of Dover behind us, and the coast of France ahead, with Cap Gris Nez much farther to the right than it should be. The wind was carrying us east up the channel toward the North Sea, rather than directly across the French coast to a landing behind Calais.
An hour ago, gas balloonist Xavier Waymel and I had lifted off from a field behind Dover Castle, followed by a helicopter that would record our re-creation of the flight of Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries, who on January 7, 1785, made the first crossing of the channel in a balloon.
For me, last November’s adventure began three years ago, with an e-mail from a French television production company. Would I serve as an adviser to a team producing a documentary on the invention and early history of the balloon? And would I be interested in ballooning across the channel like Blanchard and Jeffries? Are you kidding? When? Tomorrow?
My interest in John Jeffries began in the early 1980s. I was writing a history of ballooning in the United States, and I devoted two chapters to the exploits of the first American to make an untethered balloon flight. Over the next three decades, I visited libraries and archives, teasing out the details of Jeffries’ life and hoping to eventually write his biography. A native Bostonian and a Harvard graduate with a European medical education, Jeffries sided with the Crown at the outset of the Revolution, and spent the war years running British military hospitals and serving as a surgeon on Royal Navy hospital ships.
Jeffries was caught up in the wave of balloon mania that swept across Europe in 1783, the year of the world’s first manned, untethered balloon flight. When the French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard arrived in England in 1784, Jeffries funded a flight in exchange for a seat in the basket. Once he got one flight under his belt, he jumped at the chance to fund Blanchard’s next venture, a flight across the channel—if he could serve as a scientific observer. After the flight, Jeffries, a minor celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, returned to the United States and remained a pillar of the Boston medical community until his death in 1819. Just when I committed to writing Jeffries’ biography, the call came from France, offering the channel flight.
Now, as then, a balloon voyage across the channel is not undertaken lightly. Blanchard and Jeffries had spent three weeks in Dover, squabbling and waiting for good weather and a steady wind to carry them to Calais. After waiting two weeks for suitable weather on one European trip, I returned to the States, ready to fly back on two days’notice.
When word came, I returned, and caught a train to Dover Priory, where pilot Xavier Waymel and members of the team met me with a van and a trailer containing the balloon and gear. We drove to the launch site, a farmer’s meadow with the battlements of Dover Castle visible on the horizon. The business of laying the balloon out on a ground cloth, fitting the valve to the “north pole” of the envelope, preparing the various lines, and positioning the net that would cover the balloon continued long after dark. The crew was back before sunrise to begin inflation.
Like Blanchard and Jeffries, we would cross the channel in a hydrogen balloon. For most Americans, the notion of flying beneath a bag filled with hydrogen conjures up the Hindenburg disaster. In fact, most European gas balloonists still use hydrogen: It’s readily available and much cheaper than helium. Almost all accidents with hydrogen balloons occur during inflation. (Precautions must also be taken to discharge any static buildup on landing.) Once airborne, hydrogen released through the valve or a leak dissipates with little chance of ignition.
Our predecessors generated the gas by mixing dilute sulfuric acid and iron filings in a series of barrels. Our hydrogen comes in cylinders. As for the process of inflation, it remains much the same. As the envelope begins to fill, sand-filled ballast bags are hung in a circle from the “diamonds” that make up the net stretched over the balloon. As the envelope rises, the ballast bags are moved “down one diamond.” When the envelope is fully inflated, the basket is suspended from the load ring, where the lines leading from the net are fastened. We were ready to fly.
Holding 22,750 cubic feet of hydrogen, our balloon was a bit smaller than the one that carried the first balloonists across the channel. In this age of modern materials, however, no one has improved on our traditional, waist-high wicker basket. It will remain intact in the hardest landing, deforming to cushion the shock and springing back into shape afterward.
The only instrument Jeffries carried was a barometer to calculate altitude. Today, that instrument is on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. We were equipped with a satellite phone and a radio for communicating with air traffic control, a GPS unit, and digital readouts providing our precise altitude, rates of climb and descent, elapsed time in the air, and temperature.
The balloon that made the first crossing was fitted with silken oars, an elaborate rudder, and a hand-operated propeller—all of which eventually failed to direct the course of the balloon and were dumped over the side. Waymel and I relied on up-to-the-minute meteorological reports. Rather than tracking straight across the water toward Calais as predicted, however, we were blown rapidly toward the east. We watched our target area disappear in the haze. With the exception of a few early dips close to the water, we maintained an altitude of 1,000 to 3,000 feet. We paralleled the French coast and flew past Dunkirk, across the Belgian border, and past Ostend. We were above the water for three hours or so, with the coast of Europe just out of reach. Air traffic controllers had asked us to remain below 9,000 feet. Finally, when informed that on-shore winds could only be found above that altitude, we received permission to climb. We were promptly carried inland.
Once over land, with clouds gathering, we descended, and spent three hours sailing over the Belgian countryside, usually at less than 1,000 feet. We passed over a checkerboard of brown and green fields, small farms, the occasional grand chateau, and villages, with their classic church steeples. In a hot-air balloon, the quiet is punctuated by the occasional blast of the propane burner. With hydrogen, you fly in silence. I could hear barking dogs, cows in the fields, children on a playground.
We relaxed a bit and enjoyed some of the snacks we packed. Neither of us needed a bathroom break, but Waymel explained that the foot hole that enabled you to swing aboard was at a convenient height for an aeronaut kneeling in the bottom of the basket.
After almost six hours in the air, with rain clouds on the horizon and dusk approaching, we prepared for the trickiest moment in any balloon flight: the landing. We secured our electronic gear and cameras. Waymel spotted a green pasture a mile or so ahead, between two plowed fields. Alternately valving gas and dumping ballast, we dropped diagonally toward the spot. Passing over the first plowed field, Waymel dropped our drag rope, the end of which fell into the top of a tree, turning the basket forward for landing and reducing the weight carried by the balloon. I stood ready to dump one of our eight remaining bags of ballast to ease our descent, but it proved unnecessary. We hit the ground with a thump and a “stand up” landing. We had traveled just under 120 miles to a landing on the edge of Handwijzer, a village in Belgium.
While we did not follow the exact path that Jeffries and Blanchard took to that field behind Calais, I had enjoyed the thrill of flying a balloon like theirs over one of the most historic bodies of water in Europe, shared their concern as we dropped close to the water, and watched the landscape unroll beneath my feet. When I write the account of that first aerial crossing of the channel, I will know whereof I speak.
Tom Crouch is the senior curator of the National Air and Space Museum’s aeronautics department.