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Author Tom Crouch and aeronaut Xavier Waymel sail past the white cliffs of Dover. (Stephane Begoin)

Across the Channel by Balloon

Modern aeronauts recreate John Jeffries’ 1785 flight.

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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.

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