03 - Baltimore Firsts - Balloon ascension

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Although Kitty Hawk has been immortalized as the site of the first powered flight, the first manned aircraft flight in America actually happened on the outskirts of Baltimore, MD.

Section 03 - Baltimore Firsts - Balloon ascension
Although Kitty Hawk has been immortalized as the site of the first powered flight, the first manned aircraft flight in America actually happened on the outskirts of Baltimore, MD.

By Louise Oertly from the FAA website

Black and White Drawing of an old hot air balloon

Ballooning in America - In the Beginning

Although Kitty Hawk has been immortalized as the site of the first powered flight, the first manned aircraft flight in America actually happened on the outskirts of Baltimore, MD. The pioneer airman, a lad of 13, did not disappear into the clouds, as many feared, but simply vanished into obscurity and has never been heard from since.

The year was 1784. The Revolutionary War had ended the previous autumn, and America was trying to come to terms with its new freedom. Things were not easy. Politicians were arguing among themselves on how to pull the country out of economic chaos. The Treasury was empty, and many had lost everything during the eight long years of fighting. It was no wonder that the American imagination was ready for the newest diversion from France - ballooning.

Humanity’s fascination with flight dates back to early Greek mythology and the legend of Daedalus and Icarus. Over the years experiments with all kinds of fantastic contraptions were made, but the idea of human flight was never taken seriously until the Montgolfier brothers’ 1783 demonstration in Paris. All it took to soar into the clouds was a little hot air and a large, globular container.

Among the early balloon flight spectators in France were two Philadelphians, the celebrated Benjamin Franklin and the unknown Dr. John Foulkes. Franklin immediately wrote to his scientific colleagues back home, exciting their interest. Dr. Foulkes, having just finished his medical education in Europe, found on his arrival home that Americans were thirsting for more information on ballooning. Who better to give this information than an eyewitness?

By May of 1784, Foulkes was ready to give a lecture series and a demonstration with paper balloons on how the principle worked. His balloons varied in size from six to eight feet in diameter and were fueled by burning straw. One actually reached the height of 300 feet.

The success of these demonstrations spurred other Philadelphians’ imagination to greater heights - why not a manned balloon flight in America right here in her largest city. The local newspaper started a subscription to finance the venture and soon the list of 85 sponsors contained the names of the city’s oldest families and most famous citizens. However, the project had barely gotten under way when word was received that an innkeeper/lawyer from Bladensburg, MD, was planning to fly his "American Aerostatick Balloon" in Philadelphia on July 4. This small town upstart, who dared to challenge Philadelphia’s scientific superiority, was an itinerant entrepreneur named Peter Carnes.

Born in 1749, Carnes spent his early years moving from place to place, searching for economic security and social status. He was not scientifically inclined, but he was interested in anything that would make money. When he heard of the Montgolfier balloon ascent, he promptly read up avidly on the subject and began experimenting on his own. Soon he was the able to announce plans for a balloon flight at Howard Park in Baltimore on June 24, 1784.

To catch the public’s interest Carnes advertised broadly, describing his balloon as being made of various colored silks, with a diameter of 35 feet and standing 30 feet tall. Suspended beneath the gas bag was a "splendid chariot ÷utfitted for the reception of two persons" with a cylindrical iron stove in easy reach so that the fire could be restoked as they ascended above the clouds.

Each day prior to the flight, Carnes announced he would give a lecture for those interested in "the great uses to which the important discovery may be applied, for the convenience and delight of human life." For the privilege of hearing his lectures and attending the ascent, it would cost you $2 for first place seating and 10 shillings each for second place seats within the high walls of a guarded enclosure. Carnes evidently meant to make money on the deal because he warned that an armed guard "will be justifiable in taking the life of any person who attempts to force his way into the field." Any surviving freeloaders would be sued - remember he was a lawyer.

Finally, the great day arrived in Baltimore. Evidently Carnes had discovered earlier that his 234 lbs. were too much for his balloon to lift, so all the flights that day were unmanned and tethered. The crowd, which had been led to believe someone would be on board, expressed noisy disappointment, but on the whole were thrilled with the show.

As Carnes was preparing for the last ascent of the day, a 13-year old boy named Edward Warren, stood up, and offered his services as a passenger. Carnes welcomed him into the chariot, heated up the stove, and uncranked his windlass.

According to newspaper reports, Warren "behaved with the steady fortitude of an old voyager" as he "soared aloft," politely acknowledging by a "significant wave of his hat" the cheers of the crowd below. The lad no doubt felt rewarded enough just leaving the ground in flight (not realizing he was the first American to fly), but as he reached the maximum height of the tether (perhaps 200 feet) and began to descend, the crowd took up a collection so that he would be rewarded with "÷a solid instead of an airy foundation and of a specie which is ever acceptable to the residents of this lower world." (Rhetoric provided a noticeable portion of the hot air.)

As to what happened to our first aeronaut after this, no one seems to know. Extensive research has been done trying to trace him, but he seems to have vanished without a trace.

Meanwhile, Carnes had promised Philadelphia a manned free flight and was determined to give it to them - only this time he would be the admired aeronaut as well as the promoter.

After modifying his heating system and changing the passenger platform to a triangular "scaffold," Carnes estimated that the worn and patched balloon could carry a total weight of 600 lbs. Because repairs took longer to make than he realized, the flight was rescheduled for the 19th of July. To avoid the expense of fencing the launch site, Carnes got permission to launch from within the walls of the city jail. Again he promised an armed guard who would shoot any unpaying customers.

As the cheering crowd watched, the balloon ascended at 6 p.m. that evening, but quickly disaster struck. At an altitude of 10 to 20 feet a gust of wind blew the balloon against a wall, causing the chain holding the platform to snap. Carnes fell safely back to earth as the balloon "rushed into the air with astonishing velocity." At an altitude of several hundred feet the balloon suddenly burst into flames, putting an end to Carnes aviation career. Indeed, many witnesses believed that he perished in the flaming chariot, and obituaries soon appeared.

The truth was that Carnes returned home to Bladensburg and found that he was being sued by his wife’s brother-in-law. It seems that Carnes thought by marrying the Indian Queen Tavern owner’s widow, he no longer had to pay rent. As executor of the estate, the brother-in-law said the money was due to him, not the widow. The unflappable Carnes took his wife and two step-children and fled to South Carolina, where he sought to recoup his finances as a lawyer and property owner. Before his death in 1794, he would relocate again. This time near Augusta, GA. Apparently he had also married for a third time, to his step-daughter, who bore him two sons.

In aviation annuals his name, like that of the youth Edward Warren, was soon forgotten. Historians tended to regard Peter Carnes as more of a carnival type of pitchman than a scientist. But in fact his achievement was extraordinary. Working alone and with the scantiest of technical knowledge he had succeeded where others gave up - the learned Philadelphians abandoned plans for a manned balloon of their own and for the next nine years any ballooning exhibitions were of the unmanned variety. It would be 1793 before the Frenchman Jean Pierre Blanchard would bring a man-carrying balloon to these shores.

Blanchard was born in 1750. He inherited his mechanical ability from his father, a combination carpenter, gunsmith, and machinist. By age 16, he had built a four-wheeled forerunner of a bicycle called a velocipede and four years later experimented with a "Vaisseau Volant" or "Flying Ship." It consisted of a set of pedals and two hand levers connected to four flapping wings. It never got off the ground. By the time he was 29 years old, he was a professional. With this type of background, his becoming involved with ballooning, or levitation as it was called then, is not surprising.

Blanchard’s 25-year career would take him to nine different countries. His initial flights were in France and England with sponsors paying for the privilege of being a passenger. One of these sponsors was American Dr. John Jeffries, who would later finance the first balloon flight over the English Channel. Blanchard did not like to share the limelight and tried several tricks - including a lead vest - to make sure Jeffries would not be on the flight. Needless to say all his tricks failed and on January 7, 1785, both men successfully completed the crossing. From here Blanchard toured Germany, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Poland, and Austria where his European tour was cut short in 1792. Austrian officials arrested him on suspicion of spreading radical doctrines of the French Revolution. Lacking proof (although the consensus is he probably was) the officials released him, and Blanchard immediately set his sight on the United States for his next ballooning tour which would last five years.

Blanchard’s dreams of financial success with ballooning did not come true. In fact, by the end of his American tour - which included Philadelphia, Charleston, Boston, and New York - he had only performed one manned flight in Philadelphia (see story on page 18). Most were small balloon demonstrative flights, and many of these had animals onboard who were parachuted back to earth. Despite his many moves, the funds required for his next manned flight were never realized. The final blow came in September 1796 when a tornado swept through New York City killing his 16-year old son and destroying the Balloon House where Blanchard stored his equipment and workshop. By May of 1797 his debts forced him to flee the U.S. with his wife and three daughters. However, he was back in business by following year and made his next manned flight in Rouen, France, on August 12.

Sometime between his flight from the U.S. and 1798 Blanchard would lose his wife, Victorie, and marry for a second time. Marie-Madeleine Armant was an 18-year old admirer - although what she found to admire in a man 30 years her senior and described by his contemporaries as humorless and mean-spirited, an "unpleasant creature, petulant little fellow not many inches over five feet and physically suited for the vaporish regions" is a mystery.

She would make her first flight in 1805 and become the best-known woman aeronaut in Europe. She would carry on the Blanchard ballooning career after her husband’s death in 1809 from a heart attack. Little did he realize the success she would achieve after his death, although she is best known as the first woman to be killed in a ballooning accident. During a pyrotechnic display in 1819 she accidentally ignited hydrogen escaping from her balloon. While desperately fighting the fire, her balloon hit a rooftop, overturning her gondola and plunging her to her death in the streets below. It is ironic that the man who disliked sharing the spotlight would one day have to share the place of honor with his own wife. To balloonist the name Blanchard conjures up the images of both Jean Pierre and Marie-Madeleine.

Ballooning in America would again stagnate until 1819 - 26 years after Blanchard’s flight - when another Frenchman, Louis Charles Guille, would bring manned balloon flight to the U.S. and soon other balloonists would follow. The American imagination had finally been caught and ballooning in American became a reality.

As part of the annual Preakness Celebration, tethered balloons fly along the Inner Harbor. These should provide a great spectacle from a kayak in the inner harbor

Friday and Saturday, May 09 - 10, 2003
9 pm around the Inner Harbor

Bring extra film for this exciting nightly hot air balloon finale to the Harbor Balloon Festival. A dozen hot air balloons inflate around the Inner Harbor and illuminate against the city skyline.




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