Sunday, March 22, 2009

Human Flight in Paris, Past and Present

When I look out the windows of my Paris apartment, I see a jumble of rooftops, our neighborhood church and park, the spire of the Eiffel Tower, and an antique clock atop the Hopital Saint Perrine. Also in my direct line of sight is a 6,000 cubic meter (211,860 ft3) balloon. White by day, fluorescent-green by night, the 32-meter-tall (105 ft) balloon floats up and down all day long, tethered by a cable that lets it out, like a kite, to a height of 150 meters (482 ft). Amid the classic beauty of my corner of Paris, it’s a kitschy reminder that hot-air balloons figure prominently in French history and culture:

From the height of a hot-air balloon, the earliest French photographers gave us aerial documentation of the 1889 and 1900 World’s Fairs. A few decades earlier, from July 1870 to May 1871, Parisians used hot-air balloons to break the siege of their city during the Franco-Prussian War. And almost a century before that, in 1783, the first recorded episode of human flight took place in Paris, in a hot-air balloon developed by the French Montgolfier brothers.

It all started one cold evening in 1782. Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, the impractical dreamer of a family of 16 children, sat mesmerized by a fire burning in a fireplace. He wondered what “force” could be causing sparks and smoke to rise up from the flames. With the help of his brother, Jacques-Etienne, he fashioned a small, oval bag out of silk, turned it upside down, and lit a fire under the opening. The bag rose into the air, hitting the ceiling above the two brothers. They hypothesized that fire created gas, which they dubbed “Montgolfier gas”.

What actually happened was that the heated air inside the small “balloon” became lighter than the surrounding air, causing it to become buoyant and rise upward.

The brothers set to work, building bigger and bigger balloons and experimenting with different materials until on June 4, 1783, they held their first public demonstration of un-manned flight. Near their home in Annonay, in the Rhône-Alpes region of southern France, they sent a balloon of 790 cubic meters (27,894 ft3) to an estimated altitude of 1,600-2,000 meters (5,200-6,600 ft). The balloon weighed 225 kilograms (500 lbs) and was constructed of four large pieces of cloth held together by 1,800 buttons and reinforced by interior netting. The voyage lasted 10 minutes and covered 2 kilometers (1.2 miles).

Their next launch was to take place on August 27 in Paris over the Champs de Mars. This time the balloon, made of sky-blue taffeta decorated with gold suns and zodiac signs, was half again as big. Unfortunately a downpour stopped the show. But a subsequent test, on September 11, compelled King Louis XVI to suggest that the brothers select two criminals to test the effects of atmospheric travel on living creatures.

Joseph and Etienne thought it best to send animals aloft first! On September 19, they sent a duck, a rooster, and a sheep called Montauciel (Climb-to-the-sky) into the skies of Versailles before a huge crowd, including the King and Queen Marie-Antoinette. The flight lasted roughly eight minutes and covered 3.3 kilometers (2 miles), obtaining an altitude of 462 meters (1500 ft). The animals survived the trip unharmed; indeed, Montauciel was found nibbling unperturbed on the straw used to fuel the fire that lifted the balloon.

The next step was to release humans into the clouds. For this, Joseph and Etienne doubled the size of the balloon again. It was 23 meters tall (75 ft) and able to hold 1,698 cubic meters (60,000 ft3) of air. On November 21, 1783, a physician, Pilâtre de Rozier, and an army officer, the Marquis d’Arlandes, set off from the Bois de Boulogne. They stayed aloft for 25 minutes at a height of 100 meters (328 ft), traveling 9 kms (5.59 mls) over the rooftops of Paris until they touched down amongst the windmills of the Butte-au-Cailles (now in the 13th arrondissement).

The balloon we see from our apartment windows is a feature of the Parc André Citroën, a 14 hectare (35 acre) public space located on the banks of the river Seine in the southern 15th arrondissement. The park occupies the site of the former Citroën car factory, which operated from 1915 until the 1970s. A 1980s urban renewal project leveled the former factory to create housing as well as a public recreation area now famed for its modern landscape design.

The balloon ride over the Parc André Citroën offers views of the Champs de Mars, the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, Sacré Cœur Basilica, and Cathedral of Notre Dame. For years now the Lucky-one-and-only (Loo) has been begging me for a ride. But after our hair-raising voyage up La Tour Eiffel, I’ve resisted. Though Loo, being lucky, is the one-and-only person I would ever consider taking a balloon trip with, for the moment - pour l’instant - I prefer to watch it rise and fall from my apartment windows.

Self-portrait of Félix Nadar, French Photographer, 1820-1910, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photographic reproductions of engravings of Montgolfier balloons, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Fun post Sarah - really think that it is time to take that research just a little bit higher!

  2. Up, Up, and away in my beautiful balloon!

    You'll hear a lot more about the Montgolfier bros. and their wonderful flying machines in the Belle Epoch chapter of my upcoming book: Time Traveler Paris Tours.

    Stay tuned!