The tragic crash in the Alps currently in the news reminds us of other aeroplanes lost over the years. The accident of which we are about to speak though has had to take a back seat: logical, for it did not involve an aeroplane but an air balloon. And it was a long time ago. In 1785, two men, one of which was Pilâtre de Rozier, tried to cross the English Channel by means of a new form of locomotion. They were to crash on the point of Wimereux, thereby reserving their place in history as the first victims of an aviation accident.
Today, it seems difficult to imagine… but two hundred and thirty years ago, Man still did not know how to fly. This long awaited dream became reality with the Montgolfier Brothers who developed a balloon based on a simple physical principle: hot air rises in the atmosphere. We are of course at the beginning of the 1780s.
First flight over the capital…
The discovery proved of interest even to France’s king at that time, no other than Louis XVI, who still had his head firmly on his shoulders then*. The year 1783 is decisive. On 19 September, the first flight took place. In the balloon, or to be more precise, in the basket, was a cock, a sheep and a duck. Better not to take any risks. Once the operation had proved a success, another manned flight was scheduled, this time for 21 November: Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, Doctor of Science in his thirties, born in Metz, and François Laurent d’Arlandes, with a 26 minute free flight from the Muette Gardens to the Butte-aux-Cailles in Paris, became the first ever air passengers.
… and the first victims of an aviation accident
A year and a half later, Pilâtre de Rozier attempted a new adventure, accompanied by Pierre-Ange Romain. On 15 June, the two men took off from Pas-de-Calais hoping to cross the Channel to reach England, a feat that had already been accomplished by Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries but in the opposite direction (Dover to Guînes), some months before on 07 January. The attempt from Boulogne-sur-Mer proved to be a disaster. The balloon (an air balloon and a gas-filled balloon) crashed at Wimereux point. Pilâtre de Rozier died on the spot, his flight companion died of his injuries soon afterwards. Today, they are considered as the first victims of an aviation accident in history.
*Louis XVI was executed on the guillotine.
Some articles that explore further: (in French)
Translated by SafeTex
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