The first aerial crossing of the English Channel is a tale of humor, but also of courage. In 1785, ballooning as a method of human flight had begun to gain acceptance and popularity, although the first ever balloon flight had only been completed two years earlier in 1783. Two men at the forefront of the technological advance determined that they would be the first to cross the English Channel by balloon, and on 7 January 1785, they did just that.
The first was a Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Blanchard had a reputation for being egotistical and quite mean-spirited. After ballooning first began in 1783, Blanchard was seized with intrigue by the new method of flight. He dedicated much of his time to balloon flight in various locations around France and as ballooning gained popularity, so did Blanchard. Unfortunately, it is believed that the public soon became disinterested in his exploits, due both to his many ballooning mishaps and his abrasive personality. In 1784 Blanchard traveled to England hoping to find wealthy patrons who would finance his ballooning habit.
Enter John Jeffries. In England Blanchard connected with John Jeffries, a wealthy gentleman from Boston who had come to England during the Revolutionary War. Jeffries hoped to become involved in the new fad of ballooning, and he would not be disappointed. The two men connected quickly, and made their first balloon flight together as a demonstration for the Prince of Wales, among other dignitaries. Before long the two began planning their ambitious attempt to cross the English Channel by balloon.
Because Jeffries had the money, he covered the £700 of flight expenses in exchange for being allowed to ride along in the balloon during the crossing. Blanchard, however, was reluctant to split the glory of being the first to cross the Channel. Blanchard reportedly attempted a ruse to force Jeffries from the balloon. Several days before the flight he employed a tailor to make a vest with weights hidden inside. Blanchard planned to declare the balloon overweight during a practice flight and force Jeffries to remain behind. The ruse failed.
Despite Blanchard’s devious plan, on 7 January 1785 Blanchard and Jeffries departed from Dover, England in their hydrogen balloon. Ever the showman, Blanchard had printed pamphlets about himself that he began dropping across the English countryside. The flight went smoothly while they remained over land, but once they crossed into the airspace above the Channel, the flight became nerve-wracking. The balloon fell ever closer to the surface of the water. No matter how much ballast the two aeronauts ejected from the basket, they continued to descend. Stories of the day claim that the men dumped everything in the balloon including the sack of mail they were to deliver, and even their clothes.
While the harrowing flight came dangerously close to the water several times, Blanchard and Jeffries landed in France after two and a half hours, albeit in their underwear and cork life jackets. Somehow Jeffries had managed to keep one letter while the rest were dumped into the Channel, so the two men also became the first to carry an airmail letter.
In the end, Blanchard received a substantial pension from King Louis XVI. He used the money to continue his ballooning career and he toured Europe demonstrating balloons. Blanchard holds the record for the first balloon flights in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland. He eventually traveled to America where he also became the first man to conduct a balloon flight. Blanchard’s life would end during a balloon flight, as well. In 1808 he had a heart attack while flying in his balloon at the Hague, a condition that caused him to fall from the balloon and suffer severe injuries from which he never recovered.