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Blanchard, Madeleine Sophie (1778–1819)

Blanchard, Madeleine Sophie (1778–1819)

French pioneer balloonist, appointed to the honorary post of Chief of Air Services by Napoleon. Born Marie-Madeleine-Sophie Armand on March 25, 1778, in Trois-Canons, France; died in a balloon accident in Paris on July 6, 1819, the first woman to die in an aviation accident; daughter of Madame Armand; married Jean-Pierre Blanchard (1753–1809, a famous balloonist), in 1796.

Madeleine Sophie Armand was born in the village of Trois-Canons near La Rochelle, France, on March 25, 1778. A chance encounter between her mother and the pioneer balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard at an inn almost two decades before her birth sowed the seeds that would yield a life of adventure and danger. Captivated by Madame Armand, Jean-Pierre told her that if she ever had a daughter he would return to her village and marry the girl, whom he was certain would be beautiful and charming.

True to his word, he returned and in 1796 married Madeleine Sophie, immediately making her his partner in his ballooning adventures.

One of the first balloonists, Jean-Pierre Blanchard made the earliest airborne crossing of the English Channel in January 1785. Combining an entrepreneurial spirit with a flair for the dramatic, he found his wife more than willing to share both the dangers and thrills of his flights. Over the ensuing years, vast crowds paid good money to be temporarily distracted from the revolutionary turmoil of the times and see the Blanchards defy the law of gravity. Realizing that ordinary balloon ascensions would not attract a paying crowd, the couple developed a thrilling act that included dangerous acrobatics on a net that hung from their balloon gondola. The Blanchards became a sensation throughout Europe, appearing at fairs and other public events in all the large cities and towns of France, England, and the states of Germany. After close to 60 such ascensions together, in February 1808 Jean-Pierre became ill after a flight in the Netherlands and probably suffered a stroke. He died on March 7, 1809.

Her husband's death did not discourage Madeleine Sophie Blanchard from continuing flying a balloon. The adulation of the crowds was not easily given up, and she also was close to bankruptcy, as her husband had been less successful on the ground with his money. A solo flyer, she was the first woman to fly alone under a variety of circumstances. On June 24, 1810, as part of the celebrations commemorating the marriage of Emperor Napoleon I to Marie Louise of Austria , Blanchard made what was called a thrilling ascent at the festive display given by the Imperial Guard for the illustrious newlyweds. Her appearance was the high point of the event. Appointed to the honorary post of chief of Air Services by Napoleon, she toured Europe and France as an ambassador and flew in balloons at State festivals.

Blanchard made ballooning look glamorous and carefree, when it was in fact an exhausting and dangerous activity. She took great risks: while crossing over the alps at 9,000 feet, she almost froze and her nose bled profusely, but her skill and luck saw her through. At Nantes in 1817, she mistook a flooded field for a grassy meadow and, upon landing, almost drowned.

Though balloons had now been in existence for more than a generation, the novelty of air travel, and the chance to see a brave and beautiful woman defy nature, continued to draw enthusiastic crowds in the peaceful years after the fall of the Napoleonic Empire. But one such public display would prove fatal for Blanchard. The Tivoli fairground, a park within Paris that had been opened years before by Marie Antoinette , now served as a site of mass amusement for the emerging middle classes. On Sundays, Tivoli was frequented by as many as 15,000 women, men, and children who enjoyed theatrical shows, dancing, and gambling on slot machines. The leading attraction at Tivoli on July 6, 1819, was Madeleine Sophie Blanchard, who promised to make an "exceptional ascent" in which her balloon would let off "fireworks and a crown of Bengal Lights" while airborne. On this, her 67th ascent, the balloon rose with a wire trailing behind it carrying the crown of fireworks. At a height of 300 meters, the fireworks went off in a spectacular display. Immensely pleased, the crowd expected Blanchard to land, but to their horror the gondola and the balloon exploded in a fireball and plummeted. The fireworks had ignited the hydrogen she was using as a propellant. Blanchard's balloon crashed on the roof of a house at the corner of the rue de Provence, near the rue Chauchat, at a spot that can still be identified. A vast throng, virtually "tout Paris" (all of Paris), turned out for her funeral to pay homage to her skill and courage. Fully aware of the great risks of her unconventional profession, Blanchard helped to open the new and exhilarating world of aviation.

suggested reading:

Coutil, Léon. Jean-Pierre Blanchard, physicien-aéronaute. Évreux: Imprimerie C. Hérissey, 1911.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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