Sunday, September 8, 2013

BALLOONING | Durant 1st American Aloft

Book by Durant on his flights.
This date in 1830, the first American aeronaut, Charles F. Durant, completed his first balloon flight – from Castle Garden in Battery Park at the lower tip of Manhattan to Perth Amboy, N.J., 25 miles.

(Thanks to Garrison Keillor for noting this historic trip. My comments below on Durant are based on Keillor's story and other sources.)

Americans were late to ballooning. The first manned balloon ride was in Paris in 1783, almost half a century before Durant. A year later, in 1784, a group crossed the English Channel.

The first balloon flight in America was in 1793, observed by a crowd including President Washington. But the aeronaut was French.

So when Durant took off in 1830, he was the first American.  Ballooning still seemed new and exciting in the USA. The New York Post declaimed:
The spectacle drew many persons to the Battery, which was literally covered with an immense multitude of every age, sex, condition and color, whose faces were all turned upwards. It is estimated that upwards of 20,000 persons were collected to see a man risk his neck for their amusement and for their money.
Durant wore a top hat and tails. From the balloon, he dropped copies of poems praising the joys of flight. He was aloft for about three hours, and he landed in a farm field, surprising a New Jersey farmer by the name of Johnson.

Three years later, in May 1833, Durant published a letter in the Journal of Commerce called "A New York Balloon Ascension":
Here burst upon my sight one of the most imposing views I have ever beheld. Call it majestic, splendid, or sublime, — invoke a Shakespeare's mind to describe, or a painter's to portray it, — they, and even thought must fail to conceive the rich downy softness and white fleecy accumulation of clouds piled in waves as far as the eye could reach, covering the earth, and closing to my sight the land, water, and everything, animate or inanimate, that I had so long and often viewed with delight. Above me nothing but a clear, cerulean expanse, — the golden sun-beams spreading over the vast ocean of clouds, and extending through immensity of space where sight is bounded, and from whence even thought returns, unable to traverse the confines of the vast field beyond. 
This gaga writing about flight and open skies continued for a century through Antoine Saint-Exupery in his Vol de Nuit and Little Prince.

The commercial airlines, particularly since the security checks became intrusive, have since taken some of the romance out of flying. But still in 1969 in East Hampton, NY a group of three people – two men and a woman – set off to cross the Atlantic in a balloon called "The Free Life". A book was written about their failed attempt:
Theirs was to have been the first balloon crossing [of the Atlantic] in history. Two of the three, Pamela Brown and Rod Anderson, were inexperienced adventurers who sought a daring route to money, fame and thrills; the third-the pilot-was Malcolm Brighton, a well-known British balloonist intrigued by the challenge. The author (The Dangerous Sort), Brighton's friend and a balloonist himself, here tries to reconstruct what happened from fragmentary records and interviews with friends and family. It becomes clear that in their zesty determination the two amateurs ignored warnings about the balloon's faulty construction, and that Brighton evidently knew the vessel was imperfect but trusted his skills to compensate for its defects. A moving meditation on risk-taking, luck and folly.
A tree and a plaque have been dedicated to them on the lawn outside Ashawagh Hall, where Old Stone Highway runs into Springs Fireplace Road. LTV, whose officer Genie Henderson was a close friend of Pamela Brown, put together a video about the attempt.