Pilâtre de Rozier And The World’s First Aviation Accident

May 13, 2021 0 comments

In 1783, French professor Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier created history by becoming the first man to fly in a balloon untethered. Two years later, he made history yet again by becoming the first person to die in an air crash.

Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier was born in Metz, a city in northeastern France, to a tavern keeper and his wife. On the recommendation of one Viollet, a friend of his father, Rozier was enrolled at the Royal College of Saint Louis, a school run by the Benedictines, but Rozier proved to be careless and inattentive. The same benefactor then got the rebellious youth registered as student of surgery at a military hospital, but this too he abandoned because of his utter disgust for dissections. In the end, Viollet managed to coax Rozier into studying physics, chemistry, and natural history. He also completed a three-year training in pharmacy.

The first untethered balloon flight,

The first untethered balloon flight, by Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes on 21 November 1783. Image: Wikimedia Commons

After a bout of conflict with his father, de Rozier left for Paris and found employment in a well-known apothecary. For a brief period, de Rozier moved to Reims and taught physics and chemistry at the Academy, before returning to Paris, where he was put in charge of Monsieur's cabinet of natural history and made a valet de chambre to Monsieur's wife, Madame, which brought him his ennobled name, Pilâtre de Rozier. He opened his own museum in the Marais quarter of Paris in 1781, where he undertook experiments in physics, and provided demonstrations to nobles. During one demonstration to disprove that hydrogen contained atmospheric air, Pilâtre de Rozier took nine parts pure hydrogen gas and mixed it with one part air, and this mixture he inhaled. Then he set fire to the exhaled gases. It’s not clear what Pilâtre de Rozier was trying to achieve, but the results were very predictable. There was “such a terrible explosion that it was feared his teeth had been carried away.”

Pilâtre de Rozier’s penchant for the dramatic and the dangerous lured him to the Montgolfier brothers who were then making experiments with hot-air balloons. After witnessing the first public demonstration of an unmanned balloon flight in June 1783, Pilâtre de Rozier proposed to ascend to a height of 100 meters in a basket attached to a balloon. The French King Louis XVI decided that the first manned flight would contain two condemned criminals, but de Rozier wouldn’t allow that honor to go to the scums of society, and proposed that the first balloonists should belong to someone of higher status. The King was persuaded to permit Marquis d'Arlandes and Pilâtre de Rozierto become the first pilots.

Pilâtre de Rozier

Pilâtre de Rozier

After several tethered tests to gain some experience of controlling the balloon, de Rozier and d'Arlandes made their first untethered flight in a Montgolfier hot air balloon on 21 November 1783, taking off from the garden of the Château de la Muette in the Bois de Boulogne. During their 25-minute flight, they rose to 3,000 feet and travelled horizontally for about 9 km before returning to the ground at the Butte-aux-Cailles, then on the outskirts of Paris. Pilâtre de Rozier predicted “that this inexpensive contrivance would be very useful to an army for detecting position of the enemy maneuvers, its disposition and at announce these by signals to the troops allied to the balloon.”

Pilâtre de Rozier rode again on 19 January 1784, this time along with six other passengers, one being Joseph Montgolfier himself. Four of them, French nobles, had paid for the trip. The balloon used for the second flight was significantly larger and was made of paper and sheepskin. During the flight, the delicate skin suffered a tear and the balloon came down too quickly, but nobody was injured. Five months later, on June 1784, Pilâtre de Rozier made his third flight with chemist L. Proust. The balloon rose to more than 9,000 feet and stayed aloft for 45 minutes, coming down 52 km from its takeoff place in Paris.

Pilâtre de Rozier decided to cross the English Channel from France to Britain and this idea excited him. However, the prevailing winds didn’t agree with his plan. So de Rozier created a new kind of double balloon with a hydrogen balloon on top and a regular hot-air balloon underneath it. Pilâtre de Rozier hoped that the extra lifting power would increase his altitude and hopefully take him out of reach of the disagreeable winds.

The world’s first aviation accident

The world’s first aviation accident. The death of Pilâtre de Rozier and Pierre Romain. Image: Wikimedia Commons

After several delays, Pilâtre de Rozier and Pierre Romain took off from Boulogne-sur-Mer on 15 June 1785. After about 27 minutes, they had gained an altitude of 1,700 feet when a brisk wind carried a spark from the stove of the hot air balloon to the upper balloon, where it burned a hole through the delicate taffeta and ignited the hydrogen gas contained within. As flames consumed the balloons, the two men plummeted to the ground about 300 meters from the water’s edge. Pilâtre de Rozier was killed instantly. Romain was still breathing when helped arrived, but died shortly later.

The tragedy was compounded as Pilâtre de Rozier had recently been engaged to a young Englishwoman, Susan Dyer, who was among the spectators. Dyer died eight days later, apparently having committed suicide.

The site of the accident is now marked by a commemorative obelisk.

Memorial to the death of Pilâtre de Rozier

Memorial to the death of Pilâtre de Rozier. Photo: www.aerosteles.net

# Clément Duval, Pilatre de Rozier (1754-1785), Chemist and First Aeronaut, University of California Press
# Wikipedia


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