The Tragic Death of Sophie Blanchard, The First Woman Balloon Pilot

May 30, 2023 0 comments

Ever since Sophie Blanchard stepped into the basket with her husband, the famous balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard, she knew she belonged to the air. Before she found her calling, Sophie was a shy and nervous person, who couldn’t even take a carriage ride because she was afraid of loud noises and was startled too easily. But once airborne, Sophie underwent a striking metamorphosis and transformed into an almost reckless daredevil. This recklessness would one day cost her life.

Sophie began flying with Jean-Pierre Blanchard in 1804. Blanchard was a professional balloonist, who made money by charging spectators for admission to his demonstrations. Ever the showman, Blanchard would toss a dog tied to a parachute over the side of a balloon and once even tried to parachute jump himself. But money wasn’t coming in as fast. So Blanchard took Sophie along, believing the presence of a woman would generate some interest and attract attention. Soon Sophie began to fly alone, becoming the first woman to pilot her own balloon.

In 1809, when Blanchard was flying above Hague, he suffered a heart attack and fell to his death. Crippled by debt, Sophie continued to fly, slowly developing her own style of showmanship. She often flew at night, sometimes staying aloft all throughout the night. While her husband dropped parachuted dogs, Sophie accentuated her shows with fireworks that she launched from the sky. 

Sophie became a favorite of Napoleon’s, who made her “Aeronaut of the Official Festivals”, which meant that, henceforth, Sophie was responsible for organizing ballooning displays at all royal events. She made ascents to celebrate Napoleon's marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria. On the birth of Napoleon's son, Sophie took a balloon flight over Paris and threw out leaflets announcing the birth. After Napoleon was defeated and Louis XVIII took the throne in 1814, Sophie ascended for the new king, and earned the title of “Official Aeronaut of the Restoration” from the impressed king.

Sophie Blanchard performing at the restoration of the monarchy in 1814, with King Louis XVIII. Credit: Scrapbook of early aeronautica.

Sophie’s ascents drew large crowds all over Europe luring them away from other social events, such as the opera performance of Carl Maria von Weber on 16 September 1810, in Frankfurt. One of her stunts was to rise to great heights, in excess of 12,000 feet, where frigid temperature put her at risk of passing out. Once when flying near Vincennes a hailstorm forced her to ascend and she lost consciousness. When she finally descended, she had spent more than 14 hours in the air. On a trip to Turin, temperatures dropped so low that icicles formed on her hands and face. She almost drowned in Nantes when she mistakenly landed on a marshy field and would have surely died had not help arrived.

Also read: Pilâtre de Rozier And The World’s First Aviation Accident

Unlike the Montgolfier brothers, who flew in hot air balloons, Sophie and her husband Jean-Pierre Blanchard pioneered hydrogen balloon flight. Hydrogen balloon used hydrogen gas to obtain lift; the gas being lighter than air. Although it did come with a risk of fire—hydrogen is highly inflammable—using a hydrogen balloon freed Sophie from having to tend a fire to keep the craft airborne. Hydrogen balloons were also smaller and easy to inflate.

On 6 July 1819, Sophie prepared herself for an ascent in front of an eager crowd at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris. She was doing two shows every week for the entire time she was in Paris. But this display was to be a particularly impressive one, for she was doing her “Bengal fire” trick, a slow burning and exceptionally dangerous pyrotechnic display. Some of spectators implored her not to make the ascent. Sophie herself must have had some misgivings for witness claimed that she was nervous before the show. But she made up her mind and stepped into her chair. Before she let go, she promised that “this will be for the last time.”

Almost immediately after the balloon left ground, a strong wind carried Sophie and her balloon away towards the trees, and the balloon struck the treetops. The impact must have dislodged the fireworks attached to her balloon causing the fire to head towards the balloon instead of away from it. Within moments, the balloon as in flames as it continued to drift away.

Sophie Blanchard falling to her death. Credit: Wikimedia

Some of the audience applauded believing that this sudden fireball was part of the show. But soon it became apparent that Sophie was in danger. The balloon began to fall rapidly, and Sophie, in order to arrest its fall, shed some of the ballasts. Sophie very nearly made it to the ground intact, when the craft struck the roof of a house and tilted over throwing her out of the chair and into the streets below. By the time rescuers arrived, Sophie was already dead, her neck broken.

Sophie’s death was mourned all over Europe. Her tale was retold by Jules Verne in Five Weeks in a Balloon and, in The Gambler, Fyodor Dostoevsky likened the thrill of committing oneself in gambling to the sensation that Blanchard must have felt as she fell. For some, Sophie’s death proved a cautionary tale of conduct unbecoming of a woman. Even Charles Dickens commented that “the jug goes often to the well, but is pretty sure to get cracked at last.”

Sophie was buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. There is a memorial on top of her grave representing a balloon in flames. Her tombstone was engraved with the epitaph "victime de son art et de son intrépidité" ("victim of her art and intrepidity").

# Sophie Blanchard – The High Flying Frenchwoman Who Revealed the Thrill and Danger of Ballooning, Smithsonian
# The Daredevil Life and Pyrotechnic Death of Sophie Blanchard, Vice


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