First Cross-Channel Flight

Jean Blanchard and John Jeffries successfully crossed the English Channel in a balloon, demonstrating that travel by air was practical and opening the door to military and scientific observations using balloons.

Summary of Event

The balloon, the simplest of all flying machines, consists of a fabric envelope that is filled with a gas that is lighter than air. If the entire balloon, including a suspended basket used to carry instruments or passengers, is less dense than the surrounding air, then the balloon and its payload rise to a height where their density equals the density of the air. [kw]First Cross-Channel Flight (Jan. 7, 1785)
[kw]Flight, First Cross-Channel (Jan. 7, 1785)
[kw]Channel Flight, First Cross- (Jan. 7, 1785)
[kw]Cross-Channel Flight, First (Jan. 7, 1785)
Balloon flight
English Channel
Flight, balloon
[g]England;Jan. 7, 1785: First Cross-Channel Flight[2620]
[g]France;Jan. 7, 1785: First Cross-Channel Flight[2620]
[c]Science and technology;Jan. 7, 1785: First Cross-Channel Flight[2620]
Blanchard, Jean-Pierre-François
Jeffries, John
Charles, Jacques-Alexandre-Cesar
Montgolfier, Joseph-Michel
Montgolfier, Jacques-Étienne
Pilâtre de Rozier, Jean-François
Arlandes, marquis d’
Romain, Pierre

The first balloon that carried humans into the sky used hot air to provide the lifting force. In September of 1783, brothers Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier demonstrated a hot-air balloon for the king and queen of France, but it carried aloft only animals—a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. On November 21, 1783, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes flew above Paris for twenty-five minutes, becoming the first human “aeronauts” in a balloon designed by the Montgolfier brothers.

Also in 1783, Jacques-Alexandre-Cesar Charles, a French chemist who studied the properties of gases, experimented with using hydrogen Hydrogen;ballooning instead of hot air in balloons. Hydrogen has two advantages over hot air. First, hydrogen is the lightest gas, so it provides more lifting force than an equal volume of hot air; a smaller balloon filled with hydrogen would be able to lift the same payload, that is, the weight of the basket and its contents, as would a larger balloon filled with hot air. Second, hydrogen does not cool in the same manner as hot air, so it retains its lifting capacity, allowing for a much longer flight. On December 1, 1783, Charles, accompanied by Nicolas Robert, took off from the gardens of the Tuileries in Paris before a crowd of 400,000 people and flew 27 miles in a hydrogen balloon. Hydrogen, however, also has one serious disadvantage: It can burn or explode when combined with oxygen.

A worldwide interest in ballooning developed quite rapidly after these two successful flights. Showmen began to stage balloon ascents and charged fees to the crowds of spectators. A flight across the English Channel, the body of water that separates England from continental Europe (in this case, France), was considered to be the flight-distance challenge for early balloonists. If the English Channel could be crossed, they believed, it would be proven that balloons were practical for long-distance flight.

One person who developed an interest in ballooning was Jean-Pierre-François Blanchard. Blanchard began inventing mechanical devices as a boy, including a rat trap, a hydraulic pump, and a “velocipede,” which was a predecessor of the bicycle that was driven simply by walking while sitting on it. Blanchard also constructed his own balloon, which he flew for the first time on March 2, 1784, from Champ de Mars Park in Paris. His balloon measured 27 feet in diameter, had a parachute in case it burst, and was filled with hydrogen rather than hot air.

Since ballooning was developing rapidly in France, Blanchard decided to move to England, where he would have fewer competitors for fame. Blanchard’s first flight demonstrated that he had perfected the basic components of his balloon, so he began a series of experiments to improve the design. Ballooning, however, was expensive, so Blanchard needed financial support for his efforts. He publicized his experiments and found a group of wealthy sponsors. An American medical doctor, John Jeffries of Boston, provided £700. On November 30, 1784, Blanchard and Jeffries made their first flight together, taking off from Rhedarium Garden, London, and landing in Kent, England.

On January 7, 1785, Blanchard and Jeffries became the first to cross the English Channel by air. Jeffries paid Blanchard an additional £100 for the flight across the Channel, but Blanchard did not want Jeffries to share in the glory. He said that Jeffries’s weight might keep the balloon from completing the crossing, so, before Blanchard agreed to take him, Jeffries had to promise he would jump overboard into the Channel if the balloon could not stay aloft.

Before their flight began, a slight breeze started to blow toward France from the cliffs of Dover, a city located on the Channel. The flight got off to a good start at about 1:00 p.m., but after only eight miles, the balloon began to descend. Blanchard and Jeffries jettisoned the ballast, the extra weight carried for the balloon’s ascent, but, still, they continued to settle toward the water. According to Jeffries’s account, the two men had been arguing about what they should throw overboard when the basket bounced on the water. Neither could swim, so they finally threw ropes, anchors, seats, and scientific instruments overboard. With the balloon skimming just above the water, Blanchard and Jeffries tossed their clothes, except their underwear, into the sea.

As they crossed the coast, the natural updraft that occurs as warm air rises from ground heated by the Sun caused the balloon to climb. Because they had thrown their landing ropes and anchors into the Channel, Jeffries grabbed some treetops to slow the balloon, but the balloon continued to rise. When they got over a field, Blanchard released some of the hydrogen and the balloon sank to a landing. A group of men, who had watched the landing, rode up on horseback. The adventurers were given clothes and taken to the nearby town of Calais, where they were greeted by cheering crowds. French king Louis XVI awarded Blanchard about $12,000 as well as a lifetime pension.

On June 15, 1785, Pierre Romain and Pilâtre de Rozier, who had flown on the Montgolfier balloon, also attempted a crossing of the Channel, ascending from Boulogne, France, in a hydrogen-filled balloon. About thirty minutes into the flight, however, at an altitude of about three thousand feet, Pilâtre de Rozier’s balloon exploded, killing both men.

In 1792, Blanchard traveled by ship to Philadelphia, bringing with him several balloons and the apparatus for generating hydrogen gas. On January 9, 1793, Blanchard made the first balloon flight in North America, from a prison yard in Philadelphia to Gloucester County, New Jersey. U.S. president George Washington attended the ascent, and Blanchard carried a letter from Washington in the balloon, possibly the world’s first “airmail” delivery.


Balloons did not emerge as practical methods of transportation because their flight paths are subject to the changing directions of the wind. However, the success of the earliest balloons led to the development of blimps and dirigibles, which use motor-driven propellers to direct the flight path.

The military quickly recognized the utility of balloons for observation. In 1793, the French government began using balloons for reconnaissance. Hot-air balloons were used during the American Civil War. Flying over the battlefield, military observers directed Union Army gunners to fire on Confederate positions without the gunners being able to see the enemy position. Hydrogen-filled observation balloons were widely used during World War I to detect troop movements and direct artillery fire. During World War II, gas-filled barrage balloons were used to intercept low-flying aircraft in the Battle of Britain. The Japanese launched thousands of balloon bombs toward the United States and Canada. The military’s use of balloons has continued into the twenty-first century, as surveillance balloons, equipped with high-tech optics, have observed enemy movement from many miles away; surveillance balloons were used during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Long-distance balloon flights continue to challenge adventurers. It was not until 1978, though, nearly two hundred years after the first successful piloted balloon flight across the English Channel, that the Double Eagle II, carrying three passengers, was able to cross the Atlantic Ocean, the first balloon to do so with humans aboard. The first crossing of the Pacific Ocean was accomplished in 1981, when the Double Eagle V flew from Japan to California.

Further Reading

  • Blanchard, Jean-Pierre. First Air Voyage in America. Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Books, 2002. A sixty-four-page paperback that provides an account of the first American ascent in a balloon. Includes a facsimile of Blanchard’s journal describing the flight and its preparations.
  • Jeffries, John. A Narrative of Two Aerial Voyages. 1786. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1971. A sixty-page description by Jeffries of two balloon flights with Blanchard. Part of the Physician Travelers series. Illustrated.
  • Marion, Fulgence. Wonderful Balloon Ascents: Or, The Conquest of the Skies. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2004. A 218-page paperback reprint of an 1874 book describing the early days of ballooning.
  • Owen, David. Lighter than Air: An Illustrated History of the Development of Hot-Air Balloons and Airships. Lancaster, England: Chartwell Books, 1999. A 128-page account that begins with the early “Race for the Skies” and continues through the modern “Rebirth of the Hot-Air Balloon.”

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