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My First Balloon Ascent

  • By Alberto Santos-Dumont
  • Posted 11.07.06
  • NOVA

At the height of his career, the pioneering aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont believed that flight could be a pathway to world peace, enabling people to reflect on the all-too-human world below and inspiring them to lead more just and moral lives. But when he first took to the skies at the age of 24, flight for Santos was foremost an act of adventure and joy. In the following excerpt from his memoir My Airships, Santos reminisces about the virgin voyage he took in 1897.

A dapper dresser and bon vivant, the Brazilian Santos embraced all that Paris had to offer, including automobiles and aeronautics, when he moved there in his twenties. Enlarge Photo credit: Public domain/from My Airships by Alberto Santos-Dumont

A magical stillness

I have kept the clearest remembrance of the delightful sensations I experienced in ... my first trial in the air. I arrived early at the Parc d'Aerostation of Vaugirard so as to lose nothing of the preparations. The balloon, of a capacity of 750 cubic meters [26,000 cubic feet], was lying a flat mass on the grass. At a signal from M. Lachambre [the constructor and owner of the balloon] the workmen turned on the gas, and soon the formless thing rounded up into a great sphere and rose into the air.

At 11 a.m. all was ready. The basket rocked prettily beneath the balloon, which a mild, fresh breeze was caressing. Impatient to be off, I stood in my corner of the narrow wicker basket with a bag of ballast in my hand. In the other corner M. Machuron [an experienced balloonist and Santos's guide] gave the word: "Let go all!"

Suddenly the wind ceased. The air seemed motionless around us. We were off, going at the speed of the air current in which we now lived and moved. Indeed, for us, there was no more wind; and this is the first great fact of all spherical ballooning. Infinitely gentle is this unfelt movement forward and upward. The illusion is complete: it seems not to be the balloon that moves but the Earth that sinks down and away.

While commonplace today, soaring above the clouds, in the late 19th century, would have been akin to walking on the moon. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Jim Leftwich

At the bottom of the abyss, which already opened 1,500 yards below us, the Earth, instead of appearing round like a ball, shows concave like a bowl by a peculiar phenomenon of refraction whose effect is to lift up constantly to the aeronaut's eyes the circle of the horizon.

Villages and woods, meadows and chateaux, pass across the moving scene, out of which the whistling of locomotives throws sharp notes. These faint, piercing sounds, together with the yelping and barking of dogs, are the only noises that reach on through the depths of the upper air. The human voice cannot mount up into these boundless solitudes. Human beings look like ants along the white lines that are highways, and the rows of houses look like children's playthings.

The lightened balloon made a tremendous leap upward and pierced the clouds like a cannonball.

While my gaze was still held fascinated on the scene, a cloud passed before the sun. Its shadow cooled the gas in the balloon, which wrinkled and began descending, gently at first, and then with accelerated speed, against which we strove by throwing out ballast. This is the second great fact of spherical ballooning: we are masters of our altitude by the possession of a few pounds of sand!

Regaining our equilibrium above a plateau of clouds at about 3,000 yards, we enjoyed a wonderful sight. The sun cast the shadow of the balloon on this screen of dazzling whiteness, while our own profiles, magnified to giant size, appeared in the center of a triple rainbow! As we could no longer see the Earth, all sensation of movement ceased. We might be going at storm speed and not know it. We could not even know the direction we were taking save by descending below the clouds to regain our bearings.

Immediately after his first flight, Santos had a small, one-man balloon built for himself. He wrote of it: "The 'Brazil' was ... easy to pack ... and the story that I carried it in a valise is true." Enlarge Photo credit: Public domain/from My Airships by Alberto Santos-Dumont

An aerial picnic

A joyous peal of bells mounted up to us. It was the noonday Angelus [a Roman Catholic call to prayer] ringing from some village belfry. I had brought up with us a substantial lunch of hard-boiled eggs, cold roast beef and chicken, cheese, ice-cream, fruits and cakes, champagne, coffee and Chartreuse. Nothing is more delicious than lunching like this above the clouds in a spherical balloon. No dining room can be so marvelous in its decoration. The sun sets the clouds in ebullition, making them throw up rainbow jets of frozen vapor like great sheaves of fireworks all around the table. Lovely white spangles of the most delicate ice formation scatter here and there by magic; white flakes of snow form, moment by moment, out of nothingness, beneath our very eyes, and in our very drinking glasses.

I was finishing my little glass of liqueur when the curtain suddenly fell on this wonderful stage setting of sunlight, cloud billows, and azure. The barometer rose rapidly ... showing a sudden rapture of equilibrium and a swift descent. Probably the balloon had become loaded down with several pounds of snow, and it was falling into a cloud.

We passed into the half darkness of the fog. We could still see our basket, our instruments, and the parts of the rigging nearest us, but the netting that held us to the balloon was visible only to a certain height, and the balloon itself had completely disappeared. So we had for a moment the strange and delightful sensation of hanging in the void without support, of having lost our last ounce of weight in a limbo of nothingness, somber and portentous.

Within a year of his first ascent, he began designing "steerable balloons," or dirigibles, using lightweight petroleum motors made for automobiles. Enlarge Photo credit: Public domain/from My Airships by Alberto Santos-Dumont

After a few minutes of fall, slackened by throwing out more ballast, we found ourselves under the clouds at a distance of about 300 yards from the ground. A village fled away from us below. We took our bearings with the compass and compared our route map with the immense natural map that unfolded below. Soon we could identify roads, railways, villages, and forests, all hastening toward us from the horizon with the swiftness of the wind itself.

The storm that had sent us downward marked a change of weather. Now little gusts began to push the balloon from right to left, up and down. From time to time the guide rope—a great rope dangling 100 yards below our basket—would touch Earth, and soon the basket also began to graze the tops of trees.

What is called "guide-roping" thus began for me under conditions peculiarly instructive. We had a sack of ballast at hand, and when some special obstacle rose in our path, like a tree or a house, we threw out a few handfuls of sand to leap up and pass over it. More than 50 yards of the guide rope dragged behind us on the ground, and this was more than enough to keep our equilibrium under the altitude of 100 yards, above which we decided not to rise for the rest of the trip.

Santos aloft in dirigible "No. 4." He believed his success with elongated dirigibles rested on his experience with spherical balloons. Enlarge Photo credit: Public domain/from My Airships by Alberto Santos-Dumont

Learning the ropes

This first ascent allowed me to appreciate fully the utility of this simple part of the spherical balloon's rigging, without which its landing would usually present grave difficulties. When, for one reason or another—humidity gathering on the surface of the balloon, a downward stroke of wind, accidental loss of gas, or, more frequently, the passing of a cloud before the face of the sun—the balloon came back to Earth with disquieting speed, the guide rope would come to rest in part on the ground, and so, unballasting the whole system by so much of its weight, stopped, or at least eased, the fall. Under contrary conditions, any too rapid upward tendency of the balloon was counterbalanced by the lifting of the guide rope off the ground, so that a little more of its weight became added to the weight of the floating system of the moment before.

It was losing the remains of its gas in convulsive agitations, like a great bird that dies in beating its wings.

Like all human devices, however, the guide rope, along with its advantages, has its inconveniences. Its rubbing along the uneven surfaces of the ground—over fields and meadows, hills and valleys, roads and houses, hedges and telegraph wires—gives violent shocks to the balloon. Or it may happen that the guide rope, rapidly unraveling the snarl in which it has twisted itself, catches hold of some asperity of the surface or winds itself around the trunk or branches of a tree....

As we passed a little group of trees, a shock stronger than any hitherto felt threw us backward in the basket. The balloon had stopped short and was swaying in the wind gusts at the end of its guide rope, which had curled itself around the head of an oak. For a quarter of an hour it kept shaking like a salad basket, and it was only by throwing out a quantity of ballast that we finally got ourselves loose. The lightened balloon made a tremendous leap upward and pierced the clouds like a cannonball. Indeed, it threatened to reach dangerous heights, considering the little ballast we had remaining in store for use in descending. It was time to have recourse to effective means, to open the maneuver valve and let out a portion of our gas.

It ... [took only] a moment. The balloon began descending to Earth again, and soon the guide rope again rested on the ground. There was nothing to do but to bring the trip to an end, because only a few handfuls of sand remained to us.

On October 19, 1901, upon winning the Deutsch prize of aerial navigation, Santos became arguably the most acclaimed aviator in Europe. Enlarge Photo credit: Public domain/from My Airships by Alberto Santos-Dumont

A smooth landing

He who wishes to navigate an airship should first practice a good many landings in a spherical balloon—that is, if he wishes to land without breaking balloon, keel, motor, rudder, propeller, water-ballast cylinders, and fuel holders. The wind being rather strong, it was necessary to seek shelter for this last maneuver. At the end of the plain ... the forest of Fontainebleau was hurrying toward us. In a few moments we had turned [toward] the extremity of the wood, sacrificing our last handful of ballast. The trees now protected us from the violence of the wind, and we cast anchor, at the same time opening wide the emergency valve for the wholesale escape of the gas.

The twofold maneuver landed us without the least dragging. We set foot on solid ground and stood there watching the balloon die. Stretched out in the field, it was losing the remains of its gas in convulsive agitations, like a great bird that dies in beating its wings.

After taking a dozen instantaneous photographs of the dying balloon, we folded it and packed it in the basket with its netting folded alongside. The little chosen corner in which we had landed formed part of the grounds of the Chateau de la Ferrière, belonging to M. Alphonse de Rothschild. Laborers from a neighboring field were sent for a conveyance to the village of La Ferrière itself, and half an hour later a brake [a farming vehicle] came. Putting everything into it, we set off to the railway station, which was some two miles distant. There we had some work to lift the basket with its contents to the ground, as it weighed 200 kilograms [440 pounds]. At 6:30 p.m. we were back in Paris, after a journey of 100 kilometers [62 miles] and nearly two hours passed in the air.

I liked ballooning so much that, coming back from my first trip with M. Machuron, I told him that I wanted a balloon built for myself.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Wings of Madness.

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