Falling upwards, p.37
Falling Upwards, p.37Richard Holmes
‘Airabelle’, the heavenly cow, a regular favourite at the annual Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, New Mexico, a folksy icon of American good humour and goodwill.
The renowned ‘mass dawn ascent’ at the Albuquerque Fiesta, photographed by Richard Holmes, 2010.
‘Earthrise’, the famous environmentalist image, this time photographed from Apollo 11, July 1969. ‘The dream of flight is to see the world differently.’
fn1 A transcendent cluster of philanthropic balloons also appears in the classic French film The Red Balloon, but with happier consequences. Shot in the backstreets of Paris, significantly in the time of recovery after the Second World War, it was directed by Albert Lamorisse and won both an Oscar and the Palme d’Or for short films at Cannes in 1956. A lonely little orphan boy discovers a beautiful red helium party balloon mysteriously tethered to a lamp post in the poor district of Ménilmontant. The balloon has its own magical life and personality, quickly befriends the child and follows him down the street, first to school and then home, where it waits faithfully all night outside his bedroom window. Later the pair are chased by a jealous gang of street urchins, the red balloon is caught and, in an act of primitive savagery, stoned to death on a piece of high waste ground overlooking the city. The film concludes with a memorable visionary sequence, in which hundreds of other party balloons rise up from all over Paris, flock down to console the little boy, and together lift him high into the air and far away across the city, perhaps even to Heaven.
fn2 I know Long Sands quite well. I was shipwrecked off this same turbulent part of the East Anglian coast in 1991, and waited for some time in the open sea for rescue with sensations that Major Money might have recognised. All the same, my circumstances were very different. The craft I had to abandon was a yacht, not a balloon. It was just before dawn, not night time. And above all I was with two friends, not alone. Nevertheless, I was infinitely grateful to see the arrival overhead of a bright-yellow air-sea-rescue helicopter. One by one, we were winched up to safety, spinning several hundred feet into the air as we went, the choppy waves dropping away beneath our feet. I went last, and well remember those few final moments of utter isolation, waiting in the open water gazing upwards. It now strikes me that this rescue curiously reversed the conditions of Money’s uncontrolled descent into the sea.
fn3 Admittedly, not all planetary visitors from outer space may have needed flying saucers or even balloons. In 1667, at the end of Book 2 of Paradise Lost, John Milton reports on Satan’s epic flight from Hell up towards the shining Earth. Observing from deep space the ‘emptier waste, resembling Air’, Satan sees from afar our delicate planet as a small but fabulous jewel, miraculously suspended from the ‘Opal Towers and battlements’ of Heaven, and prophetically ready to be despoiled or ravaged (a task he later leaves to mankind):
… fast by, hanging in a golden Chain
This pendant World, in bigness as a star
Of smallest magnitude, close by the Moon.
Thither full fraught with mischievous revenge.
Accursed, and in a cursed hour he hies.8
fn4 Ideas of aerial escape have haunted many prisoners. Perhaps the most famous is the glider built in the attic of the German prisoner-of-war camp Colditz Castle in 1944. It wonderfully sustained the morale of the British PoWs during the last months of the war, but was never deployed. Afterwards, it was generally agreed that had it ever actually been launched from the high, tilting slate roof of Colditz, it would have plunged into the gorge 150 feet beneath the castle walls, instantly killing its two prospective escapees. Curiously, the much more practical method of escape by a hot-air balloon was never considered by the Colditz Escape Committee, but perhaps practicality was not the point. See Airey Neave, They Have Their Exits.11 A more metaphysical version of this flight-escape fantasy is movingly told in the 1962 film The Bird Man of Alcatraz, with Burt Lancaster playing the real-life convict Robert Stroud. It is also a curious fact that many of the early balloonists, like Blanchard and Garnerin, had experienced periods of imprisonment and gazing up at the sky through barred windows.
fn5 I have described the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon trials of 1783 in The Age of Wonder, together with the historic first flight by Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes from the place de la Muette across the rooftops of Paris on 21 November of that year, and Joseph Montgolfier’s famous formula for a hot-air balloon: ‘a Cloud in a paper bag’. But I have since discovered an unpublished letter by Philippe Lesueur, dated Paris, 22 September 1783, describing the earlier tethered ascents, the spectacular unmanned flight from the Champ de Mars, and the notorious animal ascension from Versailles on 19 September 1783 with ‘a sheep, a cockerel and a duck in a wickerwork basket suspended from the Aerostatique Machine by a fifteen-foot rope’. Lesueur not only catches the first thrill and astonishment of these public experiments – ‘truly the most astonishing spectacle to see such a massive object rising majestically under its own power’ – but also incorporates into his letter a superb pen-and-watercolour illustration of the Versailles Montgolfier with its first animal aeronauts.16
fn6 Given Franklin’s weight, a hydrogen balloon of approximately ten feet in diameter, or one thousand cubic feet, would have been sufficient to perform this appealing service. One of the crucial scientific discoveries of late-eighteenth-century chemists like Henry Cavendish and Antoine Lavoisier was that hydrogen could be isolated, weighed (as counter-intuitive as that sounds), and compared against the weight of atmospheric air. It was actually named by Lavoisier.) Measurements were later refined, but as a rule of thumb one thousand cubic feet of air weighed seventy-five pounds. By comparison, one thousand cubic feet of hydrogen weighed only five pounds. Hydrogen was therefore approximately fourteen times lighter than air, with an equivalent lifting power. In terms of practical ballooning, this meant that a small hydrogen balloon, like Alexander Charles’s of 1783, standing perhaps thirty feet high and with a capacity of approximately twenty thousand cubic feet, could lift a payload of roughly eight hundred pounds. In theory, this would be enough for two men, the basket with supplies, all the balloon equipment (fabric envelope, rigging, ropes and anchor), and many sacks of ballast. In practice, all these figures were alarmingly variable. They depended for example on the purity of the hydrogen, the temperature and humidity of the surrounding air (which changed constantly with height), and the condition of the balloon fabric. Hot air was of course even more variable. But in general a hot-air balloon needed to be three or four times as big as a hydrogen balloon to produce the equivalent lift. Pilâtre de Rozier’s original Montgolfier stood ninety feet high. Even a modern hot-air balloon, powered by efficient propane burners, might require sixty thousand cubic feet – standing eighty feet high – to lift two or three men and their equipment safely. And ‘safely’ remains, as always, a relative term.22
fn7 The romantic reputation of Vincenzo Lunardi has nevertheless remained fondly in the British annals of early flight, despite reservations about his recklessly endangering the life of his cat. His use of a magnificent Union Jack design on his balloon canopy was a tactful pro-English response to French aeronautical pretentions. The stone monument recording his landing place still stands on a village green in Hertfordshire. In Alexander Korda’s early black-and-white epic movie The Conquest of the Air (1934), Lunardi – always regarded as a typically Italian ladies’ man – is played with lissom charm and a highly suggestive accent by the young Laurence Olivier.
fn8 The tradition of fantasy shapes still flourishes in modern hot-air ballooning. At the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in October 2010, I saw everything from a Pepsi-Cola can to Mickey Mouse, Darth Vader and Airabelle the Cow with her Beautiful Udder. Why do giant ‘air sculptures’ hold such a perennial fascination? There is something dreamlike about them; they are almost ‘thought-sculptures’. I have never seen one inspired by the human form – e.g. a Venus de Milo balloon; they are usually inspired by cartoon figures, publicity logos
fn9 Such incidents had an interesting effect on the burgeoning new genre of science fiction and fantasy. The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen (a collection of imaginary tales about an actual historical figure) was originally published in German by Rudolf Erich Raspe in 1785, though no balloons appear in this first edition. But with the series of expanded and pirated English versions between 1809 and 1895, balloon fantasies soon abounded. ‘I made a balloon of such extensive dimensions, that an account of the silk it contained would exceed all credibility,’ one tall tale begins. ‘Every mercer’s shop and weaver’s stock in London, Westminster, and Spitalfields contributed to it. With this balloon I played many tricks, such as lifting one house from its station, and placing another in its stead, without disturbing the inhabitants, who were generally asleep.’ With his massive balloon, Munchausen carries Windsor Castle to St Paul’s in London, makes the clock strike thirteen at midnight (for no particular reason), and then airlifts it back again before daylight, ‘without waking any of the inhabitants’. Later, he uses his balloon to levitate the entire building of the Royal College of Physicians. The physicians are in session (i.e. ‘feasting’), so he keeps them suspended several thousand feet in the air for ‘upwards of three months’. The consequence is that, deprived of their medical services, there are absolutely no deaths in the entire population of London, while many clergymen and undertakers go bankrupt. Munchausen adds disingenuously: ‘Notwithstanding these exploits, I should have kept my balloon, and its properties, a secret, if Montgolfier had not made the art of flying so public.’13
fn10 The mysterious, ‘bird-like’ Sophie Blanchard has attracted more romancing than any other female aeronaut. She is the subject of a novel by Linda Doon, The Little Balloonists (2006), in which she enchants Goethe and actually seduces Napoleon. She is also celebrated, like a local saint, at an annual event in the little Italian Alpine town of Montebruno, where she once landed in her balloon. She has become adopted as a feminist heroine, ‘the first professional female aeronaut’, and the film-maker Jen Sachs is making an animated cartoon of her life, The Fantastic Flights of Sophie Blanchard.
fn11 Mary Shelley introduces just such a mysterious, poetic balloon into The Last Man (1825), the science fiction novel intended to follow up her success with Frankenstein. The passage is striking for its sense of movement, light and airy freedom, in a novel which is otherwise notably dark and claustrophobic. Her hero Lionel, faced with a global cholera pandemic which will destroy all mankind, is escaping from London to the Highlands of Scotland:
Everything favoured my journey. The balloon rose about half a mile from the earth, and with a favourable wind it hurried through the air, its feathered vanes cleaving the unopposing atmosphere. Notwithstanding the melancholy object of my journey, my spirits were exhilarated by reviving hope, by the swift motion of the airy pinnace, and the balmy visitation of the sunny air. The pilot hardly moved the plumed steerage, and the slender mechanism of the wings, wide unfurled, gave forth a murmuring noise soothing to the sense. Plain and hill, stream and corn-field, were discernible below, while we unimpeded sped on swift and secure, as a wild swan in his spring-tide flight.2
Yet this balloon is already an anachronism. Mary Shelley thinks of it as a navigable sailing ship, or even a large feathered bird, rather than a practical aerostat. She herself had never been up in one, but she had launched many model fire balloons with Percy Shelley in the early days of their love affair. She knew his sonnet ‘To a Balloon Laden with Knowledge’, always associated his spirit with air and fire, and even gave him a model balloon as a present to celebrate his twenty-fourth birthday in 1816.3
fn12 Telegraph and power lines are still the greatest single hazard to balloonists. When I was in Wellington, New Zealand, in the year 2000, I remember the beautiful hot-air balloons going up on summer mornings and flying low above the tranquil, open farmland, which seemed like a balloonist’s pastoral paradise from a hundred years ago. Yet I was puzzled by the fantastic array of telephone and power lines which seemed to loop down almost every country lane and crossroad. In January 2012 a hot-air balloon carrying ten passengers and a pilot inexplicably struck one of these ten-metre-high power lines while landing in the completely open farming district of Carterton, north of Wellington. It is just possible that the pilot was trying to avoid a pony. The impact was slight, but the basket was snagged and began to drag along the cables, still thirty feet in the air. Then the power lines shorted and arced, the basket started to catch fire, and the two youngest passengers jumped out to save themselves. Suddenly relieved of their weight, the balloon broke free of the cables, shot up to five hundred feet, and burnt like a Roman candle before dropping into the next field. All eleven passengers, including the two who jumped, were killed. The ones who had remained in the basket, including the expert pilot, who had over a thousand hours of flying experience, were so badly burnt that it took several days to identify their individual bodies. Tragedies like this are, thankfully, extremely rare; yet their dark shadow lies behind even the most sunlit moments of ballooning. A balloon flight is never safely over until the basket is on the ground, and the canopy back in the bag.8
fn13 This striking motto has sometimes been rendered in later aviation history as simply ‘Reach for the Sky’, as in the title of Paul Brickhill’s great biography (1954) of the legless fighter pilot Douglas Bader. Certainly the idea of overcoming or escaping earthly difficulties (such as gravity, poverty, imprisonment or having no legs) by soaring upwards into the heavens is deeply embedded in its meaning. This is also, as Green instinctively saw, central to the aspirational metaphysics of ballooning. Thus the full quotation comes from the Icarus section in Book VIII of the Metamorphoses. Daedalus is determined to escape the island of Crete, where he has been imprisoned by Minos. ‘Terras licet’ inquit ‘et undas obstruat; et caelum certe patet; ibimus illac’. ‘“Though he [Minos] may barricade the earth and the waves,” he said, “surely the sky at least stands open; let us go that way.”’ This strangely inspirational motto continues to turn up in thought-provoking places. It was adopted by the Junior Classical League of America when meeting at the University of Richmond, Virginia, in 1984. The League, of course, regards the Classics as under siege. Moreover, Richmond, as we shall soon see, was the besieged capital of the rebel South during the American Civil War, and no stranger to balloons.
fn14 The ambiguity also appears in the use of the word ‘heavens’ or ‘heaven’. Is God up there in space? The implied question is posed, in a similar way to which it was already posed by Lyell’s geology, and would soon be by Darwin’s theory of evolution: Is God back there in time? It has also been suggested that Monck Mason’s highly coloured prose anticipates the way Victorian ballooning would celebrate an unexpectedly ‘feminised’ version of Romantic sublimity in the air. The flight of the Victorian balloonist could be seen to represent a curious Freudian ‘regression’ into a passive, childlike, dreamlike, oceanic or ‘infantile’ state. The aeronaut is suspended ‘above reality’ and the harshness of the Victorian industrial world of labour, regularity, masculine effort and control. See Elaine Freedgood, Victorian Writing About Risk.35
fn15 However, hot-air ballooning was firmly established as an Australian sport by the late twentieth century. In 2008 I made a flight over the capital city, Canberra, crossing low over Lake Burley Griffin at dawn, and attempting to land on the trim lawns of the National Parliament building, until waved away by a genial security officer who threatened to give us a parking ticket.
fn16 The epic jour
fn17 The air ‘box’ is still used by modern hot-air balloonists. There is, for example, a famous north–south ‘box’ above Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is used to stunning effect during the famous mass ascents at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. I have taken off at dawn with three hundred other balloons flying south, and then an hour later, after modestly landing on a downtown baseball field, looked up to see fleets of balloons thousands of feet overhead, steadily returning to their birthplace like some miraculous airborne shoal of glinting salmon returning to their original spawning grounds. The effect of a balloon successfully returning to its launch point after a flight of several hours, a thing that should be logically impossible, is curiously moving and heartwarming. If I were American, I would say it was like your favourite baseball team scoring a home run.
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