The first aerial crossing of the English Channel was conducted by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries in a gas-filled balloon.
Born to a peasant family in Normandy, Blanchard fled to Paris as a teenager. Here he developed an interest in science and, following the Montgolfier brothers’ successful flight of a hot air balloon in 1783, turned his attention to the new craze. On 2 March the following year Blanchard made his first successful flight at the Champs de Mars in Paris using a hydrogen-filled balloon.
Desperate to achieve fame and fortune, Blanchard moved to London in August 1784 where the population had not yet become caught up in ‘balloonomania’. Blanchard quickly convinced a group of financiers to support him and, alongside the wealthy Dr John Jeffries, Blanchard planned the first aerial crossing of the Channel.
Having provided the necessary funds, Jeffries insisted that he should accompany Blanchard on the flight from Dover to Calais. Unwilling to share the certain fame Blanchard concealed lead weights in his clothes in an attempt to persuade Jeffries that the balloon would be too heavy to carry both of them, but the American discovered the deception and was able to take his place on board.
Soon after departing England, the pair were forced to throw out their ballast and cargo. This included a propeller and a set of oars with which they had hoped to ‘row’ through the air. Barely skimming the tops of the waves, they later urinated over the side in an attempt to reduce the weight before opting to discard their clothes. When they touched down in a forest near Calais, they were wearing nothing but their underwear and the cork life jackets that they had brought in case they crashed into the sea.