What were those animals thinking?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 31, 2003

The Natchez Democrat

A memorable Great Mississippi River Balloon Race looms large as the weekend approaches. So far, weather prediction icons for Friday through Sunday are fat yellow suns with dreamy daytime temperatures like 74 and 68. Perfect.

No one has reported what kind of weather surrounded the three farm animals in France 200 years ago when they went aloft.

Email newsletter signup

What must the rooster, duck and sheep have thought as they rose above the rural countryside? Chosen to represent the men who had not yet decided a balloon was a safe way to travel, the animals performed as perfect substitutes. They landed safely after an eight-minute flight. The barnyard must have seemed a dull place after that.

Encouraged by the farm animals&8217; success, human aeronauts soon stepped forward to ride the wind themselves.

Balloonists have the right idea about flying &8212; easy up, quiet spin around the tree tops and easy down again. A few friends get together, pull ropes and perform other tricks of the trade and, finally, fire up the vividly colored envelopes &8212; a treat to see for those left on the ground and a sweet trip for those aloft.

Frenchmen Joseph and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier, also more than 200 years ago, experimented with paper and cloth bags filled with heated air. The duo succeeded in getting their linen bag to ascend about 100 feet in 1783.

In that same year, another Frenchman, Pilatre de Rozier made an ascent, another of the very first balloon flights. He rose 84 feet into the air, but his balloon was tethered.

In England, the first known balloon flight took place in 1784, only a year after the flurry of French flying. Ten years passed before the people of America witnessed a balloon performance.

In 1793, Frenchman J.P. Blanchard made an ascent in Philadelphia, Pa., where a large crowd, including George Washington, observed it.

The same pilot was first to make a sea voyage in a balloon. Before his appearance in the United States, he and an American physician named John Jeffries had crossed the English Channel in 1784.

One of the best known balloonists of the 19th century was a woman. Born Mary Breed Hawley, she changed her name to Carlotta, as she felt her real name was too dull for an aeronaut.

By the 1880s, she was well known in the East and made daring and well executed flights in such places as New York City, where in 1886 she succeeded in a triumphant flight across the new Brooklyn Bridge, New York City Hall and other famous landmarks.

Her only child, a daughter, was named Elizabeth Aerial. She flew with her mother when she was only 3 years old.

One early American balloonist dropped dogs and cats in parachutes from his craft. Another dropped leaflets on which he had printed copies of a poem he had written on the joys of flight.

Our Natchez balloonists drop only beanbags, but the competition to hit a target on a barge in the river is anything but dull.

People who fly balloons have not changed much during the last two centuries. They are the same adventurous, spirited people.

Fathers have taught sons and daughters to fly. Daughters have inspired mothers to be balloonists. Husband and wife teams are numerous among balloonists who have taken part in the Natchez races.

So here&8217;s a salute to all the balloonists and their airy pleasure domes. And here&8217;s hoping the skies are perfect for a weekend of awesome sights.

Joan Gandy

is community editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at 445-3549 or by e-mail at