The Fearless First Female Professional Balloonist

Picture this: it’s 1811. They publish Sense and Sensibility. Ludwig von Beethoven works on his seventh symphony. Napoleon Bonaparte is the First Consul, the Emperor of France. People used horse-drawn carriages to get from one place to another. They teach women a little reading and writing. Women wear modest, long flowing dresses and are expected to have a long life of motherhood and wifehood. Manned flight, balloonomania has the world’s attention. Then the fearless first female professional balloonists took to the air.

drawing of Sophie Blanchard in a dress and a hat with ostrich feathers--she was the 1st female professional balloonist
by Jules Porreau, Public Domain

Early Life

We know little about the Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant childhood or early adulthood. She was born March 25, 1778, near La Rochelle, France. Some records claim she was tiny, nervous, and had bird like features. Most claim riding in horse carriages terrified her. She was born before the first hot-air balloon existed, but it would soon be her professional life.

The Birth of Hot Air Balloons

The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne, were paper manufacturers from Annonay, in Ardèche, France. In 1782, Joseph watched the fire and wondered what force lifted the sparks and smoke. He began experimenting with balloons made from paper, then sackcloth and taffeta.
By 1783, Joseph and his brother devised a thirty-eight feet paper-lined linen bag with alum fireproofing. Held together with 2000 buttons, the device rose to 1000 meters and traveled over a mile. All the animals survived.

In September of that year a sheep, a duck, and a rooster became the first passengers of a hot-air balloon. Then on November 21,1783, science teacher Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent, Marquis d’Arlandes took the first untethered flight in a balloon.

And launched Sophie Blanchard’s fate.

A Balloonist Enters Sophie’s Life

Jean-Pierre Blanchard was an inventor, married and with four children. He took his first balloon flight in Paris in 1784. Sophie was five years old. The hot-air balloon captured his imagination.

He moved to London in August 1784 and took part in a flight with John Sheldon in October. He created propulsion devices for the balloon. Neither his flapping wings nor his windmill were effective.

On his third flight, he flew with American Dr. John Jefferies across the English Channel in two-and-a-half hours. The first balloonists to do so. King Louis XVI awarded him a substantial pension for this daring feat.

He left his wife and children and toured Europe as a balloonist. And holds records as the first balloonist in four European countries.

Records are contradictory, but he married Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant by 1804. The records do not mention how they met.

Bad Times and a First Ride

Jean-Pierre flew his silk balloons all over Europe and in America, too. Spectators watched him launch parachute-equipped dogs and fireworks from the air. But he also falsely advertised himself as the inventor of the balloon and the parachute. He failed at an attempt to create a balloon and parachute academy. And ultimately had a falling out with Dr. John Jeffries. Paying crowds grew thin.

He persuaded Sophie to ride in the balloon. They hoped that a flying female might bring back the paying spectators.

She made her first flight with Jean-Pierre on December 27, 1804, in Marseilles. She’s quoted as saying flight was a “sensation incomparable.” Nervous and timid on the ground, she became the fearless first female professiona balloonist.

The First Female Professional Balloonist

Mongolfier brothers’ hot air balloon from 1783
Public Domain

She wasn’t the first female to ride in a balloon, but in 1805 she made her first solo flight. That made her the first woman to pilot her own balloon. And she became the first woman balloonist to earn her living flying.

She and Jean-Pierre continued to fly their balloons, together and solo, until 1809.

Standing beside Sophie in a tethered basket flying over the Hague, Jean-Pierre had a heart attack and fell out of the balloon. He died of his injuries a year later.

A Solo Career

Sophie continued to fly to pay off creditors. Being a small person and needing to be frugal, she used a smaller balloon with a basket no larger than a chair. To add flair to her shows, she launched fireworks from her balloon.

Napoleon appointed her “aeronaut of the official festivals” and chief air minister of ballooning.

Four years later, King Louis XVII named her “official aeronaut of the restoration.”

She made long-distance flights and crossed the Alps. She paid off her debts. And made a reputation for herself. They called her Madame Blanchard.

She preferred to fly at night and stayed out until dawn. Sometimes she slept in her balloon. Once she passed out and nearly froze above Turin. She landed in a swamp in Naples, the basket tipped, and she nearly drown tangled in the balloon’s ropes. Fortunately, help arrived soon enough. And despite the warnings of how dangerous it was, she set off fireworks beneath her hydrogen balloon.

Last Flight

On July 6, 1819, she appeared at a fete at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris. She wore an elaborate white dress and matching hat with an ostrich plume. Carrying a lit torch, she climbed into her balloons. The winds took her balloon up into the air. She planned a slow-burning display she called “Bengal Fire.”

Whisked away from the gardens by the wind, she lit the pyrotechnics and dropped them by parachute. The baskets of glowing fire usually floated beneath her balloon. A cloud momentarily obscured the crowd’s view. Then a flash lit the night sky. Fireworks pop-popped. And flames shot out of the top of the balloon. The balloon made a rapid descent.

Sophie cut loose ballast over the Rue de Provence to slow her descent. The crowd thought she’d make it safely to the ground. But the basket hit a roof, tipped Sophie out and tangled her in the ropes. She tumbled down the roof and onto the street and died. She was 41.

Madame Blanchard, the fearless first female professional balloonist, became the first female to die in an aviation accident.

The First Fearless Female Professional Balloonist’s Legacy

The monument created for Sophie is a stylistic representation of the first female professional balloonist's balloon--a pillar topped with half a round ball with flames coming out of the top
By Gede, CC BY-SA 3.0

The owners of the Tivoli Gardens donated the event admissions fees for the support of Sophie’s children. But Sophie had no children. So they built a monument for her grave. With a representation of her flaming balloon on top, the French phrase read: “victim of her art and intrepidity.” They donated the rest of the money to the church she attended.

Her death affected many. Some saw it as a cautionary tale and claimed women shouldn’t fly. Yet, she also inspired many. A reference to her appears in books by Jules Verne, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Charles Dickens. Her story inspired the novel, The Little Balloonist, by Linda Donn. And the 2019 film, The Aeronauts, features a character loosely based on her.

For Sophie, flying was a “sensation incomparable.” In a time when women were relegated to the home in traditional roles, she lived her way. A strong woman, Madame Blanchard earned the title of the first fearless female professional balloonist. Had you been in Sophie’s place, would you have been a balloonist?

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