Photographer Enrico Pelos tells the story of Sophie Blanchard, the first woman to fly an aerostat. In 1811 Sophie was invited by the Emperor Napoleon in Milan to give a demonstration: soon the weather became a problem and the wind pushed her balloon away from the original track, up to the mountains of Liguria.
Sophie Madeleine Armant was born in Trois-Canons, close to La Rochelle, on 24th March 1788. She was one of the first women “up in the clouds” on a professional level; she performed more than 60 flights. Other women had flown before her, but only as passengers.
She performed her first flight on 24th January 1810 over the Champs de Mars [in Paris] on the occasion of Napoleon’s wedding with Marie Luise of Austria. She also performed another one in Milan on 15th August 1811 for a celebration in honour of the Emperor. By then she was very beloved by the public, which paid to see her demonstrations;nin some of her flights she was also accompanied by animals and she experimented with the parachute-technology by using dolls. In 1811 during one of her journeys from Rome to Neaples she reached the altitude of 3600 meters thus setting the first ascension record.
In 1811 Sophie was invited to give a demonstration in Milan on the occasion of the Emperor’s birthday. The authorities of the city of Milan gave her full support in case of need and the press also covered the event extensively, inviting the population to go and see what would be her 40th flight.
Back in those days pilots did not have any detailed map, knowledge of the places they would fly over or precise information about the atmospheric pressure, direction of the wind or turbulence, all information essential for modern pilots, who do not even leave the ground without knowing these details.
Sophie did not need weather forecasts or other information, her experience was enough for what was thought to be just a small demonstration of a low altitude ascension. Sophie did not know yet that she would shortly bring a tiny, remote village in an unknown land, to celebrity. The “lady of the air” was standing in a small box tied to the balloon, ready for the take-off, which would happen in a few minutes.
The balloon quickly raised above the ground, following the first favourable ascensiounal stream. Soon clouds gathered around: she could feel the water vapour in the air. The convective heat transfers taking place in the lower layers of the atmosphere and the movement of air masses pushed her further and further. Tiny raindrops and probably pieces of ice could have turned into rain or, worse, snow or hail.
The balloon proceeded in its journey and, after a few minutes, it disappeared from the sight of the public; the people on the spot were really puzzled and interpreted the fact as a sign of bad luck. Visibility was scarce and night was falling. Fog could be coming in and be persistent, thus preventing Sophie from having a clear view of the landing area and hiding potentially dangerous obstacles.
According to Sophie’s account, she soon found herself flying over wide, open spaces; she understood she must be over the mountains of Liguria as she could clearly see the reflection of the sun on the sea surface.
Frightened, she tried a manoeuvre to avoid flying over the sea, which would have been extremely dangerous and where it would have been impossible to receive quick help. Had she landed in the sea, her journey would have almost certainly turned towards a tragic end. It was far more than the kind of demonstrations she was used to give and panic soon took over her: she tried all possible ways to descend to a lower altitude.
It was a summer day, August 16th, and Sophie was wearing summer clothes. Crossing the clouds at that altitude made her shiver. The thought of landing in a wood at night made her worry even more. The mountainous area she was flying over was surely not the ideal spot for landing so Sophie tried to anchor the balloon to the branch of a tree and avoid being pushed back into the clouds. She managed to do so. She had flown the whole distance from Milan to Montebruno, reaching past 1700 meters. Although it must have felt to her like an interminable time, the whole journey took about one hour.
It was a big surprise when, at the break of dawn, the local farmers and shepards saw that peculiar object anchored to the trees. The news spread quickly and more people gathered to see that strange vehicle carrying a female creature from the sky. Something similar had happened some time earlier.
The historian Ferrero wrote:
It is useful to remember that the Virgin Mary appeared in Montebruno in 1478 and, to commemorate the event, a marvellous shrine had been built in her honour with the annexed refectory of the Augustinian monks.
“To the prefect of Genoa. Last night at nine hours after noon, the balloon departed from Milan landed here. On board there was M.me Blanchard, it descended in a wild wood called “la Fricea”, one and a half mile from Montebruno. This morning, at the break of dawn, some of the locals saw this machine, while they took their cattle to the pasture, and took it for a miracle sent from heacen, some for the Virgin Mary, some for thieves, but in their uncertainties they decided to inform the Mayor. When the son of the Mayor arrived on the spot he saw a man was holding this woman in his arms and was venerating her as the Virgin Mary: he told him to let her go and leave. Here it was written in the verbal that M.me Blanchard. When the woman was asked about her name, she replied M.me Blanchard, where did she left from, from Milan, time and date, she replied yesterday at eight hours after noon. Best regards from the office of the Mayor of Montebruno, canton of Torriglia, arrondissement of Genoa, 16th August”.
Sophie spent the whole day in Montebruno and left on the 17th for Torriglia. The priest of Torriglia was waiting for her there, with a lot of curiosity, and he gave her a letter to show to the Prefect of Genoa as Sophie decided to leave immediately. There were many French speakers in Genoa and she was welcomed with respect and great hospitality. Some of them were the notary Jean Antoine Gambaro, the exchange agent Charles Gambaro and the shop owner Jean Antoine Tiboldi. She could speak her language with them and it was in this occasion that she publicly thanked the people and authorities of Montebruno who took care of her so well.
Text adapted from the original article published in Rivista Ligure di Meteorologia, June 2009. Special thanks to Enrico Pelos.
Rivista Ligure di Meteorologia: http://www.nimbus.it/liguria/rlm32/copertina.html
Website of Enrico Pelos: http://www.enricopelos.it/
The illustrated book by Giovanni Ferrero “Sophie Blanchard, amazzone del cielo” can be read online at: http://www.valdaveto.net/pdf/Sophie_Blanchard_amazzone_del_cielo_in_Val_Trebbia.pdf