International Women’s Day

On this International Women’s Day we wanted to highlight an extraordinary woman in the world of ballooning. Sophie Blanchard (1778 – 1819) was not only the first woman to pilot her own balloon but the first ever professional lady balloon pilot in the world! Born in France and from humble beginnings she was just a small child when the first balloon to carry humans set skyward on November 21 in1783, now known as Montgolfier Day. It was the famous Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier who were the inventors of the first balloon to carry people into the air and bring them safely back to earth.

Sophie met and married Jean Pierre Blanchard an inventor and balloonist considerably older than herself who had made his first balloon ascent when Sophie was a mere five years old. In 1785 with an American called John Jeffries, he became one of the first men to fly a balloon over the English Channel from England to France. Jean Pierre soon began touring Europe with his balloon shows and became the first balloonist to fly in America. Before long he decided that having a lady fly with him in the basket would attract more attention and very soon Sophie became part of the show. She took to the air with a great sense of adventure and was fearless to the last, which for many who knew her was rather surprising as it was said that she was rather a timid woman who was afraid of riding in horse drawn carriages. To Sophie, being in a balloon was something she described as a “sensation incomparable.”

Sadly her husband, Jean Pierre, died in 1808 leaving Sophie in huge financial difficulties which prompted her to keep flying not just for fun but out of economic necessity. She often took off at night dropping pyrotechnics from her balloon and started charging the public to attend her performances. Using her flying, showmanship and business skills Sophie managed to pay off all her husband’s debts and become financially independent, which was an incredible feat for the time.

Sophie soon caught the attention of the King of France, Louis XVIII and Napoléon Bonaparte with her aerial escapades which included flying her balloon over the Alps. When Napoleon got married, Sophie set off fireworks from her balloon in celebration. When the Empress had a baby, Sophie dropped leaflets from her balloon whilst flying over Paris to announce the good news to the public.

Sophie Blanchard became famous throughout Europe and Napolean was so enamoured by her he bestowed on her the title of Chief Air Minister of Ballooning. This title was a testament to the huge recognition and respect that Sophie had acquired in the world of aviation, a world that at that time was mainly dominated by men.

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