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   Chapter 20 A CHAPTER OF ACCIDENTS.

The Dominion of the Air: The Story of Aerial Navigation By John M. Bacon Characters: 19764

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


It will have been gathered from what has been already stated that the balloonist is commonly in much uncertainty as to his precise course when he is above the clouds, or when unable from darkness to see the earth beneath him. With a view of overcoming this disadvantage some original experiments were suggested by a distinguished officer, who during the seventies had begun to interest himself in aeronautics.

This was Captain Burnaby. His method was to employ two small silk parachutes, which, if required, might carry burning magnesium wires, and which were to be attached to each other by a length of silk thread. On dropping one parachute, it would first partake of the motion of the balloon, but would presently drop below, when the second parachute would be dismissed, and then an imaginary line drawn between the two bodies was supposed to betray the balloon's course. It should be mentioned, however, that if a careful study is made of the course of many descending parachutes it will be found that their behaviour is too uncertain to be relied upon for such a purpose as the above. They will often float behind the balloon's wake, but sometimes again will be found in front, and sometimes striking off in some side direction, so wayward and complex are the currents which control such small bodies. Mr. Glaisher has stated that a balloon's course above the clouds may be detected by observing the grapnel, supposed to be hanging below the car, as this would be seen to be out of the vertical as the balloon drifted, and thus serve to indicate the course. However this may be, the most experienced sky sailors will be found to be in perplexity as to their direction, as also their speed, when view of the earth is obscured.

But Captain Burnaby is associated notably with the adventurous side of ballooning, the most famous of his aerial exploits being, perhaps, that of crossing the English Channel alone from Dover on March 23rd, 1882. Outwardly, he made presence of sailing to Paris by sky to dine there that evening; inwardly, he had determined to start simply with a wind which bid fair for a cross-Channel trip, and to take whatever chances it might bring him.

Thus, at 10.30 a.m., just as the mail packet left the pier, he cast off with a lifting power which rapidly carried him to a height of 2,000 feet, when he found his course to be towards Folkestone. But by shortly after 11 o'clock he had decided that he was changing his direction, and when, as he judged, some seven miles from Boulogne, the wind was carrying him not across, but down the Channel. Then, for nearly four hours, the balloon shifted about with no improvement in the outlook, after which the wind fell calm, and the balloon remained motionless at 2,000 feet above the sea. This state of things continuing for an hour, the Captain resolved on the heroic expedient of casting out all his ballast and philosophically abiding the issue. The manoeuvre turned out a happy one, for the balloon, shooting up to 11,000 feet, caught a current, on which it was rapidly carried towards and over the main land; and, when twelve miles beyond Dieppe, it became easy to descend to a lower level by manipulation of the valve, and finally to make a successful landing in open country beyond.

A few years before, an attempt to cross the Channel from the other side ended far more disastrously. Jules Duruof, already mentioned as having piloted the first runaway balloon from beleaguered Paris, had determined on an attempt to cross over to England from Calais; and, duly advertising the event, a large concourse assembled on the day announced, clamouring loudly for the ascent. But the wind proved unsuitable, setting out over the North Sea, and the mayor thought fit to interfere, and had the car removed so as to prevent proceedings. On this the crowd grew impatient, and Duruof, determining to keep faith with them, succeeded by an artifice in regaining his car, which he hastily carried back to the balloon, and immediately taking his seat, and accompanied by his wife, the intrepid pair commenced their bold flight just as the shades of evening were settling down. Shortly the balloon disappeared into the gathering darkness, and then for three days Calais knew no more of balloon or balloonists.

Neither could the voyagers see aught for certain of their own course, and thus through the long night hours their attention was wholly needed, without chance of sleep, in closely watching their situation, lest unawares they should be borne down on the waves. When morning broke they discovered that they were still being carried out over the sea on a furious gale, being apparently off the Danish coast, with the distant mountains of Norway dimly visible on the starboard bow. It was at this point, and possibly owing to the chill commonly experienced aloft soon after dawn, that the balloon suddenly took a downward course and plunged into the sea, happily, however, fairly in the track of vessels. Presently a ship came in sight, but cruelly kept on its course, leaving the castaways in despair, with their car fast succumbing to the waves.

Help, nevertheless, was really at hand. The captain of an English fishing smack, the Grand Charge, had sighted the sinking balloon, and was already bearing down to the rescue. It is said that when, at length, a boat came alongside as near as it was possible, Madame Duruof was unable to make the necessary effort to jump on board, and her husband had to throw her into the arms of the sailors. A fitting sequel to the story comes from Paris, where the heroic couple, after a sojourn in England, were given a splendid reception and a purse of money, with which M. Duruof forthwith constructed a new balloon, named the "Ville de Calais."

On the 4th of March, 1882, the ardent amateur balloonist, Mr. Simmons, had a narrow escape in circumstances somewhat similar to the above. He was attempting, in company with Colonel Brine, to cross the Channel from Canterbury, when a change of wind carried them out towards the North Sea. Falling in the water, they abandoned their balloon, but were rescued by the mail packet Foam.

The same amateur aeronaut met with an exciting experience not long after, when in company with Sir Claude C. de Crespigny. The two adventurers left Maldon, in Essex, at 11 p.m., on an August night, and, sailing at a great height out to sea, lost all sight of land till 6 a.m. the next morning, when, at 17,000 feet altitude, they sighted the opposite coast and descended in safety near Flushing.

Yet another adventure at sea, and one which proved fatal and unspeakably regrettable, occurred about this time, namely, on the 10th of December, 1881, when Captain Templer, Mr. W. Powell, M.P., and Mr. Agg-Gardner ascended from Bath. We prefer to give the account as it appears in a leading article in the Times for December 13th of that year.

After sailing over Glastonbury, "Crewkerne was presently sighted, then Beaminster. The roar of the sea gave the next indication of the locality to which the balloon had drifted and the first hint of the possible perils of the voyage. A descent was now effected to within a few hundred feet of earth, and an endeavour was made to ascertain the exact position they had reached. The course taken by the balloon between Beaminster and the sea is not stated in Captain Templer's letter. The wind, as far as we can gather, must have shifted, or different currents of air must have been found at the different altitudes. What Captain Templer says is that they coasted along to Symonsbury, passing, it would seem, in an easterly direction and keeping still very near to the earth. Soon after they had left Symonsbury, Captain Templer shouted to a man below to tell them how far they were from Bridport, and he received for answer that Bridport was about a mile off. The pace at which the balloon was moving had now increased to thirty-five miles an hour. The sea was dangerously close, and a few minutes in a southerly current of air would have been enough to carry them over it. They seem, however, to have been confident in their own powers of management. They threw out ballast, and rose to a height of 1,500 feet, and thence came down again only just in time, touching the ground at a distance of about 150 yards from the cliff. The balloon here dragged for a few feet, and Captain Templer, who had been letting off the gas, rolled out of the car, still holding the valve line in his hand. This was the last chance of a safe escape for anybody. The balloon, with its weight lightened, went up about eight feet. Mr. Agg-Gardner dropped out and broke his leg. Mr. Powell now remained as the sole occupant of the car. Captain Templer, who had still hold of the rope, shouted to Mr. Powell to come down the line. This he attempted to do, but in a few seconds, and before he could commence his perilous descent, the line was torn out of Captain Templer's hands. All communication with the earth was cut off, and the balloon rose rapidly, taking Mr. Powell with it in a south-easterly direction out to sea."

It was a few seasons previous to this, namely, on the 8th of July, 1874, when Mr. Simmons was concerned in a balloon fatality of a peculiarly distressing nature. A Belgian, Vincent de Groof, styling himself the "Flying Man," announced his intention of descending in a parachute from a balloon piloted by Mr. Simmons, who was to start from Cremorne Gardens. The balloon duly ascended, with De Groof in his machine suspended below, and when over St. Luke's Church, and at a height estimated at 80 feet, it is thought that the unfortunate man overbalanced himself after detaching his apparatus, and fell forward, clinging to the ropes. The machine failed to open, and De Groof was precipitated into Robert Street, Chelsea, expiring almost immediately. The porter of Chelsea Infirmary,

who was watching the balloon, asserted that he fancied the falling man called out twice, "Drop into the churchyard; look out!" Mr. Simmons, shooting upwards in his balloon, thus suddenly lightened, to a great height, became insensible, and when he recovered consciousness found himself over Victoria Park. He made a descent, without mishap, on a line of railway in Essex.

On the 19th of August, 1887, occurred an important total eclipse of the sun, the track of which lay across Germany, Russia, Western Siberia, and Japan. At all suitable stations along the shadow track astronomers from all parts of the world established themselves; but at many eclipses observers had had bad fortune owing to the phenomenon at the critical moment being obscured. And on this account one astronomer determined on measures which should render his chances of a clear view a practical certainty. Professor Mendeleef, in Russia, resolved to engage a balloon, and by rising above the cloud barrier, should there be one, to have the eclipse all to himself. It was an example of fine enthusiasm, which, moreover, was presently put to a severe and unexpected test, for the balloon, when inflated, proved unable to take up both the aeronaut and the astronomer, whereupon the latter, though wholly inexperienced, had no alternative but to ascend alone, which, either by accident or choice, he actually did. Shooting up into space, he soon reached an altitude of 11,500 feet, where he obtained, even if he did not enjoy, an unobstructed view of the Corona. It may be supposed, however, that, owing to the novelty of his situation, his scientific observations may not have been so complete as they would have been on terra firma.

In the same month an attempt to reach a record height was made by MM. Jovis and Mallet at Paris, with the net result that an elevation of 23,000 feet was reached. It will have been noted that the difficulty through physical exhaustion of inhaling oxygen from either a bag or cylinder is a serious matter not easily overcome, and it has been suggested that the helmet invented by M. Fleuss might prove of value. This contrivance, which has scarcely attracted the attention it has merited, provides a receptacle for respiration, containing oxygen and certain purifying media, by means of which the inventor was able to remain for hours under water without any communication with the outward air.

About the period at which we have now arrived two fatal accidents befel English aeronauts. We have related how Maldon, in Essex, was associated with one of the more adventurous exploits in Mr. Simmons's career. It was fated also to be associated with the voyage with which his career closed. On August 27th, 1888, he ascended from Olympia in company with Mr. Field, of West Brighton, and Mr. Myers, of the Natural History Museum, with the intention, if practicable, of crossing to Flanders; and the voyage proceeded happily until the neighbourhood of Maldon was reached, when, as the sea coast was in sight, and it was already past five o'clock, it appeared prudent to Mr. Simmons to descend and moor the balloon for the night. Some labourers some three miles from Maldon sighted the balloon coming up at speed, and at the same time descending until its grapnel commenced tearing through a field of barley, when ballast was thrown out, causing the balloon to rise again towards and over some tall elms, which became the cause of the disaster which followed. The grapnel, catching in the upper boughs of one of these trees, held fast, while the balloon, borne by the force of a strong wind, was repeatedly blown down to earth with violence, rebounding each time to a considerable height, only to be flung down again on the same spot. After three or four impacts the balloon is reported to have burst with a loud noise, when high in the air, the silk being blown about over the field, and the car and its occupants dashed to the ground. Help was unavailing till this final catastrophe, and when, at length, the labourers were able to extricate the party, Mr. Simmons was found with a fractured skull and both companions badly injured.

Four summers later, June 30th, 1892, Captain Dale, the aeronaut to the Crystal Palace, was announced to make an ascent from the usual balloon grounds, weather permitting. Through the night and morning a violent storm prevailed, and it was contemplated that the exhibition would be withdrawn; but the wind abating in the afternoon, the inflation was proceeded with, and the ascent took place shortly before 6 p.m., not, however, before a large rent had been discovered and repaired as far as possible by Mrs. Dale. As passengers, there ascended the Captain's son William, aged nineteen, Mr. J. Macintosh, and Mr. Cecil Shadbolt. When the balloon had reached an altitude estimated at 600 feet the onlookers were horrified to see it suddenly collapse, a large rent having developed near the top part of the silk, from which the gas "rushed out in a dense mass, allowing the balloon to fall like a rag." The occupants of the car were seen to be throwing out everything madly, even wrenching the buttons from their clothing. All, however, with little avail, for the balloon fell "with a sickening thud," midway between the Maze and lower lake. All were found alive; but Captain Dale, who had alighted on his back, died in a few minutes; Mr. Shadbolt succumbed later, and both remaining passengers sustained terrible injuries.

Few balloon mishaps, unattended with fatal results, have proved more exciting than the following. A large party had ascended from Belfast, in a monster balloon, under the guidance of Mr. Coxwell, on a day which was very unfit for the purpose by reason of stormy weather. A more serious trouble than the wind, however, lay in several of the passengers themselves, who seem to have been highly excitable Irishmen, incapable at the critical moment of quietly obeying orders.

The principal hero of the story, a German. Mr. Runge, in writing afterwards to the Ulster Observer, entirely exonerates Mr. Coxwell from any blame, attributing his mischances solely to the reprehensible conduct of his companions. On approaching the ground, Mr. Coxwell gave clear instructions. The passengers were to sit down in an unconstrained position facing each other, and be prepared for some heavy shocks. Above all things they were to be careful to get out one by one, and on no account to leave hold of the car. Many of the passengers, however, refused to sit down, and, according to Mr. Runge, "behaved in the wildest manner, losing completely their self-control. Seizing the valve rope themselves, they tore it away from its attachment, the stronger pushing back the weaker, and refusing to lend help when they had got out. In consequence of this the car, relieved of their weight, tore away from the grasp of Mr. Coxwell and those who still clung to it, and rose above the trees, with Mr. Runge and one other passenger, Mr. Halferty, alone within. As the balloon came earthwards again, they shouted to the countrymen for succour, but without the slightest avail, and presently, the anchor catching, the car struck the earth with a shock which threw Mr. Halferty out on the ground, leaving Mr. Runge to rise again into the air, this time alone." He thus continues the story:-

"The balloon moved on, very soon, in a horizontal direction straight towards the sea, which we were then rapidly nearing. Coming to a farm, I shouted out to the people standing there. Some women, with their quick humane instincts, were the first to perceive my danger, and exhorted the men to hurry to my assistance, they themselves running as fast as they could to tender what little help they might be able to give me. The anchor stuck in a willow tree. I shouted out to the people below to secure the cable and anchor by ropes, which they did. The evening was now beautifully still, the breeze had died away, and the balloon was swinging calmly at her moorings above the farmhouse. One of the men asked me whether I had a rope with me, and how I intended to get out. I told them only to take care of the cable, because the balloon would settle down by herself before long. I was congratulating myself on a speedy escape from my dangerous position. I had not counted on the wind. A breeze in about six or eight minutes sprang up, tossed the balloon about like a large sail, then a crash, and-the anchor was loose again. It tore through the trees, flinging limbs and branches about like matches. It struck the roof of the farmhouse, splintering the chimneys and tiles like glass.

"On I went; I came near another farm; shouted out for help, and told the men to secure the anchor to the foot of a large tree close by. The anchor was soon made fast, but this was only a momentary relief. The breeze again filled the half-empty balloon like a sail, there was a severe strain on the cable, then a dull sound, and a severe concussion of the basket-the cable, strange fatality, had broken, and the anchor, my last and only hope, was gone. I was now carried on in a straight direction towards the sea, which was but a short distance ahead. The anchor being lost I gave up all hope. I sat down resigned in the car, and prepared for the end. All at once I discovered that a side current was drifting me towards the mountain; the car struck the ground, and was dashing along at a fearful rate, knocking down stone fences and breaking everything it came in contact with in its wild career. By-and-by the knocks became less frequent. We were passing over a cultivated country, and the car was, as it were skimming the surface and grazing the top of the hedges. I saw a thick hawthorn hedge at some distance before me, and the balloon rapidly sweeping towards it. That was my only chance. I rushed to the edge of the car and flung myself down upon the hedge."

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