1784: A Pioneering – and Musical – Flight Takes Place in the Skies above France

June 4, 1784

A pioneering ascent of a hot-air balloon took place just outside the city of Lyon in southeastern France. This balloon was named the Gustave in honor of King Gustav III of Sweden. The king was visiting Lyon at that time, and he was among those on hand to watch the aircraft take to the skies.

The two passengers in the balloon for the flight were opera singer Élisabeth Thible and someone known to us today as Monsieur Fleurant. Thible, a lifelong resident of Lyon, made history that day as the first woman on record to fly in an untethered hot-air balloon.  (The first men to accomplish that airborne feat were Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes; their unprecedented ascent in a balloon had occurred in the vicinity of Paris in November 1783.)

As originally planned, Thible was not even supposed to be one of the passengers for that June 1784 flight of the Gustave. The initial arrangement was for Count Jean-Baptiste de Laurencin to accompany Fleurant on the flight. The count, however, ended up giving his spot in the balloon to Thible. In January of that year, he had been one of six passengers on a flight of the balloon Le Flesselles in the vicinity of Lyon. That flight turned out to be decidedly traumatic one when the fabric of the balloon began tearing apart and burning. While everyone on board the flight made it back to earth unharmed, it has been speculated that Count Jean-Baptiste de Laurencin was still so shaken by the episode that he ultimately decided not to fly in the Gustave with Fleurant.  

Thible (dressed as the Roman goddess Minerva for the occasion) and Fleurant traveled a distance of 2.5 miles (four kilometers) and reached an estimated height of 4,921 feet (1,500 meters) in the Gustave. During the 45-minute flight, Thible and Fleurant sang two duets from Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny’s 1773 opera La belle Arsène. Those impromptu performances were the first documented renditions of works from an opera to be sung during a flight.

While the overall flight of the Gustave that day was problem-free, the landing of the balloon proved to be somewhat rough. Thible, as a matter of fact, sprained an ankle when the balloon’s basket carrying her and Fleurant hit the ground. Notwithstanding her last-minute injury, Fleurant achieved widespread acclaim for taking part in the flight. Fleurant credited her with not only singing with him during the journey in the skies but also being the one who kept the balloon’s fire box (the source of fuel for that aircraft) fully stoked the whole time. Fleurant also singled out the courage shown by the Thible throughout the flight.

Image Credit: Public Domain

For more information on Élisabeth Thible, please check out Élisabeth Thible – Wikipedia

Additional information on Thible and other female aviation pioneers is available at Smithsonian Libraries Celebrates Women Pioneers in Air & Space – Smithsonian Libraries / Unbound

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