225 years ago, North America’s first manned flight
touched down in southern New Jersey. By Pat Fiaschetti
Asparse crowd gathered on Jan- uary 9, 1793, in the courtyard of Philadelphia’s now defunct
Walnut Street Prison. President George
Washington was among the onlookers, as were the four Founding Fathers
who would succeed him: John Adams,
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and
James Monroe. They came to observe
the first hot-air balloon flight in North
America. To avoid paying French
aeronaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s admission fee of $5 (roughly $115 today),
40,000 curiosity seekers watched from
outside the prison walls.
Blanchard had been the first balloon-
ist to fly across the English Channel, and
first to ascend in four European coun-
tries. When he lifted off from Philly at
10:09 that morning, he secured his place
in New World history as well. Blanchard
piloted a ship-shaped wicker basket
attached to a varnished, yellow-silk bal-
loon filled with hydrogen.
Since Blanchard spoke no English,
President Washington provided him
with a signed letter—America’s first air
mail—beseeching property owners to
“oppose no hindrance or molestation to
the said Mr. Blanchard” upon landing.
Blanchard drifted across the Delaware River at 5,812 feet. Foreshadowing
future test pilots, the science-minded
flyer took his pulse at different altitudes,
collected six bottles of air samples and
evaluated the flight’s effect on a lodestone’s magnetic properties.
Forty-six minutes after liftoff,
Blanchard landed in Deptford Town-
ship near Big Timber Creek and the
massive Clement Oak Tree—said to
have been a Lenape landmark even
before Europeans arrived in America.
A frightened farmer brandishing a
pitchfork witnessed the descent. A
second farmer, armed with a musket,
reportedly dropped his gun and lifted
his hands skyward in prayer upon seeing the huge flying ship.
Greeting the growing crowd of
locals, Blanchard presented his cre-
dentials from President Washington.
The letter had the intended effect. The
locals helped Blanchard pack up and
find transport back to Philadelphia.
They also signed a document stating
when and where they saw him land.
Today, Deptford displays its history
with pride. Colorful hot-air balloons
adorn the water tower, an original 1793
newspaper hangs in Town Hall and
markers under the Clement Oak and at
the nearby Deptford Landing shopping
center commemorate Blanchard’s feat.
Every year, the town sponsors a balloon-
coloring and essay contest, awarding
plaques to local students on January 9.
“This was America’s first flight,” says
Mayor Paul Medany, whose annual
retelling of Blanchard’s story will have
special significance on the 225th anni-
versary. “It’s amazing more people don’t
know about it.”
Soon, more will. On March 23,
Blanchard’s flight will be reenacted by
First Air Voyage in America (favia225.
com) during the 2018 Balloon Federa-
tion of America convention in Philadel-
phia. Balloonist Bert Padelt will pilot a
replica basket. If the winds cooperate,
he too will land in Deptford. “Blanchard
probably never thought ballooning
would become a sport,” says Padelt. “I
think he’d have been blown away.”
Do today’s balloonists know about
“That’s like asking a ballplayer who
has the record for the most home runs,”
says Howard Freeman, executive
producer of the annual QuickChek New
Jersey Festival of Ballooning, scheduled
this year for July 27-29. “Most balloonists are historians and appreciate the
significance of Blanchard’s flight.”
Pat Fiaschetti is a freelance writer. Hot-
air balloons frequently fly over her home in