Tag Archives: Lighter-Than-Air

14 July 1897

The hydrogen balloon Örnen (Eagle) on the polar ice cap, 14 July 1897. (Nils Strindberg)

14 July 1897: At 8:11 p.m., G.M.T., the Andrée Arctic Expedition’s hydrogen gas balloon, Örnen (Eagle), came to rest on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean, at N. 82° 52′, E. 29° 32′. ¹ This was the end of a planned transpolar flight and the beginning of a three-month struggle for survival.

Balloon Örnen (Eagle) in its protective enclosure, Danes Island, Spitzbergen, Norway. (Andréemuseet, Griänna, Sweden)

At 1:50 p.m., 11 July 1897, Örnen rose from its protective enclosure on Danskøya (Danes Island) in the Svalbard Archipelago of Norway. Carried aloft in the balloon’s gondola were the expedition’s leader, Salomon August Andrée, and his fellow explorers, Knut Hjakmar Ferdinand Frænkel and Nils Strindberg.

Intrepid aeronauts: Left to right, Gustav Vilhem Emanuel Swedenborg (alternate); Nils Strindberg; Knut Hjakmar Ferdinand Frænkel; Salomon August Andrée (seated). (Andréemuseet, Griänna, Sweden)

The goal of the expedition was to fly across the North Pole and onward to Alaska on the North American Continent. Andrée considered that the balloon would need to retain enough gas during the voyage to remain airborne for 30 days. Supplies for the three men for that period were carried. 36 homing pigeons would allow the explorers to report their progress to the outside world.

This would be the expedition’s second attempt. The previous year, adverse winds forced the aeronauts to abandon the flight.

Balloon Örnen in its protective enclosure, Danes Island, Spitzbergen, Norway. (Andréemuseet, Griänna, Sweden)
Henri Lachambre

Örnen had been designed and manufactured by Henri Lachambre at his balloon factory at Vaugirard, a suburb on the Left Bank of the Seine, Paris, France. The envelope was assembled from approximately 3,360 pieces of a thin woven Chinese silk fabric called pongee, stitched by hand. The seams were covered by glued strips of pongee. The upper two-thirds of the gas bag had three layers of fabric, while the lower one-third had two plies. It is estimated that 8 million stitches were required. Once completed, the envelope was covered with varnish.

The gondola was constructed of wood and wicker. It had an upper, observation, deck, and an enclosed lower sleeping quarters/darkroom.

A net made of more than 300 hemp ropes covered the balloon, and were braided into twelve ropes which were attached to a lifting ring. The gondola was suspended below this. At Sea Level, the inflated balloon with its gondola were approximately 97 feet (29.6 meters) high, and 68 feet (20.7 meters) in diameter. Its total volume is estimated at 4,800 cubic meters (approximately 170,000 cubic feet).

Buoyancy was provided by hydrogen gas which was produced on site at Danskøya. Hydrogen is the lightest element, and gaseous hydrogen has just 7% of the density of air. This provides greater buoyancy for lighter-than-air vehicles than other gases, but hydrogen gas molecules are also the smallest and they diffuse through fabric barriers more easily than any other gas. (Tests before Örnen was launched found that the balloon was losing about 35 cubic meters/1,236 cubic feet of hydrogen each day.)

Balloons have a disadvantage in that they go where the wind takes them. They are not steerable like dirigibles. So, steady southerly winds would be needed to carry Örnen to the North Pole, and northerly winds to travel from there to Alaska. Andrée had a theory that he believed would allow him to steer his balloon as much as 30° to either side of the prevailing wind.

Andrée’s idea was that if several long, heavy ropes were dragged behind the balloon, their weight and friction would cause the balloon to travel slower than the wind was blowing. He could then use two small sails to steer.

Örnen with guide ropes dragging in the water.

Also, these ropes could be used to control the balloon’s altitude. By pulling the ropes in, the weight supported by the balloon would increase, and it would descend. Letting more rope out would mean that the extra weight would be transferred to the surface, and the balloon would rise.

Altitude was critical. Andrée planned to maintain about 150 meters (approximately 500 feet). As the balloon ascended, atmospheric pressure on the envelope decreased. The pressure differential between the atmosphere and the hydrogen would increase, forcing the hydrogen to pass through the envelope more quickly. Any hydrogen loss was permanent, and the balloon’s buoyancy would decrease.

Balloon Örnen airborne, around 2:00 p.m., 11 July 1897. The wake of the steering ropes can be seen on the surface of the sea. (Andréemuseet, Griänna, Sweden)

Problems began immediately. As the guide ropes dragged through the water, they became heavier. They pulled the balloon down to the surface and the gondola actually touched the water. The aeronauts frantically began dumping ballast. Three of the four ropes became entangled and were pulled loose. Örnen began to rise again, but having lost ballast and the weight of the three guide ropes, it climbed to about 1,600 feet (490 meters). The loss of hydrogen accelerated.

The Eagle floated northward above a fog bank. It sank into the fog and sunlight shining on the envelope decreased. The balloon cooled and the gas inside began to contract. Buoancy decreased and the balloon sank further into the fog.

An alternating pattern of rising and falling developed. After the explorers passed into the Arctic ice pack, the gondola would alternately bounce across the broken ice, then rise again into the sky. At about 10:00 p.m., July 12, the gondola settled on to the ice and remained there for the next thirteen hours.

At 10:55 a.m., 13 July, once again airborne, the balloon continued on its flight. Drizzle and fog caused ice to form on the envelope. The gondola dragged behind. After jettisoning hundreds of pounds of ballast and equipment, Örnen rose higher, but again settled toward the ice. The remaining guide rope was lost. Realizing that the end of the flight was inevitable, the crew opened to valves to release the hydrogen. The balloon settled to the ice, and at 8:11 p.m., 14 July 1897, the crew climbed down from the gondola onto the ice floe.

Örnen on the arctic ice, 14 July 1897 (Nils Strindberg)

The total elapsed time of the journey was 65 hours, 35 minutes. In that time, Andrée, Frænkel and Strindberg had traveled 295 miles (475 kilometers) from their starting point on Danskøya.

The next three months were a courageous battle for survival as the three explorers tried to make their way back to civilization. They reached Kvitøya (White Island), an ice-covered island at the northeast of the Svalbard Archipelago. Andrée’s final journal entry was made on 17 October.

The bodies of the three men were discovered in 1930. Their remains were taken to Sweden.

There is much speculation as to the cause of their deaths, ranging from exposure, exhaustion, illness, suicide, or bear attack.

Track of the 1897 Andrée Arctic Expedition.

The expedition left behind journals with detailed meteorological data and other observations. More than 200 photographic images were left on film negatives protected in metal canisters.

The 1897 Andrée Arctic Expedition is the subject of books, newspaper and magazine articles, at least one motion picture, as well as many Internet articles of varying detail. The images taken by Nils Strindberg are available on the Internet and tell of their experiences.

Salomon August Andrée (18 October 1854–1897)

¹ Geographic location of Örnen‘s landing site from the Comité International d’Aérostation (CIA, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Ballooning Commission).

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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2 June 1957

Captain Joseph W. Kittinger II, U.S. Air Force, seated in the gondola of Project Manhigh I, 2 June 1957. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., U.S. Air Force, seated in the gondola of Project MANHIGH I, 2 June 1957. Captain Kittinger is wearing a slightly-modified David Clark Co. MC-3A capstan-type partial-pressure suit (S836) and ILC Dover MA-2 helmet for protection at very high altitudes. (U.S. Air Force)
Project Manhigh I balloon and gondola. (U.S. Air Force)
Project MANHIGH I balloon and gondola. (U.S. Air Force)

2 June 1957: At 6:23 a.m., Central Daylight Time (11:23 UTC), Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., United States Air Force, lifted off from Richard E. Fleming Field (SGS), South Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the gondola of a helium balloon designed and built by Winzen Research Inc.

At 8:04 a.m. (13:04 UTC), Captain Kittinger reached a pressure altitude of 95,000 feet (28,956 meters). This was only 400 feet (122 meters) short of the balloon’s theoretical pressure ceiling. Using U.S. Weather Bureau data, the linear altitude of the balloon was calculated to have been 97,000 feet (29,566 meters).¹

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) was not asked to certify this flight, so an official record was not set.

Project MANHIGH I was intended to test various equipment and human physiology in a near-space condition. Cosmic radiation was a particular concern. This was the first of many high-altitude research balloon flights that Kittinger would make.

“… A Winzen crew conducted the launching, as provided by the Man-High contract, in collaboration with members of the Aeromedical Field Laboratory and other units at Holloman. The 475th Air Base Squadron, Minneapolis, provided additional helicopter support. The vehicle was a two-million-cubic-foot plastic balloon, 172.6 feet in diameter, which quickly reached the planned ceiling altitude of 95,000 feet, setting a new record for manned balloons. Test specifications called for a twelve-hour flight. However, because of an oxygen leak (due to an improperly connected valve) and also certain communications difficulties, Colonel Stapp and Mr. Winzen decided that Captain Kittinger should come down after not quite two hours at altitude. The balloon pilot was not happy with the decision, replying by radio, “Come and get me.” But he did come down, and landed successfully at 1257 hours none the worse for his experience.

History of Research in Space Biology and Biodynamics, Part II, Chapter 3, NASA History Office, December 1958.

Kittinger landed next to a stream approximately 7 miles (11 kilometers) south-southwest of Alma, Minnesota. The total duration of his flight was 6 hours, 36 minutes. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first of six he would receive during his career in the Air Force.

Ground track of Project MAN-HIGH I balloon, 2 June 1957.
Ground track of Project MANHIGH I balloon, 2 June 1957. (U.S. Air Force)

The Project MANHIGH balloon and gondola were designed and built by Winzen Research, Inc., South St. Paul, Minnesota. The gondola was used in all three MANHIGH flights (Kittinger, June 1957; Simons, August 1957; McClure, October 1958).

The balloon was constructed of polyethelene sheet with a thickness of  2 mils (0.002 inch/0.051 millimeter). The seams were bonded using a heat-sealing technique which had been developed by Otto Winzen. When fully inflated with helium, the envelope had a volume of 2,000,000 cubic feet (56,634 cubic meters) and diameter of 172.6 feet (52.6 meters).

Illustration of Project MANHIGH gondola. (U.S. Air Force)

The gondola is 8 feet high and 3 feet in diameter (2.4 × 0.9 meters). It consisted of a cast aluminum section with 6 portholes which served as the primary load-bearing unit of the gondola. The rest of the gondola consisted of an aluminum alloy cylinder and two hemispherical end caps. The capsule was pressurized and filled with a 60-20-20 mixture of oxygen, nitrogen, and helium.

The gondola was suspended from an open 40.4 foot (12.3 meter) diameter parachute, which was, in turn, attached the gas balloon’s suspension rigging. Four explosive devices could sever the attachments and release the gondola and parachute.

The balloon, parachute and associated equipment weighed 1,012 pounds (459 kilograms). The gondola and installed equipment weighed 598 pounds (271 kilograms) and carried another 246 pounds (112 kilograms) of used lead-acid batteries as ballast. Kittinger, with his personal equipment, food and water, added 240 pounds (109 kilograms) to the payload. Finally, there was 70 pounds (32 kilograms) of equipment for experiments, cameras and film. The total weight came to 2,166 pounds (982 kilograms).

The Project MANHIGH gondola is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Project MANHIGH gondola at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

Joe Kittinger flew three combat tours during the Vietnam War for a total of 483 combat missions. On 1 March 1972, flying a McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II, he shot down an enemy Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21. He was himself shot down on 11 May 1972. He and his Weapons System Officer, 1st Lieutenant William J. Reich, were captured and spent 11 months at the Hanoi Hilton.

Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., United States Air Force.
Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., United States Air Force. Captain Kittinger is wearing the wings of an Air Force Senior Pilot and an Air Force Basic Parachutist Badge. The red, white and blue striped ribbon represents the Distinguished Flying Cross. (U.S. Air Force)

Joe Kittenger holds six Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world records for distance set with balloons. Three are still current.² In 2012, he was technical advisor for Felix Baumgartner as he set a new world record for the highest parachute jump from the Red Bull Stratos balloon and gondola.

Vera Winzen, founder and owner of Winzen Research, Inc. The Project MAN-HIGH gondola is in the background. (Joel Yale)

Winzen Research, Inc. was formed in 1949 by Otto Christian Winzen, an aeronautical engineer, and his wife, Vera M. Habrecht Winzen. Both were immigrants from Germany. Mr. Winzen had previously worked for the gas balloon laboratory of General Mills, Inc. Mrs. Winzen had borrowed money from her parents to start the company and held a 2/3 ownership of the company. She ran the factory and trained its workers. She also had four U.S. patents related to balloon construction.

Otto Christian Winzen was born 24 October 1917, at Cologne, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany. He was the son of Christian Winzen and Lilly Lerche Winzen. At the age of 19, Winzen sailed from Bremen, Germany, aboard the Norddeutsche Lloyd passenger liner S.S. Europa, on 29 June 1937. He arrived at New York City, New York, United States of America, on 5 July 1937.

Winzen studied aeronautical engineering at University of Detroit Mercy, a private Roman Catholic university in Detroit, Michigan. It was the first university to offer a complete 5-year degree program in aeronautical engineering. While there, he met the world famous aeronaut, Jean Felix Picard, and his future wife, Vera Habracht.

Reportedly, during World War II, Otto Winzen was interred as an enemy alien.

Otto Winzen later married Marion Grzyll. He committed suicide 23 November 1979 (the first Mrs. Winzen’s 59th birthday).

Major David G. Simons, M.D., U,S, Air Force, at left, with the Project MANHIGH gondola, Otto C. Winzer, and Vera M. Winzer (the future Mrs. Simons), circa 1957. (Photograph by Joel Yale/LIFE Photo Collection)

Wera Maria Habrecht was born 23 November 1920 at Heidenheim, Germany. She was the first of two children of Max Theodore Habrecht, a commercial photographer, and Maya Widenmann Habrecht. The family emigrated to the United States in 1923, with Mr. Habrecht traveling there first. Mrs. Habrecht followed later with her children, Wera and Roland. They first sailed from Hamburg, Germany, 13 November 1923, to the British seaport of Grimsby, Lincolnshire, aboard the passenger/cargo ship S.S. Dewsbury. On 16 Novemberl  the family boarded S.S. Montlaurier at Liverpool, England, and then sailed for New York City. The Habrecht family settled in Detroit, Michigan.

Vera M. Habrecht, 1939. (The Triangle)

With her first name “americanized,” Vera M. Habrecht attended Cass Technical High School in Detroit, Michigan, graduating in 1939. She then studied art at the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis School of Art, both in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Miss Habrecht was introduced to Mr. Winzer by Professor Picard. They were married 1 February 1941, in Detroit.³ They divorced in 1958.

Mrs. Winzer was herself an aeronaut. In 1957 she competed in the 30th Annual International Gas Balloon Races in Holland.

During Project MANHIGH, she met Major David G. Simons, M.D., U.S.A.F. Major Simons flew the MANHIGH II mission, 19–20 August 1957. They were married 12 June 1959. It was the second marriage for both. This marriage also ended in divorce, 5 May 1969. Dr. Simons died 5 April 2010.

On 26 May 1975, she married her third husband, Clifford Charles La Plante, at Arlington, Virginia.

While conducting pollution research Mrs. La Plante, under the name Vera M. Simons, set a Comité International d’Aérostation (the FAI Ballooning Commission, or CIA, world record for the Longest Flight for a Female Pilot, at 133 hours, 45 minutes, 1 October 1979.⁴

Vera Maria Habrecht Winzer Simons La Plante died at Austin, Texas, 31 July 2012, at the age of 91 years.

Vera Simons with a gas balloon, Holland, 1975. (NASM)

¹ Air Force Missile Development Center Technical Report MANHIGH I, AFMDC-TR-59-24, Pages 33 and 35

² FAI Record File Numbers 1045, 1046, 1047

³ Some sources state that Mrs. Winzen had been married previously, and that she had a daughter from that marriage. TDiA has not found any information to support this claim.

⁴ CIA Record File Number AA002

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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26 May 1909

This photograph shows LZ-5 backing out of its floating shed on Lake Constance, just before its first flight. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
This photograph shows LZ-5 backing out of its floating shed on Lake Constance, just before its first flight. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin (1838–1917) (Bundesarchive)
Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin (Bundesarchive)

26 May 1909: The creation of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the rigid airship LZ-5 made its first flight at Lake Constance (Bodensee).

This was an experimental airship, 442 feet (136 meters) long, with a diameter of 42 feet (13 meters). Powered by two Daimler engines producing 105 horsepower each, it was capable of 30 miles per hour. The structure of the airship was a framework built of a light alloy covered with a fabric skin. Buoyancy was provided by hydrogen gas stored inside the envelope.

LZ-5 was purchased by the army and renamed ZII. It was destroyed in a storm 24 April 1910.

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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11–14 May 1926

Airship Norge departing Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, Norway, 11 May 1926.
Roald Amundsen, 1923 (UPI/Bettmann)

11–14 May 1926: The famed Norwegian arctic explorer, Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen, departed Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, Norway, aboard the semi-rigid airship Norge.

The airship had been designed by Colonel Umberto Nobile and built at the Italian State Airship Factory at Rome, originally named simply N1. In discussions between Amundsen and Nobile, it was determined that N1 was not suitable for an arctic flight, but Amundsen didn’t want to wait for a new lighter-than-air craft to be be built, so Nobile modified it. Amundsen purchased N1 and re-named it Norge.

According to an article in the 20 March 1924 edition of Flight, the airship was 106 meters (347 feet, 8 inches) in length, 26 meters (85 feet, 3 inches) in height, with a maximum diameter of 19.5 meters (64 feet). Buoyancy was provided by 19,000 cubic meters (670,700 cubic feet) of hydrogen. The airship had a useful load of 10,850 kilograms (10.5 tons). Its maximum speed was 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour).

Norge was propelled by three water-cooled, normally-aspirated 23.093 liter (1,409.225 cubic inch) Maybach-Motorenbau GmbH Mb.IV inline six-cylinder overhead valve (OHV) engines with four valves per cylinder and a compression ratio of 6.88:1. The engine was able to produce 240 pferdstarke (236.7 horsepower) at 1,400 r.p.m. The engines were placed in gondolas suspended by cables under the hull, and drove propellers through a clutch. A reverse gear was available.

With a 16-man expedition and Umberto Nobile as pilot, Amundsen departed Ny-Ålesund at 9:55 a.m., enroute to Nome, Alaska, via the North Pole. Norge arrived at the Pole at 1:25 a.m. GMT, 12 May, and descending to an altitude of 300 feet (91 meters), dropped three flags, Norwegian, Italian and American, then proceeded south to Alaska. The explorers arrived at Teller at 3:30 a.m., 14 May, and due to adverse weather conditions, ended their flight at that location. Norge had covered 3,393 miles (5,460.5 kilometers).

Airship Norge landing at Teller, Alaska. (Getty Images/Archive Photos/Pictorial Parade)
Airship Norge landing at Teller, Alaska, 14 May 1926. (Getty Images/Archive Photos/Pictorial Parade)

Amundsen’s flight began just two days after that of Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett aboard their Fokker F.VII/3m, Josephine Ford. Byrd’s flight has been the subject of some controversy as to whether they actually had arrived at the North Pole. The flight of Norge is undisputed.

Airship Norge, 1926 (Bain News Service)
Airship Norge, 1926 (Bain News Service)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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12 May 1902

Augusto Severo de Albuquerque Maranhão. (Musée de l'air)
Augusto Severo de Albuquerque Maranhão. (Musée de l’air)

12 May 1902: Aeronaut Augusto Severo de Albuquerque Maranhão and engineer Georges Saché lifted off aboard the semi-rigid airship Pax, which Severo had designed, at Vaugirard, Paris.

This was Severo’s second airship. He had designed and built a larger craft, Bartolomeu de Gusmão, eight years earlier in Brazil. It had been destroyed by gusty winds. After raising enough to build a new ship, he went to Paris. His new airship was a semi-rigid keel-and-girder type. The envelope was silk but it was given some rigidity by a structure of bamboo.

The craft was approximately 30 meters (98.4 feet) long and 12.4 meters (40.7 feet) in diameter. The volume of the hydrogen gas used for buoyancy was about 2,330 cubic meters (82,283 cubic feet). A gondola was suspended below.

Though he had planned to power the craft with electric motors and batteries, time and money forced Severo to substitute internal combustion engines. Pax was propelled by two Société Buchet engines, with a 24-horsepower engine driving a 6 meter (19.7 feet), two-bladed propeller in a pusher configuration at the rear, and a second, 16 horsepower engine driving a 5 meter (16.4 feet) propeller in tractor configuration at the front of the airship. The propellers turned at 50 r.p.m.

Augusto Severo had designed both of his airships with a new method which increased their stability in flight. The gondola, rather than being suspended by ropes or cables, was rigidly attached to the envelope above with a structure of bamboo. This structure continued inside the envelope from front to rear and formed a trapezoid. This prevented the oscillation that was common with a more flexible arrangement.

Alberto Santos-Dumont with Augusto Severo and Georges Saché , 12 May 1902.
Alberto Santos-Dumont with Augusto Severo and Georges Saché, 12 May 1902.

Very early on the morning of 12 May 1902, Augusto Severo took his new airship on its first flight. It soon reached approximately 1,200 feet (365 meters). It then exploded, caught fire and fell to the ground near Monteparnasse Cemetery. The descent took approximately 8 seconds. Both men were killed.

 A contemporary newspaper article reported the accident:

AIRSHIP DISASTER.

M. SEVERO AND HIS ASSISTANT KILLED.

TERRIBLE SCENE IN MID-AIR

At an early hour one morning recently all Paris was startled by the report that M. Severo, the Brazilian deputy, and his assistant, M. Sachet, had been killed while making an excursion in the steerable balloon Pax.

M. Severo and his mechanician left the balloon shed, which is behind the Montparnasse Railway Station, at half-past five in the morning in the Pax. The Brazilian, in his eagerness to make the free ascent, had slept alongside the balloon for the last few nights, waiting until the weather should be entirely propitious.

At daybreak he decided that the favourable moment had arrived. Workmen were hastily summoned, the last preparations completed, and the motors started. The Pax left the shed of M. Lachambre for her first free voyage in the air.

The airship Pax outside its shed in Paris.
The airship Pax outside its shed in Paris.

The Brazilian deputy, who was naturally of a gay and genial temperament, was delighted with the ideal morning. He and M. Sachet got the machinery ready, while M. Lachambre and his assistants held on the guide-rope, until Pax should be clear of the surroundings.

As M. Severo cried “Let go!” amid much fluttering of handkerchiefs the Pax rose quietly and steadily, and the calm, blue sky seemed to promise a pleasant excursion.

The propellers are turning as Pax is readied to ascend, 12 May 1902.
The propellers are turning as Pax is readied to ascend, 12 May 1902.

For the first few minutes all went well, and the motors seemed to be working satisfactorily. The airship answered the helm readily and admiring exclamations rose from the crowd. “Let’s follow her,” cried those on bicycles and motor-cars, and immediately a mad race commenced in the direction taken by the balloon.

Pax ascends on the morning of 12 May 1902.
Pax ascends on the morning of 12 May 1902.

But as the Pax rose higher she was seen to fall off from the wind, while the aeronaut could be seen vainly endeavouring to keep her head on.

Then M. Severo commenced throwing out ballast, and M. Lachambre, anxiously watching the balloon from his premises remarked that something had evidently gone wrong.

THE AIRSHIP IN FLAMES.

All this time the Pax was gradually soaring higher and higher, until, just as the balloon was over the Montparasse cemetery, at the height of probably 2000ft, a sheet of flame was seen to shoot up from one of the motors, and instantly the immense silk envelope, containing 9000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas, was enveloped in leaping tongues of fire.

The aeronauts were distinctly seen to be gesticulating despairingly, but no mortal aid could reach them.

As soon as the flames came in contact with the gas, a tremendous explosion followed, an din an instant all that was left of the beautiful airship fell with lightning swiftness to the earth.

After the hydrogen explodes, burning pieces of the airship Pax fall to the city street below, 5:40 a.m., 12 May 1902..
After the hydrogen explodes, burning pieces of the airship Pax fall to the city street below, 5:40 a.m., 12 May 1902.

“I shall never be able to forget the awful sight,” said a spectator; “it made me dizzy, and I was compelled to turn my head away. When I looked again everything had disappeared, and all the people in the street were running towards the spot where the balloon had fallen.

“When I reached the Avenue du Maine the Pax, mangled beyond description, was lying across the street almost at the corner of the Rie de la Gaite, and the two ill-fated passengers lay dead amid the ruins. M. Severo had fallen on his feet. The upper part of his face was uninjured, but blood was flowing from his mouth an dears. The lower part of his body was crushed and horribly mutilated.

“Near him was Sachet, who had fallen on his face, which was dreadfully burned and congested. His hands, and, in fact, his whole body were covered with blisters where he had been burned, and he had also sustained several fractures. It was a gruesome sight, and it must have been a fearful death.”

Crash site of the airship Pax.
Crash site of the airship Pax.

A TERRIFIC REPORT.

“The noise of the explosion,” declared one spectator, “made me jump out of bed. I thought of Martinique and wondered if out turn had come, and when I ran to the window, there were two men lying, crushed beneath the remainder of the balloon.”

Another bystander told how Mme. Severo, wife of the aeronaut, whom he had laughingly kissed only twenty minutes before he met his death, fell unconscious to the ground as she witnessed the calamity which overtook her husband.

Poor woman! He had embarked his all in the airship which carried him to his death, and now she is left with seven children and no resources.

M. SANTOS DUMONT’S OPINION.

“I cannot tell you how very sorry I feel at what has happened, ” says M. Santos Dumont, “but I am not greatly surprised. M. Severo did not know anything about airships. He had only been up once or twice in his balloon, and was quite incapable of managing it. The fact that he commenced throwing out ballast when the balloon was going up showed how little he knew.

“Then his escape-valve was only about three yards from the motor, and my opinion is that, as in going up the balloon dilates and the gas must escape through the valve, in so escaping it came in contact with the motor, which was far too near the balloon, and that caused the explosion. Or if the valve did not work, the balloon may have burst and the gas immediately took fire; but a balloon must be built very stupidly to catch fire.

“From the construction of the Pax, however, it seems to me as if it had been made on purpose to kill somebody.”

M. Severo was thirty-eight years old and a member of the Brazilian Parliament. After the catastrophe his watch was found flattened in his waistcoat pocket. It had stopped at 5.40 a.m., the moment of the accident. The body will be taken to Rio Janeiro for interment. His fellow victim, the mechanic Sachet, was only twenty-five years of age and unmarried.

The balloon which began and ended its career in disaster was cigar-shaped, 100ft long, and 36ft in diameter. It was driven by screw fore and aft.

The Star, Christchurch, New Zealand, Monday 30 June 1902, No. 7411, Page 2, Column 7. (The photographic images are from other sources and were not a part of the newspaper article.)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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