CHAPTER XX. A CHAPTER OF ACCIDENTS.
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.