CHAPTER XX. A CHAPTER OF ACCIDENTS.
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."