Parachuting from a balloon

Parachuting from a balloon
Jeff Atkinson

In the early years of the 20th century, ascending into the air was not something that humans normally did.

It was only in 1903 that Wilbur and Orville Wright had made the first flight in a heavier-than-air machine.

For more than a century people had been going up in hot-air balloons, but in Australia this was still a great novelty.

In 1908, an American company took advantage of this by touring Australian cities with two hot-air balloons and putting on spectacular performances for the entertainment of the public.

In February 1908, a major exhibition was held in Melbourne in the Royal Exhibition Building to showcase the products and achievements of the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia. As a side attraction, the American balloon company was invited to stage several ascents. The drama of these ascents was heightened by having the balloon go up with a man sitting on a trapeze suspended beneath it.

When the balloon reached a suitable height, the balloonist on the trapeze jumped and fell headfirst until his fall was broken by an opening parachute. He had three parachutes, coloured red, white and blue respectively, which opened in turn and enabled him to alight safely on the ground somewhere not too far from the launch site.

The photograph shows one of the balloons being filled with hot air in the arena next to the Royal Exhibition Buildings. Once filled, the balloon would be released and shoot upwards, with the balloonist on the trapeze beneath it.

When this event was staged on February 19, things did not go well. A crowd of around 15,000 people had gathered in the afternoon to see the ascent of the balloon named the “President Roosevelt”. But owing to strong winds it proved impossible to properly inflate it. The strength of the wind was such that the guy ropes holding it kept snapping, and the half-filled balloon was blown from side to side over the furnace.

For nearly three hours the spectators waited patiently in the hot sun while the crew battled with the difficult to manage balloon. Eventually it was decided that the best that could be done to entertain the crowd was to release the balloon half-filled, and without a man on the trapeze. It was considered too unsafe to go up in a half-filled balloon that could not ascend very high. The half-filled balloon was therefore released, but soon emptied itself and descended onto some telegraph wires in Elgin St, Carlton.

In the evening when the wind dropped, they tried again with the second balloon, King Edward VII, in front of a much smaller crowd. This time the balloon was successfully filled and when released shot up with a balloonist suspended underneath.

At 6,000 feet he jumped and fell until his first and then second and third parachutes opened. He landed safely in Lygon St next to the cemetery and was picked up by hansom cab and returned to the Royal Exhibition Buildings.

The balloonist on this occasion was a French-Canadian named Alphonse Stewart, described in the press publicity as “the king of the air”. He performed this feat a number of times until an awkward landing in the Melbourne General Cemetery resulted in him breaking his leg •

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