"Oh-h-h! Why do I have to hang from this bloody gas bag all day?” - The First Manned Flight in History

21 November 1783, near Paris, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent le Vieux took off in a montgolfière for the first manned flight in history.
“Antoinette: Oh, Joseph! All you think about is balloons. All you talk about is balloons. Your beautiful house is full of bits and pieces of balloons. Your books are all about balloons, every time you sing a song, it is in some way obliquely connected with balloons... Everything you eat has to have "balloon" incorporated in the title. Your dogs are all called Balloono. You tie balloons to your ankles in the evenings! Joseph Montgolfier: I don't do that! Antoinette: Well, no, you don't do that. But you do duck down and shout, "Hey! Balloons!" when there are none about. Your whole life is becoming obsessively balloonic, you know... Oh-h-h! Why do I have to hang from this bloody gas bag all day?” (Monty Python, “The Golden Age of Ballooning“)

A mid-19th century trading card,
celebrating the event of the first manned human flight.

Chinese Kongming lanterns were probably the oldest human flying technology, small paper bags carrying candles that heat the air inside to lift them off the ground, an invention traditionally attributed to the scholar Zhuge Liang around 200 CE. In 1709 the concept was repeated by the Brazilian priest Bartolomeu de Gusmão in Lisbon and the 18th century saw various further experiments of bags filled with something lighter than air, such as hydrogen, and the first recorded flight of such a device over a longer distance, the balloon launched by Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers in August 1783 was destroyed by terrified peasants with knives and pitchforks when the 35 cubic metre thing unexpectedly descended on their village of Gonesse after a flight of 45 minutes from Paris. Just four weeks later, in September, France saw the rise of the first device carrying passengers, the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloon Aerostat Réveillon, transporting the sheep Montauciel ("Climb-to-the-sky"), a duck and a cockerel.

The proverbial village mob attacking the Robert brothers' downed balloon in Gonesse in 1783

Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier managed a small paper factory in Annonay, Ardeche, France, were both educated in natural sciences and architecture and began experimenting with balloons since the late 1770s. Allegedly, it was the unsuccessful siege of Gibraltar by land and sea in 1782 that gave Joseph-Michel the idea of transporting people through the air – to land troops. The familiar sight of flying scraps during a fire led the Mongolfier brothers to believe that smoke was a special gas attributed with something they called levity. Capturing smoke in a bag would allow the levity lift off loads attached to the balloon of the ground. Their first experiments with levity astonished them both and in June 1783, Aerostat Réveillon, 37,500-cubic-foot affair of sky blue taffeta coated with alum to make it fireproof and adorned with celestial symbols, was ready for take-off. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette enthusiastically agreed to watch the demonstration and the king actually had the endearing idea to let two condemned criminals ascend with Aerostat Réveillon, but the two inventors did not feel that safe with their contraption and decided to use Montauciel the sheep since its physiognomy was closest to a human’s – all three animals landed safely after an 8 minute flight over Versailles. Afterwards, the king gave his permission to allow human volunteers to fly in a balloon.

Jacques-Étienne probably made the first manned but tethered flight in his workshop in Annonay, ascending to a height of 50’ with the 60.000 cubic feet balloon that later became known simply as a Montgolfière. The two volunteers for the first manned and untethered flight were the physicist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and the army officer François Laurent le Vieux d'Arlandes. A crowd had assembled at Château de la Muette in the Bois de Boulogne, in the presence of the King and the American envoy Benjamin Franklin and the montgolfière took off for the first manned and controlled flight in history over a duration of 25 minutes and an altitude of 3.000 feet before the two flight pioneers landed safely again in  Butte-aux-Cailles, then on the outskirts of Paris. The duo celebrated their success with a glass of champagne – a custom maintained by balloonists to this day and the history of aviation had begun in earnest – with Pilâtre becoming the first victim as well, he died two years later during a ballooning accident.

And more on