Aloft in the friendly skies of Philadelphia

License-plate slogans can be deceiving. Taken at face value, North Carolina and Ohio command a monopoly on the origin of North American aviation. The Keystone State, however, could rightly claim "first in flight." Consider the story of Jean-Pierre Blanchard and the first balloon voyage in the United States.

First, some background. Unmanned hot air balloons appeared on Chinese battlefields nearly two millennia ago as tools for signaling. A French coterie of aspiring aeronauts blew up during that country's revolution at the end of the 18th century.

Inaugural "pilots" were a mix of birds and quadrupeds. Not knowing how the human body would react to the altitude, the first aeronauts included a sheep, duck, and rooster.

Early experiments ran into turbulence. Upon the first hydrogen balloon's landing, terrified French farmers destroyed it with pitchforks and knives.

Blanchard met with more success. Described by contemporaries as "humorless, egotistical, and mean-spirited," he arrived in the United States in 1792 with 44 flights under his belt - including the first airborne crossing of the English Channel. George Washington and Thomas Mifflin, Pennsylvania's governor, greeted the surly Frenchman.

With influential friends, Blanchard arranged for a public demonstration of his hydrogen balloon. Those who could plump for the $2 tickets gathered on an uncommonly warm January morning in the yard of the Walnut Street prison, then located at Sixth and Walnut Streets.

The aeronaut climbed into his rattan basket after "strengthen[ing] my stomach with a morsel of biscuit and a glass of wine." A small black dog accompanied him, as well as a letter from Washington pleading with anyone who encountered Blanchard to "oppose no hindrance or molestation."

The local press attended the launch along with Washington himself. Blanchard "leap'd into his boat which was painted blue and spangled; the balloon was of a yellowish color'd-silk highly varnished, over which there was a strong net work," ran the American Daily Advertiser. "Several gentlemen gallop'd down the point road, but soon lost sight of it, for it moved at a rate of 20 miles an hour."

An "immense number of people . . . covered the open places, the roofs of the houses, the steeples, the streets, and the roads, over which my flight carried me in the free space of the air," the pilot recorded.

Blanchard cruised over the Delaware, reaching more than 5,800 feet. "To the stars" had been his original destination. He came up a bit short, landing in Deptford nearly an hour later.

Curious residents approached, one of which was armed. ". . . It was really the first UFO sighting in America," Deptford Mayor Paul Medany said. "No one knew what that thing was when they saw it flying by."

The Frenchman produced the "passport" provided by Washington and, for good measure, shared a bottle of wine he had brought along. He arrived safely back in Philadelphia that evening.

The city's intimate connection with aviation spanned far beyond Blanchard. On June 25, 1856, a French woman recognized only as "Mademoiselle Delon" took to the skies in a balloon, the first female pilot in North America.

Even after the Wright brothers unveiled their Flyer in the early 20th century, Philadelphia boasted nearly a dozen balloon clubs. This tradition continues today with the Aero Club.

Vincent Fraley is communications manager of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

vfraley@hsp.org