Falling Upwards | Richard Holmes

Summary of: Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air
By: Richard Holmes


Embark on a thrilling journey through the history of ballooning and the daring adventures of its pioneers in Richard Holmes’s book ‘Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air.’ Experience the wonder of early flight as you learn about the development of balloons as a mode of transportation, military intelligence, and recreational pastime. Discover the achievements of famous balloonists like Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier, Sophie Blanchard, and more, all while reflecting upon the risks and challenges undertaken by these heroes of the skies. Immerse yourself in the book’s engaging tales of passion, resilience, and innovation, all while observing the transformation of the art of ballooning over time.

The Perils of Charity Ballooning

A long-standing association between ballooning and eccentricity is exemplified by some fascinating and risky flights. In 2008, Brazilian priest Father Adelir Antonio de Carli attempted a charity balloon event but tragically failed, meeting a terrible fate at sea. Interestingly, a similar incident occurred in 1875, when Major John Money launched for a charity flight in England and ended up being dragged over the sea. Fortunately, he was rescued and generated a significant amount of donations.

Ballooning has always had a touch of eccentricity. Although not a conventional pastime, piloting a hot-air balloon is far from a carefree adventure in the clouds; it remains a risky pursuit. A notable example of this occurred in 2008 when Brazilian priest Father Adelir Antonio de Carli envisioned a unique way of raising money for the poor – via a charity balloon event.

Equipped with a chair attached to hundreds of colorful helium balloons, Father Adelir started his ascent, reaching an impressive 19,000 feet. Unfortunately, soon after, his GPS navigator malfunctioned, and he lost radio contact. The wind carried him out to sea, and despite a rescue mission, Father Adelir tragically could not be saved. His remains were found off Brazil’s coast, likely having encountered a shark after descending from altitude.

This perilous association between charity and ballooning isn’t limited to modern times. In 1875, Major John Money launched a charity flight for the Norwich and Norfolk hospital in England. Much like Father Adelir’s attempt, Major Money also faced challenges in the form of an unexpected gust of wind that swept the balloon out to sea.

However, Major Money’s story had a happier ending. As the deflating balloon fell to sea level, he quickly cut off the basket and climbed into the balloon’s hoop. Dragged through the water like a kite surfer, he eventually caught the attention of a rescue boat. His daring act resulted in substantial donations for the hospital, showing that even in the face of danger, the spirit of charity and adventure endures.

Daring Escape to Freedom

The incredible story of two East German families who risked their lives for freedom by building a makeshift hot-air balloon from scratch. Despite numerous failures and near-death experiences, Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel’s unwavering determination paid off. Eventually, they successfully launched their balloon that took them on an uncertain flight across the border, finally landing them safely in the West.

In 1978, a strong desire for freedom led two families to conspire to escape from East Germany using an unconventional method – a homemade hot-air balloon. Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel, both talented handymen, started secretly working on their ambitious project in a hidden attic. Initial attempts were fruitless, causing Wetzel to give up; but Strelzyk remained resolute. On July 4th, 1979, the first balloon flight ended in failure, forcing Strelzyk’s family to land in a border no-man’s-land. However, concealed by heavy rain, they returned home, only growing more determined.

Knowing that successful balloon escapes typically require multiple attempts, Wetzel rejoined Strelzyk, and they recommitted to constructing a more reliable craft. Sewing old clothes together, a massive balloon that stood nearly 90 feet tall came to life, fueled by four gas tanks. On September 16th, 1979, the families boarded the balloon at their secret forest location in the pre-dawn hours. Ascending 6,500 feet above the earth, they found themselves disoriented amidst the darkness.

The sight of searchlights below prompted the families to risk igniting the burner to maintain altitude, despite the increased visibility to authorities. Suddenly, the balloon’s top ripped open, leaving them in a perilous descent. Upon landing, disoriented and uncertain, the families discovered a sign on an electric pylon bearing the name of a West German company. Miraculously, they had achieved their daring escape to freedom.

Balloons: Early Aerial Espionage

In 1783, hot-air balloons soared into history as Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent d’Arlandes made history with their first successful flight over Paris. Soon, the French military grasped the potential strategic advantage of balloons in war. During the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, Captain Charles Coutelle launched a balloon, providing the French army with critical intelligence on enemy movements and positions. This aerial advantage led to several French victories. However, these early surveillance tools faced challenges, such as strong winds, slow communication, and attracting enemy fire. Despite the glamour associated with military ballooning, it remained an imprecise and ultimately short-lived tactic. By the early 20th century, airplanes supplanted balloons as the superior method of aerial reconnaissance.

Ballooning with Sophie Blanchard

In the 19th century, balloons were a popular source of entertainment in France, with aerial acrobatics and performances being commonplace. Among the daredevils who took to the skies, Sophie Blanchard stood out as a fearless and talented aerialist. Born in 1778, Sophie eventually married renowned balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard and together, they took to the skies. Sophie’s skill and courage caught the eye of Napoleon, who commissioned her for various impressive events, including the birth of his son. Sophie’s unique approach to ballooning involved a smaller silk balloon and a beautifully designed silver gondola that left her knees exposed. Dressed in white with a feathered bonnet, she charmed onlookers and soared through the sky. However, in 1819, tragedy struck when her balloon caught fire and she plummeted to her death on the streets of Paris. Sophie Blanchard’s story serves as an inspiring example of courage, talent, and the pursuit of one’s passions, even in the face of great danger.

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