Sophie Blanchard (1778-1819) had one great, dominant passion: aeronautics. She was the wife of the ballooning pioneer, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, but was not content merely to observe her husband’s interests. Madame Blanchard was of a nervous disposition, and easily startled, but she found that she was, paradoxically, free of anxiety when airborne. Her first ascent with Blanchard took place at Marseilles in 1804, and she became the first woman to work as a professional balloonist. Sadly, Jean-Pierre, the first professional balloonist of all, fell from his balloon after suffering a heart attack in 1809. Madame Blanchard however refused to be discouraged.
In all, she completed over 60 ascents. Her great fame and popularity transcended even the change of rule in France following the French Revolution: Napoleon Bonaparte named her ‘Aeronaut of the Official Festivals’, and Louis XVIII made her ‘Official Aeronaut of the Restoration’ after the monarchy was reinstated. She was also popular across Europe, and in 1810 her ascent was blamed for the poor attendance of Carl Maria von Webber’s opera, Silvana, in Frankfurt. Alongside the unusual spectacle of seeing someone go up in a balloon, Madame Blanchard also performed elaborate tricks, such as parachuting dogs from the basket.
As competition from other aeronauts increased, her routine became increasingly extravagant, and eventually incorporated firework displays. Since her balloon was filled with hydrogen, lighting fireworks was a dreadful idea, and her luck finally ran out on July 6, 1819 at the Tivoli Gardens, Paris. Shortly after she emerged from a line of trees, the balloon caught fire. The balloon plummeted towards the ground, with Madame Blanchard entangled in the netting and thus unable to escape. It crashed into a roof, flinging her to the ground, which killed her on impact. At least she died doing what she loved, however foolishly.