The Flying Machine


The Flying Machine

“Get off there, boy!” A soldier grabbed André and pulled him off the bridge railing where he had climbed to get a better view.

André struggled out of the man’s grip. Pushing his brother, Philippe, ahead of him, he darted into the crowd, out of the soldier’s reach.

Ba-room! They heard the distant sound of a mortar being fired.

“That’s the signal!” a woman cried. “They’re beginning to fill it with heated air!”

The boys excitedly made their way to the other end of the bridge that stretched across the Seine River. They found a spot near a lamppost and leaned against it to rest.

André looked down at his brother. Philippe was only nine, and André knew that he must be tired after their journey from the family farm near Sarcelles. Ten miles is a long way to walk, even for strong farm boys like André and Philippe. Their feet were hot and sore from wearing the rough woolen stockings their mother had made them wear because of the November chill.

“André, I’m hungry!”

André got out the bread and cheese Grandpapa had packed for their lunch in a cloth sack. Since he was two years older than Philippe, André had been put in charge of their adventure.

They were enjoying their meal when an old man near them shouted, “Someone’s coming!”

Two men on horseback came riding over the bridge, headed toward Paris. The crowd milled around them, shouting questions.

“What’s happened?”

“Has it gone up yet?”

“Why can’t we see it?”

“I thought it was supposed to start up at noon!”

The questions were coming so quickly and loudly that it was hard to hear the riders’ answers.

After they passed by, André turned to the old man. “Pardon, sir, but what did those men say?”

“There was a delay as they were preparing to send the flying machine up for a test. It seems that some rips and holes have to be mended.”

André’s heart sank. They had traveled so far and for nothing! They would never get to see the flying machine! He remembered when he had first heard about the marvelous new invention. Uncle Gaston, who lived near Paris, came often to visit them on the farm. He had told them wonderful stories about experiments being done by men who thought it possible for humans to fly!

The Montgolfier brothers had discovered that if they lighted a fire beneath a paper or cloth bag, the bag would fill with hot air and rise into the atmosphere. They had already sent up several large flying machines, which were said to look like giant balls. Straw and wool burned in a container covered with a grate, and this was hung below the bag’s opening. In this way, the air inside the machine was kept hot.

In September Uncle Gaston had seen a Montgolfier machine sent up at the palace in Versailles. The king and queen had watched, along with Benjamin Franklin from the United States. That machine had even had three passengers—a duck, a rooster, and a sheep.

But today’s flight was to be the most exciting yet! Two men were going to fly in a basket attached to the machine! When he had heard about it, Grandpapa had insisted that his two grandsons go to Paris to witness the great event. “I’ll stay and tend to your chores,” he told them. “I am old, but you are young and have a whole lifetime to remember such a wonderful thing.”

Grandpapa had awakened André and Philippe early in the morning and sent them on their way down the road toward Paris. But now there would be no flying machine to see! All their plans and dreams with Grandpapa were for nothing!

The crowd along the bridge had grown so thick that it was impossible to keep from moving with it. They were inching toward the road that followed along the north bank of the river. André held tightly to Philippe’s hand as they were jostled along. He couldn’t understand why everyone was heading away from Paris. They seemed to be moving toward the chateau where the flying machine was to have begun its flight. Why did they want to go there now? The machine’s fabric was torn, and André knew it couldn’t fly with holes in it because the hot air would escape through the openings and the machine couldn’t leave the ground.

Suddenly an excited roar went up from the crowd. “Look! It’s been fixed! It’s going up!”

André watched in wonder as the enormous flying machine rose into view! Its slightly pointed top appeared first, pushing up from behind some rows of trees. The machine was much taller than their farmhouse and as big across. It looked like an oval blue and gold ornament painted against the clouds dotting the sky. Gold cloth was draped around the basket hanging from the balloon.

Most amazing of all, two men rode in the basket! They took off their hats and waved to the crowd. Another cheer went up.

The beautiful balloon floated higher and higher in the sky and made its way toward the crowded road. A gentle breeze lifted the machine higher. It passed directly over the boys’ heads and crossed the river behind them. They watched, hypnotized by the sight, as the two men flew toward Paris. Nearly half an hour later they could see the balloon slowly descend to the earth.

The crowd began to thin out. The boys headed toward the road that would take them home. André knew that he and Philippe had witnessed a miracle. Two men had flown into the heavens for the first time, and he and his brother had seen it!

He put his arm around the younger boy’s shoulder.

“Come on, Philippe. If we hurry, we can be home before the frost comes tonight. Grandpapa is waiting to hear about the new flying machine!”

Historical Note: On November 21, 1783, Jean François Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes became the first men to make an aerial journey, ascending in a hot-air balloon designed by brothers Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier. The balloon, which at that time was called a “flying machine” or an “aerostatic machine,” was seventy feet in height and about fifty feet in diameter. The flight began at the Bois de Boulogne, near Paris. The balloon was judged to have reached a height of 300 feet, and the flight lasted about twenty-five minutes and covered approximately five miles.

[illustration] Illustrated by Dick Brown