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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The "Lighter Than Air Mail" Story

LDub soaring high above Lancaster, PA in a hot-air balloon.
It was an ordinary day.  Talking to my wife about the hot-air balloon ride that her friend Debbie had just made.  We talked about the time she gave me a gift certificate for a hot-air balloon ride and while landing we crashed on a county road, just missing an Amish horse-drawn buggy.  
Finally crashed landed in a cornfield.
Wasn't more than a day or two later I was reading about John Wise being the first person in the United States to make a flight in a hot-air balloon to deliver local airmail.  Interesting story, especially since John was born in Lancaster on February 24, 1808.  He originally worked as an apprentice cabinetmaker from age 16 and at age 21 became a piano maker.  He was always interested in hot-air balloons and at the age of 27 decided to construct his own balloon.  
John Wise
He made his first ascent in Philadelphia on May 2, 1835 with his balloon which had been made from muslin sheet coated with birdlime suspended in linseed oil.  His ascent was short and uneventful.  His second flight was from neighboring Lebanon County on Independence Day of the same year.  The balloon burst, but he safely descended.  Then, on October 1 he once again lifted off from Lancaster, but was thrown from the basket and was knocked unconscious while the balloon ascended alone.  May of the following year saw him ascend once again from Lancaster and land in Harford County, Maryland which is about 75 miles away.  While he was emptying the basket an explosion of the gas occurred and burned him.  One more try on September 18 of the following year saw him make a voyage from Philadelphia, landing in the Delaware River where he had to be rescued.  
Lifting off from Penn Square in Lancaster, PA
Finally he was more successful when he lifted off from Philadelphia and landed 40 miles away in New Jersey.  In 1838 he developed a balloon that if ruptured or deflated would fold upwards into the top half and form a parachute.  Mr. Wise is perhaps most famous for the ascent he made on August 17, 1859 when he left from Lafayette, Indiana in his balloon named Jupiter.  He intended to carry 123 letters and a few circulars to New York City.  
Lifting off from Lafayette, Indiana.
John, who was 51 years old at the time, took off at 2:00 PM with the air temp- erature at 94 degrees.  The balloon lifted straight upward to about 12,000 feet where it hung there in mid-air.  Eventually he released some of his ballast and rose another 3,000 feet.  After about two hours a slight breeze picked up.  Enough air to get him close to Crawfordsville, about 25 miles away.  After landing he put the mail on a train headed to New York.  
The only remaining piece of air-mail that was on the
Jupiter.  It is now on display in the Smithsonian.
He had made the first air-mail delivery, only not to his intended destination.  Finally on September, 1879, at the age of 71 and after 462 balloon ascensions, including the two ascentions from Lancaster's Penn Square and the Lancaster County Prison yard and a tour of duty in the Civil War as a balloonist for the Union Army, he was last seen alive suspended beneath a balloon at 11:14 PM 20 miles west of La Port, Indiana, headed north over Lake Michigan with a paying customer, George Burr.  Burr's body was washed ashore several days later, but John was never seen again.  Not a very good ending for my story, but neat to know that the very first air-mail delivery of the U.S. Postal Department was made by a Lancastrian.  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy.

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