Aeronauts at West Point, 1906, Part 1
February 11, 1906 was an exciting Sunday at West Point. On a cold but clear winter afternoon, the Academy witnessed its first balloon flight. Ballooning was all the rage in Europe but enthusiasts in America found little public interest. In 1906, several French balloonists came to the States to put on flying displays on behalf of a new organization, the Aero Club of America. Their first flight was at West Point.
The aeronaut for the day was Charles Levee, a young Frenchman. His balloon, called the "Allouette" (the "Lark"), was a 28' in diameter cotton sphere with a capacity of 12,500 cubic feet. It took about four and a half hours to fill the craft with coal gas. [Coal gas was used to heat and light communities before natural gas.] This was completed below the Ordnance Compound (today's Firstie Club) near the Post's gas works using 2-inch copper tubing. One observer notes having to walk around in the snow in an attempt to keep warm during the lengthy prep time.
At 3:30, the balloon was filled with coal gas and ready to fly. It was moved to the siege battery on Trophy Point where the bandshell now sits. After a small trial balloon was put up to check wind speed and direction, Levee climbed aboard with 150 pounds of sand as ballast and started his ascent, saluting a large gathered crowd in both French and English. There had been a hop at the Academy the night before and many chaperoned ladies were in attendance. Because the weather was cold and the Hudson frozen, some onlookers had walked across the ice from Garrison or Cold Spring.
The balloon rose up to over 2,000 feet and started north towards Newburgh. The crowd watched as long as they could see the balloon silhouetted against the cold blue sky. Eventually, they lost sight of the craft, but Levee's trip continued. He kept going and going, eventually traveling in pitch black darkness without any knowledge of the Hudson River Valley's topography or settlement patterns. He later claimed to have reached 8,000 feet. His flight came to a bumpy end in Hurley, NY, near Kingston, a full four hours and 35 miles from USMA. The Wilkes-Barre Record reported:
Levee had counted on a clear moonlight night, but the shift of the wind brought a mass of vapor over the balloonist's head, completely obscuring the light upon which he had depended to aid him in his flight....
Towards 8 o'clock in the evening Levee decided to land. he was shrouded in ink-like darkness. Peering over the side of the car, he was unable to tell whether he was sailing over land or over the Hudson. Then far below he saw a light. At this time the balloon was settling at an angle of about forty five degrees.
Levee shouted at the top of his voice in order to arouse the people in the houses, but the wind carried the sound away. There was still one bag of sand in the car, which he was about to throw over the side in order to rise for a time and make his descent later, when a rift in the clouds enabled him to see that he was sailing over a clear place, which was just where he wanted to land. Pulling the rip cord, which split the great bag in two, letting out the gas with a rush, Levee clung to the guy ropes in expectation of a shock. It came when the car struck the earth with a thud. But Levee was unhurt, and the when the grappling anchor held the plucky aeronaut spring lightly to the ground after having sailed over the earth for the better part of four hours.
Can you imagine how the locals reacted when an aeronaut landed in their field on a cold February night?
Levee returned to West Point for another voyage, but we'll leave that to another post...
"Aeronaut in Flight over Hudson River," New York Times, 12 Feb 1906.
"Ascensions Made by Members of the Aero Club of America from Formation of Club to Date," Monthly Weather Review 906, June 1906, pp. 280.
"Four Hour Voyage in Air," The Sun, 12 Feb 1906.
"Levee Lands Safely," The Wilkes-Barre Record, 13 Feb 1906.
"What the World is Doing," Collier's, 24 Feb 1906.