If you’re a mile high in the air, what happens if your balloon bursts? Near Easton, Pennsylvania, on August 11, 1838, John Wise decided to find out.
This wasn’t quite as crazy as it sounds. Wise flew hydrogen balloons, which in those days were covered with rope netting. The basket was tied to the net, which helped distribute the basket’s weight evenly over the balloon. This was done so the balloon’s fabric would not tear from too much strain.
Wise reasoned that if such a balloon burst, the empty fabric would simply gather in the top of the netting and act like a parachute. Even without any hydrogen, the balloon would float gently to the ground.
Wise believed this so strongly that he was willing to try it himself. He told the story in his 1850 book A System of Aeronautics, starting on p. 192 (I’ve added a few paragraph breaks for readability):
When an altitude of about 13,000 feet was attained, the balloon became fearfully expanded—to its utmost tension; and, having but an inch diameter-tube in the neck, the gas began to issue through this orifice with considerable noise. I would here observe, however, that any slight sound, occurring in so perfectly quiet a place as is that of a balloon a mile or two above the earth, makes apparently a great noise. At this period of the voyage it was evident, that unless gas was speedily let off, the balloon must burst from expansion; for she was still rising, and the explosive cord, being tied rather short, had also become tense, and must evidently be tending towards a rupture at the points it passed through the balloon.
At this critical moment I became somewhat excited, and as I looked over the side of my car, I observed the sparkling coruscations of lightning springing from cloud to cloud a mile beneath me, as the thunder storm was passing its last remnants below. The storm was moving from S. W. to N. E. and the balloon was sailing from N. W. to S. E., passing New Village and Asbury, and I could now see the earth in that direction. I took out my watch—noted on my log book the time—twenty minutes past two, and as I was about returning it to my pocket, thinking at the time whether it were not best to relieve the explosion rope—discharge ballast, and abandon, for the present, the idea of this experiment, the balloon exploded!
Although my confidence in the success of the contrivance never for a moment forsook me, I must admit, that it was a moment of awful suspense. The gas rushed from the rupture in the top of the balloon with a tempestuous noise, and in less than ten seconds, not a particle of hydrogen remained in it. The descent at first was rapid, and accompanied with a fearfully moaning noise, caused by the air rushing through the network, and the gas escaping above.
In another moment I felt a slight shock. Looking up to see what caused it, I discovered that the balloon was canting over, being nicely doubled in, the lower half into the upper; it had fallen, condensing the column of air upon which it was falling, until it had arrived at a point where it was so dense that the force of the whole weight pressing down on it was arrested, which caused the parachute to tilt over.
The weight of the car, however, countervailed the tilting tendency, giving it an oscillating motion, which it retained until it reached the earth. The velocities of these zig-zag descents were marked by corresponding notes of the wind, as it whistled through the rigging of the balloon. On reaching the point where the lower current of air traversed the upper, another and more violent shock than the first, was the result. From this point the oscillations became more severe, each one causing a sensation in me similar to that a person experiences when dreaming they fall.
The wind from the S. W. drifted the machine several miles in its direction before it fell to the earth. As I neared terra-firma, all the ballast was thrown overboard, but when I struck, it was with a violent concussion, for the machine was just then at its maximum velocity of descent. The car struck the earth obliquely, and I was thrown about ten feet forward from it. The balloon had fallen alongside of me, and so complete was the collapse where the lower part had doubled into the upper, that it was with difficulty separated again. The car had turned bottom upwards, and there I stood congratulating myself on the result of this exciting experiment—the perspiration rolling down my forehead in profusion, for the atmosphere below felt oppressive.
The landing was made on the farm of Mr. Elijah Warne, about ten miles from Easton. Before many minutes had elapsed after this descent, I had resolved to repeat the experiment, in Philadelphia, at the first opportunity.