Up, up and away

It is a little known fact that not only did New Zealand's very first flight by a man or a woman take place in Dunedin, the flight ended with the country's first parachute jump. The date was January 21, 1889, and the "aeronaut", as they were known at the time, was American "professor" Thomas Baldwin.

Baldwin's flight and jump are detailed in a new book, A Passion for Flight, written and published by Christchurch aviation historian Errol Martyn. In this edited extract, Martyn presents the story of New Zealand's first human flight.

New Zealand "first-flight" attention has largely focused on the powered flight claims for Herbert Pither (July 1909) and Vivian Walsh (February 1910), and not forgetting those imaginary pre-Wright brothers flights by Richard Pearse.

Often overlooked, however, is that man first took to the New Zealand skies some 20 years earlier.

During the 1890s and early 1900s, touring "aeronauts", often glamorising themselves with self-appointed "Captain" or "Professor" titles, travelled the world to entertain people with death-defying acts from large hot-air or gas-filled balloons.

During an ascent the aeronaut might perform acrobatic acts on a trapeze hung underneath the balloon or parachute from it to earth, or a combination of both.

Alarming as it may seem today, no harness was worn to secure the jumper to his parachute.

When he leaped from his slender, swing-like rope sling suspended from the balloon, a tie would break and for the entire descent he then simply hung on by his hands to the metal ring, or hoop, to which were fixed the canopy's shroud lines.

Thomas Baldwin was born at Decatur, Illinois, in 1858 to physician Samuel Yates Baldwin and his wife Jane.

During the American Civil War of 1861-1865 his parents were killed during a border raid.

He was brought up for a time by William and Penthesia Williams at Warren, Missouri, but then ran away to eventually perform in a circus as a ground tumbler, and later as a gymnast and tightrope walker.

Not surprisingly, when a female journalist interviewer in England shook hands with Baldwin she observed that he had "a grip of iron".

She went on to describe her subject as a "clean-limbed, well-built man, evidently possessed of enormous muscular strength, and in the best of health".

While touring England [with his balloon and parachute] Baldwin met William Edward Akroyd, JP, a visiting landowner from New Zealand's Gisborne district. Akroyd prevailed upon the balloonist to make a short tour of Australasia.

Baldwin had by now, it was claimed, some 200 balloon ascents and 51 parachute descents to his credit.

His next was programmed to take place at Dunedin.

The American aeronaut's reputation had preceded him.

Local advertising referred to him as "The Royal Parachutist" and some 5000 spectators, including those from Balclutha for whom a special train had been laid on, attended the Caledonian ground on Saturday the 19th [Jan 1889] to witness the performance.

Many thousands of others, averse to being separated from their shilling entrance fee, lined the surrounding hills to look on from a "Scotsman's grandstand".

All through the afternoon and into the evening, Baldwin and [manager/assistant Guillermo] Farini struggled to inflate the balloon in front of the grandstand in the face of a cold and gusty northeasterly wind.

Baldwin, who said he was prepared to go up in any breeze under 10 miles an hour, hoped for a lull at about 6pm but it did not eventuate.

By 7pm, despite having given a short speech to the crowd that if there were the slightest chance before dark he would go up, people began leaving the ground.

A minor disturbance occurred when a few spectators vented their annoyance upon Baldwin at the cancellation, but his friends escorted him through the stand to the safety of a waiting hansom cab.

By 7pm on Monday the 21st, another large crowd had gathered on and round the Caledonian ground. What they were about to witness for the first time in New Zealand, having only previously read or viewed photographs of such an event, was accurately described in the next day's Otago Daily Times as "A Sensational Feat".

Tuesday's edition reported that the wind had again been a problem, but not to the extent it had been on Saturday, and went on to set the scene: "However Professor Baldwin continued actively superintending the inflation of the balloon, which was rather dangerously agitated by the gusts of wind every now and then.

"At a few minutes before seven, Professor Baldwin mounted a form and, as before, made a short preliminary speech to the spectators.

"He is a well-built, lithe-limbed American, with dark complexion and moustache, good-looking, and with considerable alertness and resolution in his manner.

"That he is a man of wonderful pluck and iron nerve, his aerial feats amply testify.

"Standing up to address his patrons, attired in silk hat and black frock coat, he looks scarcely like a man on the eve of taking such a startling journey.

"He might be intending to sell some town allotments, or say a few words on the political situation."

It was now 10 minutes to seven, the appointed hour for his ascent, and he hurried back to the balloon, where Farini was in attendance, to make the final preparations.

ODT: "The balloon was raised well off the ground, being held captive by several men.

"Everything being nearly completed, Professor Baldwin, who is now bareheaded and clad in a dark, close-fitting vest, runs across to a bench near at hand and gives his wife a hasty parting kiss.

"He has all the assurance of safety that personal attention to his apparatus and splendid coolness and nerve can give him.

"His leave-taking over, the professor bends down and disappears for some minutes within the folds of some silky-looking drapery, which is held for him by Mr Farini.

"This mass of limp-looking cloth is the wonderful parachute, and it may be easily guessed what Professor Baldwin is doing inside it.

"He is adjusting the hoop which, when the machine [sic] is extended, will form the orifice at the top, and this orifice through which the air escapes in his descent is perhaps the most important feature about Mr Baldwin's invention.

"He emerges presently, and then the folded parachute is drawn up to the netting which hangs loose round the neck of the balloon.

"It can be seen that depending from the parachute are a number of long ropes attached to a stout hoop, which is presently passed over the aeronaut's head.

"In descending he will hang by both hands from this hoop.

"There is great shouting of orders now, and the excitement among the spectators is very great.

" 'Lift her up,' cries Professor Baldwin, 'but hold her!' and as the struggling balloon rides a few yards above the ground he is seen to have taken his position immediately below her, and to be surrounded by a confusing array of ropes.

"An excited shout by Mr Farini to some assistant to 'leave go of that rope!' shows that it is a critical moment and then, before the spectators well realise it, balloon and balloonist are away.

"She mounts swiftly and smoothly like a bird released, the professor apparently sitting upon some small bar with outstretched hands, in much the attitude of a driver handling a team of horses.

"Spontaneous cheering and applause break out from the crowd at the ascent, but it is only a matter of seconds before the bold aeronaut is out of earshot.

"The ascent is made from the leeward side of the stand, and the wind being from the northeast the balloon is driven at once in the direction of Caversham.

"In consequence of this wind, which is taking him rapidly away from the spectators, Professor Baldwin does not go anything like the height he has sometimes reached.

"He goes so high, however, that he and his balloon look very small objects indeed against the clear sky.

"About 1000ft would perhaps be the height, and it has taken an incredibly short space of time for him to reach it.

"Suddenly there is unmistakeable movement in the diminutive figure aloft, and the next instant the folded parachute and its inventor have left the balloon, which turns upside down and floats aimlessly about in the empyrean for a while.

"The parachute retains its limp appearance, and at the end of the long ropes that depend from it is the figure of the falling balloonist.

"He is holding on with arms raised above his head, and his whole form is perfectly rigid; feet together and frame erect.

"He comes down in that fashion as straight as a stone and in a standing position for nearly half his journey, and then the onlookers draw a sudden breath of relief, for the air has caught the parachute, and it has expanded into umbrella shape.

"The aeronaut's fall is instantly checked, and from that point he descends steadily with a gently swaying motion that soon brings him apparently among the housetops of South Dunedin.

"Here he swings himself into a sitting posture, evidently steering the parachute towards a safe alighting place, and finally comes to earth on a vacant section off the Cargill road, near the Railway Workshops hotel."

The distance travelled was only some 500 yards during a matter of just a few minutes, but the first successful manned flight in New Zealand skies had been successfully accomplished.

Ten minutes later, Baldwin returned to the grounds, where he received an ovation from the crowd and gave a short speech.

ODT: "As regarded the long drop before the parachute expanded, that was merely a bit of sensationalism he introduced.

"How soon the parachute expanded depended upon the size of the hoop he placed in the orifice at the top.

"He could, if he desired, make the parachute expand directly after leaving the balloon."

Later, in Auckland, Baldwin enlarged on his equipment and its use, explaining that the "biscuit-coloured balloon is made of India silk, it is covered with a varnish preparation, and is enclosed in a linen netting.

"It has 15,000 [cubic] feet capacity, and weighs 110lb.

"The parachute is also made of India silk, but it is not oiled.

"It weighs 30lb and resembles the top of an ordinary umbrella, except that there are neither ribs nor handle.

"It is 20 feet in diameter, and has a fringe or sail round the edge to assist me in balancing.

"From the umbrella-like covering there depend [hang down] a number of ropes, 20 feet in length attached to a loop 20 feet in diameter.

"There is another ring attached to a cord at the end of the balloon, which I call a 'boatswain's chair'.

"I sit on this and have hold of a cord calculated to stand a strain of 100 lb, so that when I throw myself off the chair the cord is broken, and I am free from the balloon.

"I then descend with the parachute, which at first is closed.

"It opens out gradually as the air rushes inside and is fully spread by the time I have dropped 300 or 400 feet ...

"I steer the parachute at an incline of about 30 degrees in still air . . . [coming] down at the rate of ten miles an hour or 14 feet per second.

"The shock on reaching the ground was very slight indeed.

"I go up any distance from 1000 to 5000 feet, a good deal depends upon the weather, and whenever the weather permits I go up to 5000 feet."

One effect of Baldwin's aerial exhibition was the appearance of a new toy on Dunedin streets and, later, elsewhere.

Youngsters began making "parachutes" of their own - a stone being tied to the four corners of a handkerchief, then thrown into the air, the handkerchief deploying on the descent.

Before long numerous examples could be found adorning telephone wires that had arrested their descent.

Meanwhile, a St Kilda lad emulated his hero in more dramatic fashion by jumping off the roof of a house using an umbrella for a 'chute, earning himself a broken arm for his trouble.