Aerial Adventure Of Carlotta, The Lady Aeronaut Or Sky-larking In Cloudland,


The spectacle will long be remembered as the I finest… in this region,” the reporter wrote. I “The lady was dressed in a jaunty suit of blue flannel trimmed with gold braid, her short skirts revealing neat-fitting gaiters. A nobby sailor’s hat of plaited straw crowned the whole and gave her face a boyish piquancy. She stepped lightly into the frail contrivance which serves Carlotta in lieu of a basket. This consists of a thin wooden platform suspended by hammock twine to the concentrating ring of the balloon, and as the Aerial gently arose, the entire proportions of her youthful figure could be plainly seen, apparently standing on the very air itself as she waved her hat in salute. The Aerial glided slowly northeastward rising to a height of about a mile, then it retraced its path, passing quietly directly over the public square, and drifting westward toward Lake Ontario.”

The reporter, writing for the Watertown, New York, Daily Times on a July day in 1882, was apparently so carried away by the lady’s “proportions” that he failed to realize what an extraordinary scientific feat he had witnessed. In order to make a balloon ascent and bring the craft safely down again (which she did, out of sight of reporters), Carlotta had to estimate and control with split-second accuracy wind drift, rate of fall, and amount of sideways glide, and make them all come out even at just one point. She was not only daring and pretty; she was something of a genius.

Carlotta, the Lady Aeronaut, would never have gotten off the ground if a lively young New England girl named Mary Breed Hawley (a descendant of the Breeds of Boston’s Breed’s Hill) had not fallen in love with an itinerant photographer, inventor, and selftaught scientist named Carl Myers. The two were well matched in their interests and enthusiasms; in November, 1871, they were married and within a short time settled down in the little town of Mohawk, New York. After a few years as a portrait photographer, Carl turned to a new interest: aerial navigation. It was a challenge that held many separate problems to be solved, just the kinds of problems he liked: how to make a balloon fabric that was impervious to hydrogen gas, exceedingly light in weight, flexible so it could be rolled up and packed, and riot gummy, so it would not stick together; how to make a portable hydrogen generator to inflate the balloon, so that a flight might start from any point desired; and lastly, how to make a basket that was even lighter than the usual wicker kind.

After many experiments, with Mary helping by keeping records, sewing and testing fabric segments, and studying the rather meager literature on meteorology and ballooning, Carl patented a process for making a light but durable balloon that could weather hundreds of ascensions and rough landings. The balloon fabric was dipped three or four times in a mixture of boiled linseed oil and turpentine, so that every pore was sealed and yet the fabric remained thin and flexible.

At first Mr. and Mrs. Myers hired a professional aeronaut to take up their balloons. Then, one day in 1880, Carl decided to see whether a tapered, pearshaped balloon would go through the air more easily than a sphere and hold its shape when travelling very rapidly. As the hired balloonist declined to take part in this experiment, Carl went aloft himself. He sat astride a folded band of cloth below the gas bag, with the balloon neck tied down beside him. At a height of two miles, he opened a valve and within one minute he had plummeted halfway to earth. About a thousand feet from the ground, he dropped ballast and released the balloon neck, which flew upward and checked his speed. He then (as he described it later) “slid downward into a cornfield without shock.” The experiment convinced Carl that a properly tapered gas bag, provided with motive power of light weight, would be an ideal solution to the problem of aerial navigation. On this basis he started experiments on horizontal movement.

Having seen her husband careening through the heavens, Mary Myers was determined to emulate him. On the Fourth of July, 1880, àcrowd of 15,000 gathered in Little Falls, New York, to witness her maiden flight. “Mary” seemed too dull a name for so daring a young woman, and, for the occasion, she called herself “Carlotta.” From that day on, few knew Carlotta’s real name. Carl made a change that day, too: he supplied himself with the title of Professor.

In a now-rare pamphlet called Sky-Larking in Cloudland , Carlotta described this first flight. She rose to an altitude of about a mile, where a brisk wind carried her eastward. For a while she was lost in a cold, damp cloud—“the lonesomest place I was ever in.” After emerging, she dispatched several homing pigeons which she had taken along in a basket, with a message to the folks back home in Mohawk, telling of her good flight and where she was about to land. As far as she knew, she said, this was the first time pigeons had ever been dispatched from a balloon aloft to report the progress of the flight. After floating in the air for thirty-five minutes, she made her descent and landed on the farm of a Mr. Davis, about twenty miles from her starting point. Farmer Davis remarked that she was “most too young a girl to be trusted so far from home,” and sent her back to Little Falls by horse and buggy.