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


Carlotta had now found her forte, and she was at once in great demand at fairs and expositions. In August, she made her second flight, staying aloft in a calm blue sky for more than an hour. A third flight, in September, proved more eventful than the first two. In her haste to ascend before an approaching storm should cause a large crowd of fair-goers to scatter, she took off as the clouds rolled in. The storm breeze sucked her higher, and before she knew it she was borne up into a turbulence so dense that she could not see even the balloon above her head. She was tossed boisterously upward in a vertical current and was alarmed to notice that her barometer showed a very rapid rate of ascent. Fearing her balloon might expand to the bursting point, she valved out gas, hoping to slow down her giddy rise, but the balloon kept climbing until it broke through the top of the overcast into the calm, clear sky above the storm, and she saw with amazement below her “the snow-white mountains of cloudland.” To return to earth, she valved more gas until the balloon started to descend. The downward plunge into the storm renewed all the discomforts of the ascent, but she controlled her speed by watching her barometer and releasing ballast. She relates: “I was much longer coming down than going up, and I was just beginning to think the world had lost itself, when, through an opening in the mist, the earth suddenly jumped at me, and I found myself swiftly driving just above a woods of several miles extent. I threw over everything dispensable—ballast, ulster, rubbers—but a heavy gust of rain made the balloon too heavy and it bounded across the treetops, the basket collecting leaves, twigs, and acorns at every plunge.”

Carlotta threw out her anchor, which caught in a large basswood tree and halted the balloon. “The air ship was at anchor, in sight of land, but there was no little boat to go ashore.” She was eighty feet above the ground. Fortunately a hunter discovered her predicament and went to get help. Several men soon came with rope and ladder and made ready to get her down, but Carlotta, like a good sea captain, would not desert her ship. For more than two hours she directed the men below in cutting down small trees until they had cleared a space large enough for balloon, basket, and Carlotta to be lowered to the ground without damage. “We were all much fatigued,” she wrote afterward, “and glad to shake hands together, as we felt quite like old friends. The men said they never knew a woman could engineer a job so well before, but I guess that may be because they never caught one up a tree!”

The following spring, Carlotta gave birth to a daughter, who was christened Elizabeth Aerial. Motherhood failed to ground the lady aeronaut for long, and on the Fourth of July she opened the balloon season by making two ascensions in one day—the first at Hamilton, New York, and the second at Utica, about thirty miles away. That evening she and Carl were at home with their baby, in Mohawk; the most strenuous part of their day had been making the train connections.

Carl was now so proficient in preparing for his wife’s flights that he could move all his equipment onto a fairgrounds at noon, generate the hydrogen, inflate the balloon, send Carlotta into the sky, and after her descent pack up everything and leave the grounds neat and clean and ready for a band concert in the evening.

Carlotta, too, was sharpening her skills. She could predict where she was going to land even before taking off. A carriage would then drive to that point and await her descent. She was very knowledgeable about the winds at all different altitudes, and she had equipped her hammock-netting basket with tillable bottom so that she could guide her descent with great accuracy. Carlotta herself had developed and patented this feature, and it gave her a mastery that made some of her feats seem well-nigh impossible.

Little Elizabeth Aerial went on a flight with her mother at the age of three and again when she was seven. On the second flight, unfortunately, Carlotta miscalculated in judging the weight of the child against the necessary ballast. She ran short of ballast, and the balloon descended into a steep-sided little lake, near Syracuse, known as the Devil’s Punch Bowl. But this was not the worst. Large trees overhung the shore all about, so that Carlotta could not get the balloon near enough to the edge to reach dry land. Little Bessie, though pretty well frightened, saved the day by climbing out of the basket onto a half-submerged log and wading ashore under the branches with the anchor rope; she then pulled Carlotta and the basket to safety after her. There was no damage except to Carlotta’s pride, but the experience made a lasting impression on Bessie, for she never again went up in a free balloon.∗

∗ As a grown woman she redeemed her name “Aerial,” however, by making exhibition flights at the St. Louis Exposition in 1903 with a foot-pedalled dirigible, an invention of her father’s which he called the “Sky Cycle.” The flights were made inside a large auditorium, and Bessie was so adept that she could maneuver the craft without hitting the walls or roof of the hall. But she left the great outdoors to her mother.