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


One of Carlotta’s most notable ascensions was made in 1886 from Franklin, Pennsylvania. It was more a test flight than an exhibition. Professor Myers was anxious to see how his latest lightweight balloon would perform when filled with natural gas instead of hydrogen. The balloon was inflated directly from a gas pipeline. Although natural gas has much less lifting power than hydrogen, it took Carlotta up with ease. She had some trouble, however, with a sticky valve, and before she got it working, she was startled to find the pointer of her aneroid barometer indicating its maximum reading, 21,000 feet, about four miles high. If her barometer was correct, this was a world record for altitude with a natural-gas balloon.

Equally remarkable was the fact that Carlotta suffered no ill effects. At this altitude most persons become dizzy and light-headed from lack of oxygen, and many black out. Today aviators usually do not go this high without a pressurized cabin or an oxygen mask. It was another proof that Carlotta was physically, as well as temperamentally, cut out to be an aeronaut.

During the i88o’s, Myers increased his aeronautical activities. The exhibition ascensions became so popular that he had to hire another aeronaut, a trapeze artist named Dare, who performed gymnastics while in flight. Myers also made weather balloons for the United States Department of Agriculture, captive balloons for fairs and exhibitions, and full-size balloons for aeronauts. And he worked continually on the problem of self-propelled craft, actually non-rigid dirigibles. His sky cycle was a spindle-shaped gas bag propelled by foot power.

In 1889, he bought a thirty-room mansion at Frankfort, New York, and transformed it into one of the most unusual institutions of his day. He called it the “Balloon Farm,” and indeed a passer-by might have thought that the do/en or more half-inflated balloons scattered around the grounds looked like a crop of Brobdingnagian pumpkins or mushrooms. In the late fall the crop was harvested: the balloons were carefully bundled up and stowed away in the attic of the large house for the winter. Each carried its own tag with a list of all its ascents, its good performances, and its bad habits.

When fine weather came again the Balloon Farm was a scene of great activity. Out on the lawn, groups of employees tended the kettles of oil for processing the fabric, then hung out the fabric to dry. Dare might be practicing on a trapeze to keep in trim. Somewhere overhead, Carlotta was apt to be testing a new balloon. And there was usually a tethered balloon bobbing several hundred feet above the farm, in which instruments were keeping track of temperatures and breezes.

Carlotta still performed occasionally in public. One of her greatest feats was performed on July 18, 1888, when she flew her lightest-weight balloon, the Zephyr , on a prearranged course around New York City. The Zephyr weighed only sixty-five pounds, including gas bag, valve, net, concentrating ring, and car. Ascending in Brooklyn, Carlotta swung toward the Brooklyn City Hall, then crossed the river to the Battery, dropped until she was near the water, and moved upstream to Brooklyn Bridge. Thousands of people in the rushhour traffic on the bridge shouted uproariously, and steamers whistled. Gliding over the bridge, Carlotta made for New York’s City Hall. Then she moved across Manhattan to the Hudson, followed the ferry to Jersey City, and landed safely, one hour after starting, in an open space at Secaucus, New Jersey.

Carlotta’s increasing responsibilities, however, kept her close to the Balloon Farm, and in 1891, she formally retired from exhibition flying, though she continued as a test aeronaut at the farm. “She retires from the field,” her husband announced to the public, “with a record of having made more ascensions than all other women combined throughout the world, and more than any man living in America.” She had never had a serious accident.

The Myerses operated the Balloon Farm for many years. Carl was still riding his sky cycle at the age of sixty-eight, and both he and Carlotta lived to be over eighty. By that time the field of aeronautics had taken a sudden turn in favor of aeroplanes, sadly deflating their romantic and silent balloons. So the Myers name and Carlotta’s fame were forgotten, forgotten so completely that now, only two generations later, it is with considerable difficulty that the fragments of their story can be pieced together. But it remains a story of courage, skill, and romance that deserves to survive the eclipse of ballooning.