Aviation firsts: That's one small step for ewe...

The first creature to fly without wings was a sheep - in the company of a rooster and a duck.

This happened at a public demonstration at the royal palace of Versailles, France, 218 years ago today - Sept. 19, 1783. A large crowd, including King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, watched the animals rise 1,500 feet in a cloth balloon lined with paper. The flight lasted about eight minutes.

The balloon had been created by two papermakers, brothers Joseph Michel and Jacques Étienne Montgolfier. The two had discovered months before that when paper was burned, a cloth or paper bag held above it would inflate and rise into the air. Soon they began experimenting with large fabric "envelopes." The hot-air balloon was born.

At first the brothers tried different kinds of wood fires to generate the hot air, but found that fast-burning straw and a small amount of wool made the kind of heat they needed.

It is not recorded (and I searched the Internet) just what Versailles looked like to the barnyard passengers from on high. Happily, they didn't need to be supplied with in-flight food or entertainment. They only went two miles, but I suspect the old barnyard looked pretty good, mud and all, when they returned. The rooster, certainly, had plenty to crow about.

This success encouraged the Montgolfier brothers to talk two men into trying a flight. And so about two months later, on Nov. 21, 1783, Jean François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis François Laurent d'Arlandes got to see the rooftops of Paris in a way that no one else ever had. They rose to 3,000 feet in their untethered craft, waving to the astonished populace below. Their five-mile flight lasted more than 20 minutes. Like the animals, they would have plenty to talk about for years and years.

With these successful flights, the Montgolfier brothers advanced the thinking about aeronautics and what would or would not fly. Leonardo da Vinci, in the early 1500s, had sketched out his ideas about flying with machines that were more or less kites. But it took the Wright Brothers, 120 years later, to advance the French brothers' experiments.

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