Duel in the clouds — the world’s first air combat in 1870?

While I was researching my post on Tissandier’s ill-fated 1875 high-altitude balloon ride, I happened to come across a very curious image, pictured below.


Apparently the 1870 Franco-Prussian War not only resulted in the first airmail: it also spawned the very first aerial combat!  As described in the 1902 book Travels in Space, by E.S. Valentine and F.L. Tomlinson,

During the war an incident of great dramatic interest is narrated as having occurred in full view of Paris. A French war-balloon, the “lntrepide,” was floating in the air 3,ooo metres above the fort at Charenton. Almost at the same time a second balloon, also flying the French colours, was observed on the horizon. When within a short distance of each other, a loud report was heard high in the heavens, followed by a series of explosions.

“The voices,” writes an eye-witness, “were at first thought by the cheering garrison below to be demonstrations or signals of victory, until one aeronaut was seen to fling himself into the network of his balloon and to cling to its sides. During this time the other continued discharging shots which were traced in the sky by the luminous effects.

“The ‘Intrepide descended rapidly, and it appeared to the spectators below that some incomprehensible event had taken place above. Suddenly the French flag of the second balloon was removed, and a  black and yellow standard was perceived to be floating in its place.

Flag of Prussia from 1803-1892.  Via Wikipedia.

Flag of Prussia from 1803-1892. Via Wikipedia.

The cry went up ‘Treason ‘-it is a Prussian balloon ! The Prussian balloonist has fired on the ‘ Intrepide’! The ‘Intrepide’ was, however, safe, for her aeronaut was seen to descend rapidly in his car and the balloon nearly to reach the earth. He cast out the ballast and re-ascended, having hastily closed the hole made in his balloon by his adversary. Shots were instantly fired from the ‘Intrepide’ into the Prussian balloon, which, losing all power, fell with terrific velocity. A detachment of Uhlans who were in the plain and had been following the course of the exciting aerial combat, rushed forward and surrounded their champion. He was carried off injured, but how great were his injuries none ever knew.”

Was this incident the very first air combat?  It’s hard to imagine any battles happening earlier.  It is hard to imagine that this was a common occurrence in the history of ballooning — considering the complete lack of control in horizontal motion, it would be extremely uncommon for two lighter-than-air craft to get close enough for a fight.

Update: See comment below by Mike Monaco!

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7 Responses to Duel in the clouds — the world’s first air combat in 1870?

  1. mikemonaco says:

    Very interesting! There was an actual duel (for honor, not war) fought by two actual Frenchmen in 1803. (BTW I think your title has a typo — 1770 s/b 1870)
    This from “Listverse” (and probably cut & pasted from somewhere else, I think “Listverse” is a link farm):
    Two Frenchmen chose to fight from balloons over Paris because they believed they had ‘elevated minds’. Monsieur de Grandpre and Monsieur de Pique quarreled over a famous dancer called Mademoiselle Tirevit, who was mistress of one and lover of the other. So, at 9am on May 3, 1808, watched by a huge crowd, the two parisians climbed into their aircraft near the Tuileries and rose gently up in to the morning air. At about 2,000 feet, when the balloons were about 80 yards apart, de Pique fired his crude blunderbuss and miss. De Grandpre aimed his more effectively. De Pique’s balloon collapsed, the basket tipped, and he and his second fell headfirst to their deaths on the rooftops below. De Granpre and his second, however, drifted happily away in the light north-westerly breeze before landing safely 20 miles away.

  2. dot tilde dot says:

    the photograph looks pretty much like an engraving to me. is it really a photograph?


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