First solo balloon flier

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  • Published 8.08.10

This week’s Brief Lives draws substantially on the work of the late Siddhartha Ghosh, one of the pioneers of the history of science in Bengal, and lots besides. It was he who in 1992 reported on Ramchandra Chatterjee, the first Indian to make a solo balloon flight.

Hot-air ballooning was one of the chief fads of 18th-century Enlightenment Europe, but it was not before 1836 that the maiden flight in India was undertaken by one D. Robertson, from a place called Muchikhola in the suburbs of Calcutta (now in Garden Reach). Then in the late 1880s, the famous balloonist Percival Spencer arrived in India, giving balloon demonstrations all over the country. On March 19, 1889, his hydrogen-powered balloon took off from the Calcutta Race course; a month later he flew again, this time accompanied by Ramchandra Chatterjee.

Even if he did not fly, Ramchandra Chatterjee would have been remembered as one of the earliest gymnasts and trapeze artists in the country. He performed in the National Circus of Nabagopal Mitra and later became the director of the Great United Indian Circus.

Emboldened by his joint ascent with Spencer, Chatterjee planned a solo flight in April, for which he purchased Spencer’s balloon “The Viceroy” and renamed it “The City of Calcutta”. All this was expensive business and Chatterjee was supported throughout by the Tagores of Pathuriaghata.

The date of the ascent was fixed for April 27, 1889, and the grounds of the gas company as the venue. The event was widely advertised and tickets were sold for admission, with prices ranging from Rs 3 to 4 annas. But owing to bad weather, the flight was postponed to May 4. On that day, a band played and 8,000 people looked on as Ramchandra, wearing a light suit and a cap, went up on “The City of Calcutta” just after five in the evening. The balloon stayed airborne for nearly 40 minutes and descended at a place near Sodepore.

Emboldened by his success, Ramchandra decided on a national tour to demonstrate hot-air ballooning. In June, he performed a perilous ascent at Allahabad in which he had to get rid of the basket and balance himself in the “hoof” or iron ring attached to the balloon.

The following year, Ramchandra added another feather to his cap by becoming the first Indian to make a parachute descent. This he did at the Tivoli Gardens on March 22, 1890, after ascending on a balloon called “The Empress of India”.

In April 1892, Ramchandra was severely injured when his balloon descended on a hill in a native state of Benares. He was brought to Calcutta but did not recover from his injuries and died in August that year. According to unconfirmed reports, his daughter was also a keen balloonist but history has not recorded her name.