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First Flight

The idea of flight had exercised inventive minds for centuries and the famous Montgolfier balloon was a breakthrough giving a new dimension to travel. Such marvels fascinated earthbound man and when it became known that the first ascent of a balloon into Manx skies was to be made the inhabitants of the Isle of Man were filled with excitement and curiosity. The year 1902 had already been a memorable one with another influx of summer visitors, the busy season ending with a flourish when a royal visit was made by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. The Manx people had seen their first king; now they were entranced at the opportunity of seeing a real balloon which was to make an ascent over the Irish Sea for the purpose of naval survey work.

In advance of the arrival of the gunboat H.M.S. Renard, on November 3, rooms had been booked at the Peveril Hotel and Douglas gasworks had been wired to provide 45,000 cubic feet of gas. The supply was required in Peveril Square between the Hotel and the pier buildings, which meant tapping the 12 inch main at this point. Bags of sand were also needed as were thirty unemployed men to act as 'seamen'. On board the Renard were the two balloonists, one of whom, Mr. Percival Spenser, would be in charge of the operation. He was a famous aeronaut whose family specialised in the making of Spenser balloons which were based on Santos Dumont design. Percival Spenser was accompanied by an intrepid clergyman, the Rev. J. M. Bacon. The balloon, weighing 4 hundredweights, was stored in a basket measuring 5 by 4 by 4 feet, and together with the other equipment was brought to the Peveril stables. The week passed as they waited for favourable conditions and on the Saturday and Sunday evenings the Rev. Bacon gave lectures on the marvels of flight, at the Gaiety Theatre.

Monday, November 10, dawned bright with a light south-westerly breeze. This was to be the day and preparations began at an early hour. Sails were spread on the ground to protect the precious oiled skin of the balloon and 45 sand bags were placed in position to hold down the rope mesh surrounding the balloon. Then at 8.35 a.m. the gas was turned on while schoolmasters chased boys off to school. But they were soon back when permission was given; offices, shops and houses emptied when the news spread, and an estimated 15,000 gathered to view the spectacle.

They stood in awe as the balloon, one of the largest in existence, was slowly inflated to its capacity - 60 feet high and 45 feet in diameter - while the net took the strain. The process took all morning and then the balloonists were seen to clamber aboard with their tackle. They were presented with Manx coins and then the porter of the Peveril handed them a bottle of rum for inner warmth on this cold November day. The order was given to detach the bags and the seamen took the strain on the tethering rope. Then, at 1.34 p.m., Mr. Spenser called, 'Let go!' This was followed by the mightiest shout ever heard on the Island as the people cheered and wished the aeronauts 'Good luck!' They saw the giant balloon rise gently and then rapidly into the air as it sailed off majestically across Douglas Bay, eyes straining to catch a last glimpse as it disappeared into cloud. By 2.10 p.m. it was over Maughold Head and, as it crossed the Irish Sea, was in contact with the gunboat experimenting in signalling using drum and whistle. That night the Spenser Balloon landed in the wilds of Dumfrieshire, Scotland, having travelled 77 miles in four and a half hours.

Nearly a decade was to pass before the Isle of Man would witness any further aerial activity. But it was a decade in which the Wright Brothers were to fly the first heavier-than-air machine at Kitty Hawk, and in which Louis Bleriot was to achieve the first crossing of the English Channel in an aeroplane.