Emil Melville’s Balloon Ride

“Acrobatic Performance in the Air!”

“Ascends Hanging by His Toes to a Trapeze!”

“Do Not Fail to See This Perilous Feat!”

“A Jump of 5,000 Feet from the Clouds!”

The advertisement urged all to witness Hawaii’s first manned balloon flight in 1889. Right before, Emil L. Melville ascended up into the sky in front of 63,000 people at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. In the air, the aeronaut performed acrobatic stunts and hang from a trapeze.

On March 2, 1889, hundreds of spectators at Kapiolani Park, including the king and queen, waited for Melville to fly with his balloon. Many of them each paid 50 cents to watch the flight.

Melville and his assistants fired the furnace and smelled the gasses and smoke inflating the balloon at 3:15 p.m. However, when the balloon was 10 feet high, a 15-feet-long hole opened near a seam, with smoke escaping the balloon. Melville took the balloon down and sewed up the hole.

With the Royal Hawaiian Band performing, he started inflating the balloon again at 5 p.m. But by then spectators were leaving. Now, the stronger winds were hindering the inflation. When the balloon was finally inflated, it burst and became a ball of smoke and fire fueled by the winds. People panicked, and most ran away. Melville eventually extinguished the fire.

Afterwards, Melville wrote a letter to the public, apologizing for his first failure ever in ascending. He blamed the strong winds hindering the balloon’s inflation and said he’ll perform again next Saturday.

A week later, on March 9, Melville made another attempt, and hundreds of people watched on houses and hill tops. At 4 p.m., Melville and his assistant started inflating the balloon while feeling the trade winds again. By 5 p.m., the balloon ascended as high as the surrounding algaroba trees, which sheltered it from the wind. However, strong winds blew from the sea. As smoke was coming out of the balloon’s two apertures, Melville grabbed the trapeze and yelled, “Let go!”
Melville and the balloon went to one side, knocking over some people. The balloon dragged him by his hands and feet through a thicket of algaroba trees:

“Up through the wicked spikes of the young algeroba thicket the aeronaut was dragged, emerging in clear space above suspended by hands and heels to the bar. Then away on the breeze the equipage sped, clearing the roof of a cottage and moving in the direction of the big fish pond beyond.”

Then the balloon started to descend, and Melville sat on the trapeze. Two to three thousand feet from his starting point and thirty feet from the air, Melville jumped from the balloon, somersaulting “like a cat,” and landed on his feet. The crowd loudly cheered. Surprisingly, Melville suffered only minor injuries:”Our reporter found Prof. Melville wedged by the crowd as if to prevent him getting a breath of air, but he stood upright and smiling through begrimed features stained with blood. His clothes, head and face had suffered in many places from contact with the thorns. … His left wrist was sprained in the leap from aloft.”
The balloon then ascended by about 200 feet altitude and flew to Nuuanu Valley, where it tumbled on its side and went below the trees. Melville eventually retrieved his slightly scorched balloon.
In his book illustrating Hawaii’s aviation history, Above the Pacific, William J. Horvat says, “Apparently no other attempts at ballooning were made by Melville.” However, the April 9, 1889 edition of The Hawaiian Gazette reports Melville making his third attempt with the same balloon.

After inflating the balloon for thirty minutes, Melville flew upwards, hanging by his toes. Feeling the push of the wind, he “gracefully” sailed over the town at two or three thousand feet.

Up in the deep blue, Melville could see all around the island: the mountains, ocean, and Honolulu: “Palace Square looked to him no bigger than the palms of his hands.”

The balloon started to ascend near Palace Square and headed quickly towards the sea. Melville let go of his balloon above the blue rippling water by Kakaako without a parachute and got onto a fishing barge. Meanwhile, a gust of wind tilted the balloon on its side, and it went into the water.

For this flight, he chose to not fly with a parachute since he wanted to test the balloon’s lifting capacity and perform the grand act: the “leap from the clouds.”

– Alice Kim

Note: Seven months later, Joseph Lawrence Van Tassell would get credit for making the first successful manned ascension in Hawaii.


The advertisement for the March 2 balloon ascension
The Daily bulletin., March 02, 1889, Image 3

“The Balloon: An Immense Audience–No Ascension on Account of Accidents–A Rent and a Blaze–Free Exhibition Promised–Letter from the Balloonist”
The Hawaiian gazette., March 05, 1889, Image 1

“An Aerial Flight: Balloonist Melville Makes a Plucky Attempt to Rise!”
The Hawaiian gazette., March 12, 1889, Page 7, Image 7

“The Balloon: Prof. Melville Makes a Fine Ascension in the Same Old Balloon”
The Hawaiian gazette., April 09, 1889, Page 4, Image 4

Additional Articles from Chronicling America

“Great Balloon Show: A Voyage to the Clouds and an Awful Leap to Earth”
The Hawaiian gazette., February 26, 1889, Image 1

“Art and Aeronautics: Mr. Tavernier Promises a Picture– Balloon Experience of the Artist”
The Hawaiian gazette., February 26, 1889, Image 1


One Comment on “Emil Melville’s Balloon Ride”

  1. […] How did Mr. Melville’s attempt go? Find out by reading “Emil Melville’s Balloon Ride.” […]

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