Hawaii’s First Flight to Heaven

Flying to the heavens was a feat thought impossible. Seven months after Emil Melville’s flight in Honolulu, aeronaut Professor Joseph Lawrence Van Tassell also disproved that belief.

News coverage and advertisements announced his upcoming ascension. The advertisements proclaimed the Van Tassell brothers as the “acknowledged premier aeronauts in the world” and “the prevailing European and American sensation”:

“They guarantee to ascend with their balloon to the dizzy height of 1 mile and jump to mother earth with only the support of their Frail Patent Parachute.”

On November 2, 1889, about 500 spectators watched Van Tassell in the paid section of Kapiolani Park (admission fee was 25 cents for children and 50 cents for adults), with the Royal Hawaiian Band performing upbeat music in good weather with calm wind. However, many more watched from the nearby hills and fields, and some watched from Diamond Head. Hawaiian Tramways, Co., even offered rides in its cars from Liliha St. to the park and back every half hour.

At 3:30 p.m., Van Tassell started inflating his balloon. Then, at 4 o’clock, somebody shouted, “let go.” Van Tassell and his balloon ascended, while he adjusted his trapeze. He watched the world below appear smaller and smaller.

Up in the deep blue, Van Tassell could hear the band playing. He could see the drives in the park and the island all around except for that one area blocked by the clouds. Diamond Head looked like a “small saucer.”

Five minutes later, the balloon reached its peak at two to three thousand feet. Then, Van Tassell quickly cut himself from the balloon and parachuted down in a “very graceful manner” in between trees 200 yards from his starting point. Van Tassell had just made the first successful manned ascent in Hawaii’s history!

A Daily Bulletin reporter reported that Van Tassell had “not received a scratch.” But the 26-year-old aeronaut from Salem, Ohio, was disappointed that his parachute ropes got twisted and wanted to land in the park near his starting point.

Afterwards, Van Tassell promised a second ascension to honor King Kalakaua on his 53rd birthday, this time from the Punchbowl crater to the Palace grounds.

On November 18, the launch date, as Van Tassell was setting up his balloon, he could feel the strong winds. While they disturbed him, he went up anyways.

At 2:17 p.m., the balloon and Van Tassell ascended quickly into the sky. Sitting on the trapeze, Van Tassell could hear the crowd cheering for him below and waved at them. The newspaper describes the ascent:

“The point of starting was so well sheltered from the brisk trade wind that was blowing that the balloon had an excellent opportunity to rise upward … The balloon now caught the force of the trade wind and commenced to set slowly towards the south-west, passing over the Palace at which point it had been arranged by the aeronaut he would cut loose and begin his descent. … Slowly the balloon passed to a point directly over the corner of Richard and King streets where it was discernable, now at 2:22 o’clock after being up three minutes, that Professor Joe had at last cut loose.”

With his parachute, Van Tassell starting to drift down to earth. However, a trade wind caught the parachute. Instead of going inland, suddenly the trade winds lifted Van Tassell higher into the heavens, and he was sailing quickly to the sea! Almost five miles from Punchbowl, Van Tassell eventually saw the rippling blue sea below two miles offshore at Keehi Lagoon. The trade wind eventually died down, and Van Tassell would make his final descent, falling into the water, followed by his balloon five minutes later:

“And now commenced a race between the balloon and parachute to seaward, the parachute with its living freight for the first few minutes appearing to be equal in height with the balloon. The lighthouse is reached, no drop! the outer buoy, no stop! On goes the parachute, on goes the balloon. Now appears the danger, there is no provision for assistance, the parachute is now two miles from shore and still receding. At last he drops … now he is in the water off Kalihi harbor. … No view can be obtained of the parachute or aeronaut.”

Did Van Tassell ever think he was going to splash into the sea? Even with the high winds? Before the flight, somebody gave him a life buoy to wear. While Van Tassell did wear it, he took it off before the flight. In the morning, Van Tassell spoke to his manager about having the steam boat Eleu go out to sea in case Van Tassell drifts seaward. However, he decided it was not necessary since he was planning on landing near the palace anyways.

When Van Tassell immersed into the sea, the steam boat Eleu was idly floating nearby and did not have the steam to move towards him. Captain John Rice quickly filled the boat with steam and got to the area after 30 minutes. But alas, in the surrounding rippling blue waters, Van Tassell and his parachute was nowhere to be seen. But his balloon was found floating and was taken to land.

Known as the first successful flyer, parachutist, and air fatality in Hawaii, Van Tassell made Hawaii’s first successful flight — to heaven.

– Alice Kim


Hawaiian Tramway Co. (advertisement)
Daily bulletin, October 31, 1889, Image 3

“The Balloon Ascension: Van Tassell Goes up Beautifully.. Successful Descent with the Parachute”
Daily bulletin, November 4, 1889, Image 3

“Up in the Clouds: Successful Parachute Jump by Prof. Van Tassell”
Hawaiian gazette, November 5, 1889, Page 7

“Dropped to Death: Joe Van Tassell, the ‘Handsome Aeronaut,’ Makes His Last Parachute Jump”
Daily bulletin, November 18, 1889, Image 3

“His Last Leap: Prof. J.L. Van Tassell’s Parachute Jump into Eternity”
Hawaiian gazette, November 19, 1889, Image 1


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