Ballooning was much more dangerous back in the day, accounting for Canada’s first aviation fatality. (submitted)

Ballooning was much more dangerous back in the day, accounting for Canada’s first aviation fatality. (submitted)

Column T.W. Paterson: Recent news story recalls B.C.’s first aviation fatality

In seconds, the balloon reached such an altitude that Marble “assumed the proportions of a large doll”

In seconds, the balloon reached such an altitude that Marble “assumed the proportions of a large doll”.

Daredevils have always been with us, probably as long as man’s fascination for flying. Hence the development of hot-air balloons — originally in default of powered flight, latterly as recreational toys.

But none like that of Daniel Boria who made aviation ‘history’ at the 2015 Calgary Stampede. The mid-20s former Victorian launched himself an estimated 14,000 feet — almost three miles high — on a lawn chair “powered” by more than 100 large helium balloons!

With the intention of parachuting over the chuckwagon races, he said, as a publicity stunt for his cleaning company. But high winds forced him to jump early, before he made it to the race track.

He managed to land safely, into the arms of police who charged him with the dangerous operation of an “aircraft”. In March of this year he received a scathing lecture from a judge and fines totalling $26,500.

Was he sorry? Not a bit: “I have the greatest story to tell for the rest of my life,” he told reporters.

At least he lived to tell the tale. Not so barnstormer Milton Bryant who, on Aug. 6, 1913, crashed his converted Curtiss seaplane onto a Victoria rooftop. Killed instantly, he’s officially listed as Canada’s first aviation fatality.

T’ain’t so!

He’s Canada’s first aircraft victim, yes. But the dubious distinction of being Canada’s first flying fatality goes to a young balloonist, Charles Marble, who, 20 years earlier, “sold his life for a trifle”.

Thousands of spectators crowded onto the grounds of the New Westminster fairgrounds, that warm fall afternoon. The most eye-catching display was Professor Soper’s balloon. Almost as intriguing was the young man who strutted about the fairgrounds in shocking pink tights. Head held high, and with a barely concealed smile of satisfaction, he basked in the glow of the amazed stares of those about him.

Perhaps he wouldn’t have been so smug had he known the gist of the many comments which followed him: “There’s the fool that’s going to risk his life in a balloon. He’ll drop in the river, sure.”

When it was time for his ascension, Marble readied the balloon for its first flight of the exhibition. After examining the “immense canvas monster” for leaks, he patched a few small holes with thread and needle and hauled the collapsed balloon into position over a fire of wood and coal oil. The resulting gas and smoke entered the hole at the base of the balloon and, slowly, the great bulk of canvas assumed the shape of a giant, inverted lightbulb.

Marble entered the basket slung underneath and freed the guy wires which anchored his ungainly craft to the ground. Immediately, the balloon, according to a breathless news account, “ascended swift as a rocket. First the large bulk, then yards of rope, then the folded parachute, then more yards of rope, then a trapeze, and dangling in the air at the end of all was the figure of Marble.”

In seconds, the balloon reached such an altitude that Marble “assumed the proportions of a large doll, performing like a marionette at a giddy height above the surging crowd, who, silent as death, kept their fascinating yet unwilling eyes on the daring aeronaut”.

Marble continued to thrill his audience with death-defying stunts as his balloon, apparently having reached its maximum altitude, drifted out and over the Fraser River. There, becalmed, it hovered in mid-air. He could be seen, busying himself with the rope as, hundreds of feet below, thousands of upturned faces waited in breathless silence for him to make his descent by parachute.

A murmuring rippled through the crowd as it became apparent that the balloon was again moving — not away, but downward. It continued to lose altitude, with Marble clinging to the trapeze as it crossed the river and dropped from sight below the treeline.

Moments later, it reappeared above the trees and soared skyward with smoke pouring from its emptying valve.

Again, an excited murmur swept the crowd: “He fell in the river!” exclaimed one. “He fell safely on the other side, he knows how to control that balloon,” countered another. A third spectator argued, cynically, “That’s not a parachute drop — he shouldn’t be paid a cent.”

And with that, they turned away, forgetting the Marvellous Marble as they watched the Vancouver and New Westminster seniors take the field.

In town, many of those whose duties had prevented their attending the fair had had a better view of the balloon’s erratic performance. Upon losing altitude directly above the river, the bulging craft seemed to be headed right for the water — “straight down, with terrible certainty, without a breath of air to sweep it to the land”.

Upon realizing that Marble was in trouble, a small fleet of boats rowed frantically for the balloon, which was yet sufficiently inflated that it bobbed on the current. There was no sign of Marble, but as the first rescuers came alongside, they noticed his parachute floating on the surface. Upon pulling it in, a boatman found “the inanimate form of the aeronaut…tied fast”.

Amazingly, Marble was alive and he was rushed to the nearby Guichon Hotel where he died without regaining consciousness. An autopsy would show that he hadn’t drowned — his heart had all but stopped before he hit the water.

Poor Marble had literally been frightened to death.

Only 21, his first flight — Canada’s first aviation fatality — had been his last. All for the grand sum of $10.