When aerial showman Captain Charles Lorraine let go of his parachute, he shot skywards with his gas balloon and his fate was virtually sealed.

A strong Canterbury nor'wester did the rest. Within an hour and a half he was to become New Zealand's first aviation fatality, more than a century ago.

It was a Thursday afternoon in Victorian Christchurch and spectators who had paid a shilling gathered at Lancaster Park, while others who hung onto their coins watched from outside.

Captain Charles Lorraine, aka David Mahoney, died in New Zealand's first fatal flight, in 1899
Captain Charles Lorraine, aka David Mahoney, died in New Zealand's first fatal flight, in 1899

The balloon, named Empress, was filled with coal gas from the nearby gasworks. A parachute was tethered to a ring on its side ready for use. A trapeze was strung beneath the balloon for the former actor to perform his stunts.

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New Zealand ballooning began in 1889, with "Professor" Baldwin's flight in Dunedin. He floated up 300m beneath his yellow oiled-silk balloon and drifted 400m south before opening a valve to let out the gas. He leapt off and descended to earth with his parachute. The deflated balloon landed nearby.

Lorraine's balloon did not have a release valve - fatally it would turn out - because he believed they would break with each descent, making them too expensive. Instead, his balloon had a weight at the top which, once he had jumped off with the parachute, would tip it upside down and let the gas out the vent at the base.

The fatal last flight of Captain Lorraine, shown here with wife Frances (nee Juriss) on a postcard held in the family album of a great-niece, Julianne Brabant.
The fatal last flight of Captain Lorraine, shown here with wife Frances (nee Juriss) on a postcard held in the family album of a great-niece, Julianne Brabant.

Leo White, in his 1941 book, Wingspread, the pioneering of aviation in New Zealand, said that in the days before winged flight, Lorraine and other balloonists were "the aerial heroes of those early days".

"... daring parachutists clad in circus tights, they form one of the most colourful chapters of the air age. Amazing gyrations were performed by these daredevils as they swayed and tumbled on their trapeze bars hanging from the great filled bags.

"Soaring hundreds of feet above the gaping, tense spectators, these parachutists eventually dived from their risky perches to float back to earth …"

Captain Charles Lorraine with his balloon Empress while it is being inflated for a flight.
Captain Charles Lorraine with his balloon Empress while it is being inflated for a flight.
Captain Charles Lorraine launching his balloon Empress in Christchurch. Photo / Christchurch City Library
Captain Charles Lorraine launching his balloon Empress in Christchurch. Photo / Christchurch City Library

In Auckland, Captain Lorraine's performance was pumped up, circus-like, in a Herald advertisement: "Sensational balloon ascent and parachute descent, with trapeze act in mid-air" and it came with another performer's "exhibition of throwing the boomerang".

At Lancaster Park on November 2, 1899, Lorraine, aka David Mahoney, aged 24, originally from Auckland, wife Frances at his side, stood ready beneath the Empress.

"Now then, gentlemen, let her go," Lorraine said to his assistants, in his last reported words, printed soon after in the Herald and many other newspapers.

"Up shot the globe," according to the reporter, "but a cry of horror went up from the spectators, for the parachute, by some means, had broken free, and hung below.

"It filled out, and prevented the balloon from rising, but for a few moments the captain clung to it. The strain was too great, however, and horror was depicted on the faces of all the spectators when the bundle of silk collapsed, and fluttered to the earth."

"Then the balloon bounded up with a great rush, and the rising northwest wind carried it strongly towards Sumner."

The Press wrote: "Following the balloon in its passage, cabs and traps of all kinds each with their occupants, and a whole army of cyclists, raced down to the seaside resort. All the inhabitants were about, thickly studding the hills on all points of vantage, in a state of fearful anxiety."

"As the balloon lowered Lorraine could be seen working vigorously with his arms and legs, apparently trying to empty the balloon of its gas, so that he should fall on the land."

Lorraine had earlier been seen climbing the netting up the side of the balloon and tipping it, trying - observers thought - to elevate the vent at the base to expel gas and descend. This technique had been used before but was risky: the deflated balloon could spread out in the top of the netting like a parachute, or it could bunch up as a dangerous weight.

Lorraine's balloon, having floated over the Sumner hills or out beyond the shore, descended slowly at first, then plummeted into the sea off Port Levy, an inlet at the eastern head of Lyttelton Harbour.

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The last stages of the drama were witnessed from the Port Hills, from the New Brighton Pier and from the Harbour Board signal station at the heads. The signalmen launched their dinghy, the harbourmaster sent a tug and the Sumner Lifeboat was called out.

One report said Lorraine was seen swimming, while another said that rather than swimming, he was simply sitting on the deflated and now-floating balloon, probably having been seriously injured in the fall.

No trace of him was ever found, and Lorraine was presumed drowned.

Captain Lorraine's fatal balloon flight took him from Lancaster Park in Christchurch to the sea of Port Levy, an inlet at the eastern head of Lyttelton Harbour. Map / Google
Captain Lorraine's fatal balloon flight took him from Lancaster Park in Christchurch to the sea of Port Levy, an inlet at the eastern head of Lyttelton Harbour. Map / Google

Schooled in Parnell, Lorraine had acted in Australia before sailing in 1892 to England, where he learned the craft of ballooning. He performed in many places and reportedly flew twice across the English Channel to France.

He returned to New Zealand in 1899 on an international performance tour and in March the same year he married Frances Juriss.

A great-niece of theirs, Julianne Brabant, of Nelson, recalls her family talking about the balloonist. She has an album containing photos of Frances and Charles Lorraine and newspaper and magazine articles about his exploits.