THE KING AND QUEEN OF THE AIR
Just who the first person was to fly in Wairarapa
is, as they say, 'up in the air.'
Local Maori have a legend that one of their
ancestors, the famed chief Nukupewapewa, strapped himself
on a large kite to attack a paa on the banks of the Ruamahanga
River near Moiki, Greytown, perhaps foreshadowing the invention
of the hang glider.
The arrival of hot air ballooning in Wairarapa,
however, can be much more accurately dated.
The first balloonist in New Zealand was
an American, Professor Baldwin, who made the first New Zealand
balloon flight in Dunedin in early 1889, using coal gas to
inflate his oiled-silk balloon. He was soon followed by a
number of hot air balloonists, but it wasn't until June 1894
that Masterton was included on the itinerary of these travelling
Hot air ballooning in the 1890s was far
from the safe pastime it now is. It was more akin to a circus
performance, and filling the balloon with the hot air was
part of the show. A 10 metre long and 60 cm deep trench was
first dug in line with the prevailing wind, and an old water
tank, with both top and bottom removed, placed at the downwind
end of the trench. The trench was then filled with firewood
and covered. The balloon was suspended on two high poles
and placed over the water tank outlet. The fire was then
lit, the wind carrying the hot air (including some sparks)
along the trench, through the tank and into the balloon,
like a crude blast furnace. A man stood inside the mouth
of the balloon, armed with water to extinguish any sparks
that landed on the balloon. The crowd was then invited to
assist by pulling the skin of the balloon outwards, allowing
the balloon to inflate.
As can be imagined, the process usually
ended up with soot-filled eyes, burnt hands and even singed
Masterton's first balloonist was a graceful
and daring young American woman, Leila Adair, the self–styled "Aerial
Queen."Leila travelled New Zealand, performing acrobatic
acts on a trapeze bar suspended under the inflated balloon,
before dropping gracefully from the bar, and drifting to
earth by parachute. Or at least, that was the way it was
meant to work.
On Leila's first New Zealand ascent, in
Auckland, things went a little awry when the balloon, which
had risen to a considerable height, was blown out over the
channel between Auckland and Rangitoto Island. Not wanting
to parachute into the sea, Leila rode the balloon down until
just metres from the waves. She then dropped into the sea,
suspended by a life belt until she could be rescued by steamship.
Her New Zealand adventures did not end in the waters of the
A Te Aroha ascent ended with a Waihi descent.
In Cambridge she landed in the tops of some tall poplars.
In Hamilton the balloon burst in mid-air while her Wanganui
ascent was even more spectacular. She was unable to get sufficient
buoyancy to inflate the balloon and it flew on a perilous
journey through flagstaffs and chimneys before Leila was
dumped unceremoniously in a fig tree.
Deatails of these adventures were reported
in the local newspapers so the Aerial Queen's arrival in
Masterton was awaited with great anticipation. A huge crowd
paid their shilling entrance fee and congregated in Masterton
Park to watch what they were informed would be the "greatest
sensational feat ever performed in these parts." The
huge crowd was to be disappointed.
Leila and her brother arrived at the ground
in a cab, as arranged, and the dramatic inflation process
was commenced. People stood open-mouthed as the balloon,
said to be the size of a circus tent, slowly inflated. The
men and boys helping to hold the balloon were jolted as the
balloon rocked from side to side. The crowd's intrigue turned
to concern however, as a small whiff of smoke was seen escaping
from the top of the balloon. Before long it became a large
whiff of smoke, then the whole balloon caught fire. The crowd
was excited at the sight of the large balloon burning, but
their excitement turned to alarm as they realised a man was
trapped within the inferno. With the calico burning all around
him the man was trapped within the balloon, and there were
anxious moments before he managed to extricate himself, blackened
and burnt but without serious injury.
Leila Adair sat in her cab watching the
destruction of her balloon. Her brother did his best to help
salvage what remained of the balloon but it was a hopeless
case. The balloon was gone.
Leila’s brother stood and addressed
the crowd, telling them that the balloon was beyond repair,
and that it was going to cost £145 to replace. He promised
that he and Leila would have a new balloon built in Wellington
and would be back the following Saturday to give a free exhibition
to all those who had paid. Not everyone was convinced, some
even going so far as to say that the whole thing, including
the burning of the balloon, was pre-planned and a swindle.
Many Mastertonians did have faith in Leila
and the following Saturday each of the Wellington trains
was met by a crowd, certain that the flamboyant aerialist
would be on the train with her balloon. They were proven
wrong each time.
Leila never returned to Masterton although
she did have a new balloon made, a balloon she toured other
parts of New Zealand with. The closest Masterton got to seeing
Leila in the air was that Sunday when local wag G.S.W. Dalrymple
sent a toy balloon, complete with doll attached to a trapeze
bar, into the air from the Masterton Park.
It wasn't to be until 1908 that Masterton
saw its first balloonist, and it wasn't the 'Aerial Queen'
it was the 'Aerial King'.’ Before that, however, the
first aviation death had taken place in New Zealand, a death
rather bizarrely caused by drowning!
An aerialist calling himself "Captain
Lorraine" (actually Aucklander David Mahoney) was making
an ascent in a gas-filled balloon in Christchurch when his
poorly inflated balloon was blown out to sea. The aerialist
was unable to use his parachute and was seen to plunge into
the sea with his balloon. He clambered on top of his partially
inflated balloon as it floated for a short time but by the
time a boat reached the site, a mile out to sea, Lorraine
Noah Ezra Jonasson, Christchurch-born of
Danish parents, was to be the first successful balloonist
in Masterton when he made two ascents in the town in 1908.
He seems to have learned his trade from an American, Professor
Barnes, the 'Aerial King' who made a number of ascents in
Dunedin in late 1907/early 1908. Barnes had a lucky escape
in Dunedin when a parachute descent went awry, his life being
saved by his landing in some telephone wires.
Jonasson made his first ascent in Masterton
on 2 April, 1908, from the Showgrounds in Dixon Street, now
the Cameron and Soldiers Memorial Park. A very large crowd
gathered to watch his display which was slightly delayed
because firewood used to inflate the balloon was too green
and the balloon filled with smoke. Eventually the balloon
was cast adrift and it shot up into the air with the Captain
performing ‘clever gymnastic evolutions for the crowd.
The balloon did not travel very far, nor ascend very high,
however, and the Captain parachuted down into a paddock behind
Bunny's Bush (now known as Garlands Bush, at the end of McKenna
His next ascent, a week later, was said
to be much more successful.
The newspaper said that although only little
over a hundred people paid to enter the grounds, many were
draped over the Dixon Street fence, and three hundred children
from the nearby Central School had sneaked in free. One of
those children was ten year old Clementina McKay, who, when
recalling the event in an interview in the 1980's, said she
could not remember much about the balloon, but could still
remember the spanking she received for attending when she
had been forbidden to.
The ascent was more impressive this time,
the balloon rapidly rising then catching the gentle southerly
breeze to drift over the town. Jonasson alighted from his
parachute in land between Cole and Essex Streets, while the
aerialist-free balloon continued over the town, eventually
landing in Adamsville (Oxford Street). As the balloon passed
over Adamsville (then largely in paddocks) it was said to
have had curious effects on animals, two quiet horses going
into all sorts of antics, while the tame cockatoo, then resident
in the Adams' Bush, was said to have become very alarmed
by the approach of the unmanned balloon.
Jonasson, unlike many other early aerialists,
lived to an old age, dying in Thames in 1959. He is said
to have undertaken his last parachute jump, from an aeroplane
this time, in the 1930s. He broke a leg as he landed.
The advent of heavier-than-air flight put
an end to the hot air balloonists until the 1960s, when the
combination of coated nylon fabrics and butane burners enabled
modern adventurers to take to the air again in hot air balloons.
In Wairarapa renowned potter Jim Greig from
Carterton led the resurgence with his balloon, Bernina in
the early 1970s.