'Aerial Queen' balloonist crashes in Hamilton

24 March 1894

American balloonist Leila Adair (Palmerston North City Library)

‘One of the most courageous feats ever performed in Waikato’ almost ended in tragedy when Leila Adair’s hot-air balloon burst several hundred feet above Hamilton East. Too close to the ground to deploy the parachute beneath which she usually descended, the ‘Aerial Queen’ had no choice but to stay with the rapidly deflating balloon. The intrepid young American jumped off a moment before it landed in a large mudhole – ‘the only bit of water … anywhere near Hamilton’ – in which she would have drowned. ‘Considerably excited by her adventure’, the ‘only living lady aeronaut’ returned to the pavilion at Sydney Square (now Steele Park) and addressed the crowd before offering up ‘a short prayer to a merciful Providence’.

The balloon was quickly repaired, but Adair’s next ascent in Cambridge three days later also went awry when her parachute snagged on the top of a tall poplar tree. ‘She was however rescued from her perilous position without sustaining any damage.’ Disgusted by the number of Hamiltonians who had watched from vantage points outside the area roped off for paying spectators, she cancelled a scheduled second attempt there and moved on to New Plymouth, where a performance during a pre-season rugby tournament at the recreation ground promised to be more lucrative.

During her year-long tour of the colony, Adair also landed in the Rangitoto Channel and was hospitalised after colliding with a clothesline in Christchurch, and again after being knocked out during a landing on the West Coast. Some spectators were excited by ‘the prospect of witnessing death’, others by her daringly short hair and skimpy costume – ‘a short-sleeved blouse, tiny bloomers, and pink silk tights’. Some saw her, like her predecessor ‘Professor’ Thomas Baldwin (see 21 January), as a brash representative of the rising power on the other side of the Pacific.

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