On 21st January 1889, the first manned flight in New Zealand skies was successfully accomplished. Thomas Baldwin performed his daredevil act high above South Dunedin. It would be his 52nd balloon jump.

Born on June 30, 1854 Thomas Baldwin’s first job was as a brakeman on the Illinois railroad. Wanting more excitement in his life, he joined a circus working as an acrobat. In 1875, he created the dangerous act of combining trapeze and a hot air balloon. He honed his act and 10 years later, on January 30, 1885 he made one of the earliest recorded parachute jumps from a balloon then subsequently toured the world as a paid entertainer. Calling himself an ‘aeronaut’, he performed his jumps without being harnessed to his parachute!

While in England, Thomas met a Gisborne landowner who convinced him to take his show to New Zealand.  At the time, Dunedin was the main centre for commerce with a population of 47,000 (Auckland had 33,000) so travelling entertainers from magicians to dancers and singers, as well as London stage shows, appeared in Dunedin’s selection of theatres. It was obvious that the bustling southern city was the best place for “Professor” Thomas Baldwin to perform his nail biting jump.


The first planned ascent of his balloon from the Caledonian Ground was abandoned because the wind was too strong.  A crowd of 5000 had paid a shilling to watch “The Royal Parachutist” as the publicity had labelled him, and many were annoyed when the jump was cancelled.  They complained (some violently) they had been ripped off but when he explained the reason for the cancellation, they left the Caledonian Ground peacefully fully looking forward to a day with less wind to allow him to proceed with his advertised death defying feat.

Two days later, a large percentage of the town’s population turned out to observe his second attempt. “Standing up to address his patrons, attired in silk hat and black frock coat, he looks scarcely like a man on the eve of taking such a startling journey,”  the Otago Daily Times reported.  Those watching wide eyed held their breath as the balloon rose to over 1000 feet. Although his previous jumps had been performed at around 5000 feet, the wind was carrying him away from the paying spectators so he was forced to jump at the lower height. They gasped as he eased himself over the side of the balloon’s basket holding onto his parachute which inflated after a heart-stopping free-fall. “He comes down as straight as a stone and in a standing position for nearly half his journey, and then the onlookers draw a sudden breath of relief, for the air has caught the parachute, and it has expanded into umbrella shape,” the papers reported. The daredevil performer had attached a sail to the side of the parachute which allowed him to steer away from the gasworks which were located beside the Caledonian Ground. The detached parachute was designed to open a hole to allow gas to escape from the balloon, bringing it back to earth. Thomas ended his short ‘flight’ when he landed safely in a paddock beside the Hillside Railway Workshops. The breath-stopping aerial act remained the talk of Dunedin for many months. Unfortunately, inspired by the American’s exploit, a local boy jumped off the roof of his house clutching an umbrella but it proved inferior aerodynamically to a parachute. He survived the rapid drop to the ground but suffered a broken arm. 

Dunedin Balloon Jump 1889 (ODT)

During his New Zealand tour, Thomas told reporters that his biscuit-coloured balloon was made of India silk, and covered with a varnish preparation, and was enclosed with linen netting. The parachute was made of the same material. He also happily went into details about the system of ropes and weights he used to make his aerial act work. It was not only to publicize his performance but to also create interest in his aviation endeavours.


In 1900, Thomas Baldwin built his own pedal powered airship. The US Army was so impressed with his invention they commissioned him to design a dirigible. A few months later, he presented them with a machine that was 95ft (29m) long and was powered by a Curtiss engine. It proved a great success and Thomas became known as the “Father of the American Dirigible”. At this time, he received the Aero Club of America’s first balloon pilot certificate.

In 1910, Thomas went onto bigger things with his aviation endeavours by designing his own aircraft with a 25 horsepower Curtiss engine and in September that year, he became the first person to fly across the Mississippi River. 200,000 people lined both sides of the river to watch his little red bi-plane make the historic flight. To add to the excitement, he flew under two bridges at 50mph. From that day his aircraft became known as the “Baldwin Red Devil”. At the start of World War One, he went back to dirigible designing and built the U.S. Navy’s first successful dirigible. After he died in 1923, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honours.

The man who thrilled Dunedin crowds with his parachute jump from a hot air balloon, went onto become an American hero due to his various aircraft designs, rather than his dangerous aerial exploits with parachutes. Today, he is forgotten in New Zealand even though he was the first person to complete a manned ‘flight’ in New Zealand skies.

Ceidrik Heward

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