Smithsonian National Air and Space MuseumPioneers of Flight

Military Aviation

High Altitude Flight

Balloons offered one great advantage over airplanes—they could climb to the very roof of the sky, where there is too little air to provide lift for wings or to support air-breathing engines. As a result, they became essential research tools, enabling scientists to study conditions in the upper atmosphere and to develop and test equipment and techniques that would protect aviators at high altitudes.

During the 1930s, teams from the United States and Europe made repeated attempts to capture and hold the world's absolute altitude record—an unofficial race to the stratosphere for national prestige and new scientific knowledge.

Capt. Hawthorne Gray and his Balloon Basket
U.S. Army Air Corps balloonist Capt. Hawthorne Gray launched from Scott Field, Illinois, on November 4, 1927, on his third attempt to explore conditions and test equipment that would enable air crews to survive and function at altitudes of over 12,192 meters (40,000 feet).

The balloon was found in a tree near Sparta, Tennessee, the next day, with Gray's lifeless body still in the basket. He had apparently become confused, parachuting a full bottle of oxygen to earth in an effort to climb even higher. He died from lack of oxygen. "His courage," suggested the citation of his posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross, "was greater than his supply of oxygen."

Explorer II
In this pressurized balloon gondola, on November 11, 1935, Capt. Albert Stevens and Capt. Orvil Anderson of the U.S. Army Air Corps reached 22,065 meters (72,395 feet), a world altitude record that would stand for 20 years.

The Explorer II balloon boasted a capacity of 104,772 cubic meters (3,700,000 cubic feet) of helium. The 3-meter (9-foot) spherical gondola is made of welded magnesium/aluminum alloy sections, weighs 290 kilograms (640 pounds), and can carry a payload of 680 kilograms (1,500 pounds).

Gift of the National Geographic Society

Explorer II Gondola

Look Inside Explorer II Cabin


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QuickTime VR panorama created from actual cockpit photography.

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