Balloon Basket, Captain H.C. Gray


Display Status:

This object is on display in the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Collection Item Summary:

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 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."

Collection Item Long Description:

Hawthorne Charles Gray Balloon Basket

And Equipment

Late on the afternoon of November 4, 1927, Jack Fisher, a Black field hand working a patch of ground near Orlindo, Tennessee, was startled to see a small package drifting to earth on a parachute. Running over to investigate, he found a set of radio batteries bearing a tag that requested the finder to contact Capt. Hawthorne C. Gray at Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois.

Shortly thereafter, a Tennessee farmer saw a large balloon pass low overhead. He called out, but there was no response as the balloon drifted off toward the White County line. Will Gordon was the next man to spot the balloon, some three miles from the little town of Doyle. It was now so low that Gordon remarked he could have caught the line dangling from the basket. Then it was gone, flying up and over a neighboring ridge. With darkness falling, none of these Tennessee farm folk chose to go scouring the countryside in search of the visitor from the sky.

Early the next morning, however, a curious youngster found the balloon caught in the upper branches of a tree in a wood near Sparta, Tennessee. Scrambling up the tree, he found a body curled up in the wicker basket. Clad in a fleece-lined flying suit, his face hidden behind an oxygen mask, a parachute strapped on his back, Capt. Hawthorne Charles Gray, United States Army Air Corps, had returned to earth. He had flown higher than any other human being in history, but he had not lived to tell the tale.

Hawthorne Gray had ventured into the stratosphere in a pioneering attempt to solve a number of pressing technical and scientific problems. Since the turn of the century, engineers, scientists, and the general public had become ever more interested in conditions in the upper atmosphere. There were suddenly a great many reasons to attain extreme altitudes.

There were, for example, urgent engineering problems to be solved. The development of the turbo-supercharger after 1920 made it possible to operate aircraft engines in the thin, frigid air of the sub-stratosphere for the first time. The small band of U.S. Air Service test pilots at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio, battled for the title of "Icicle King" as they coaxed their supercharger-equipped Packard Le Pere biplanes to altitudes approaching 40,000 feet.

Breathing oxygen through a pipe stem, operating their open cockpit aircraft without benefit of pressure garments or electrically heated flying clothing, these pilots returned to earth semi-conscious, with tales of the incredibly difficult physical conditions encountered nearly eight miles above the surface of the earth. A great many questions would have to be answered, a great many problems solved, before military or commercial flying operations could be conducted in the inhospitable region of the sub-stratosphere.

As pilots and engineers were beginning to ponder the difficulties of high-altitude flight, the attention of the scientific community was also focusing on high altitude research. The electrical properties of the upper atmosphere had been a subject of discussion since the late nineteenth century. With the advent of radio, the Kennelly-Heaviside and Appleton layers (ionosphere) were identified and their importance in wireless communication noted.

The discovery of cosmic rays in 1912 was even more intriguing to physicists. Victor F. Hess conducted the first serious electroscope studies from the basket of a free balloon on August 7, 1912. The electroscope, an instrument used to detect and measure radiation, indicated, in Hess's words, "that a radiation of very great penetrating power enters our atmosphere from above."

As physicist Bruno Rossi has noted, this discovery "was the beginning of one of the most extraordinary adventures in the history of science."

"Subsequent investigations of the "radiation from above" opened up the new and bewildering world of high-energy physics. Here scientists found particles of sub-atomic dimensions, with energies thousands, millions, billions, trillions of times greater than the energy of particles emitted by radioactive materials found on earth. Here for the first time they witnessed processes in which particles of matter are created out of energy, and then promptly disappear in giving birth to other particles. Beyond this, Hess's discovery revealed new vistas in astrophysics and cosmology. The mysterious radiation was found to carry important messages concerning the physical conditions of the distant regions of space through which it had traveled on its way to the earth. And finally, in an effort to explain the origin of the radiation, physicists developed a number of novel ideas about the nature of the events that take place in stars and in the masses of dilute gas that fill interstellar space."

Thus, by 1920, the upper reaches of the atmosphere seemed to hold the answers to some very intriguing questions. But how were experiments to be conducted at the roof of the ocean of air? The test pilots of the day who ventured much over 30,000 feet had to devote their complete attention to maintaining some control over an airplane that was wallowing through thin air in which it had never been intended to operate.

But the balloon was another matter. A large aerostat, properly designed, would rise far beyond the altitude of the highest-flying airplane of the day. Moreover, the aeronaut, while obviously concerned with conserving sufficient ballast and gas for a safe descent, would be relatively free to tend his scientific instruments and make any required observations.

Balloonists had blazed a trail into the upper air during the nineteenth century. As early as 1804, the French scientist Joseph Louis Guy-Lussac claimed to have reached an altitude of 23,000 feet during the course of a scientific flight that had begun from Paris. He was followed by Pascal Andreoli and Carlo Brioschi, Italian meteorologists, who rose to 20,000 feet aboard a hot air balloon in 1808.

This record stood for over half a century, until September 5, 1862, when the Englishmen Henry Coxwell and James Glaisher almost died at an altitude of just under 30,000 feet. While Glaisher lay in a helpless stupor against the side of the basket, Coxwell climbed onto the load ring to free a tangled valve line. The two men barely survived their adventure and were widely hailed as exemplars of courage in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, but their experience was an object lesson to those who sought to probe the upper atmosphere.

Theodore Sivel and Joseph Croce-Spinelli ignored the lesson, and paid with their lives. Equipped with an experimental breathing device consisting of oxygen-filled bladders and simple mouthpieces, these two men, accompanied by the great French aeronaut Gaston Tissandier, ascended aboard the balloon Zenith to approximately 28,000 feet in April 1875. All three men blacked out. When Tissandier regained consciousness, he found his companions dead.

Undeterred, the German meteorologist Arthur Berson ascended to 30,000 feet in 1894. Seven years later, Berson flew to an all-time record of 35,424 feet with companion. By this time, however, unmanned, instrumented sounding balloons were returning meteorological data that could earlier be obtained only by means of dangerous manned ascents.

The first meteorological balloon sondes, or "registering balloons," were flown in France in 1892. Relatively large craft of several thousand cubic feet, these balloons carried registered instruments that provided a constant record of altitude and temperature. The balloons were furnished with standard open appendixes, so that they descended very slowly through the normal loss of gas. As a result, the aerostats were commonly retrieved at distances of up to 700 miles from the launch point.

The German meteorologist Assmann solved this difficulty through the introduction of closed rubber balloons designed to burst at altitude, dropping the instruments to earth by parachute much closer to the take-off site. These balloons offered the additional advantage of fairly constant speeds of ascent and descent, which helped to insure more accurate temperature readings.

Lawrence Rotch, director of the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory in Massachusetts, introduced the Assmann balloons to America during the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Between 1904 and 1908 the Blue Hill staff supervised the launch and retrieval of some eighty instrumented bal-loons. Rotch reported that a typical flight lasted two to three hours, during which the balloon would reach an altitude of eight to ten miles. The recovery rate was good. Fifty-three of the fifty-six balloons launched in 1908 were recovered with good instrument records.

The use of sounding balloons was not restricted to meteorology. Charles Greeley Abbot, director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, pressed the small aerostats into service carrying specially designed pyrheliometers into the upper atmosphere. Abbot was attempting to study the nature of solar energy and its impact on the earth. Because of the extent to which portions of the spectrum were absorbed during passage through the earth's atmosphere, it was important. to obtain readings from as high an altitude as possible.

The first of the instruments was launched aboard a standard balloon from a Weather Bureau station at Omaha, Nebraska, in July 1914. Abbot claimed that the scientific package, which was retrieved in Iowa, attained an altitude of 15 miles. Later Smithsonian balloons climbed 20 miles into the sky.

In addition to the data on solar energy, Abbot's instruments provided an accurate record of temperature variation with altitude. The scientist noted a strange anomaly in this temperature data: "The reader will notice how curiously the temperatures alter with altitude. It would have seemed more natural to find them continually falling with increasing altitude, till at last they fell to nearly absolute zero. On the contrary, the temperature of the atmosphere ceases to fall at about 7 to 10 miles of elevation, and sometimes is found even to rise a few degrees as the recording apparatus goes higher."

Charles Abbot referred to this mysterious region of static temperature as the isothermal layer. In fact, the instrumented balloons had entered the stratosphere, an atmospheric region first identified by the French meteorologist Teis-serenc de Bort on the basis of his own experiments with sounding balloons in 1899.

For the newspaper-reading public of the decade 1926-1936, the stratosphere was far more than a layer of sky that began roughly ten miles above the surface of the earth at the equator. The word stratosphere conjured up images similar to those that "darkest Africa" had evoked in the nineteenth century or the names Arctic and Antarctic in the early twentieth. Like an unexplored continent, it was a region to be visited by only the most intrepid explorers, members of well-financed and well-equipped expeditions. In fact, no one took a greater interest in the exploration of the stratosphere than the National Geographic Society, the same organization that had supported Robert Peary's first trip to the North Pole. As in the case of geographic exploration, international rivalries were played out in the stratosphere, with the United States and the Soviet Union trading the world's absolute altitude record back and forth while the world press urged them on.

More than any other figure, Capt. Hawthorne Gray ushered in the age of the great stratosphere expeditions. A native of Pasco, Washington, born on February 16, 1889, Gray was the son of Capt. William P. Gray, a well-known steamboat skipper, and the grandson of a member of Marcus Whitman's mission to the Indians of the Northwest. After graduating from the University of Idaho, he enlisted as an infantry private for service in the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant on June 2, 1917. Gray was transferred to the Army Air Service with the rank of captain in 1920. By 1924 he had graduated from the balloon school at Ross Field, the airship school at Scott Field, and the primary flying school at Brooks Field. Assigned as engineering officer to Scott Field in Belleville, Illinois, Gray quickly became a key figure in army lighter-than-air circles. His second-place finish in the 1926 Gordon Bennett race identified him in the public mind as one of the best-known of the nation's military balloonists.

Hawthorne Gray's career as a stratosphere balloonist began with a flight to 28,510 feet from Scott Field on March 9, 1927. As on his subsequent high-altitude ascents, science played a small role in the planning for the first flight. It was an outright attempt to capture the world's absolute altitude record. While Gray's three ventures into the upper atmosphere did offer an opportunity to test high-altitude clothing, oxygen systems, instruments, and other items of equipment required for aircraft operations in the substratosphere, Air Corps publicity releases emphasized the fact that this was an attempt to set a record.

Gray's instruments (a statoscope, a 50,000-foot altimeter, a thermograph, and a rate of climb indicator) were flight oriented and not designed to provide scientific information. There was little doubt that the most important instruments carried aboard the balloon were twin barographs sealed by officials of the NAA. The record of altitude that appeared on the strips of paper inside these instruments would serve as the basis for official recognition of Gray's position as the world's highest man.

The balloon employed, Army No. S-30-241, was a single-ply rubberized silk envelope coated with aluminum paint. The 70,000-cubic-foot bag, loaded with supplies and instruments, weighed 726 pounds. The ballast consisted of 4,520 pounds of sand, packed in bags suspended from a special rack on the load ring. In an effort to make one final push to an absolute ceiling, Gray proposed to discard the useless weight of the rack once all the sand had been dropped. Ross Asbill, foreman of the fabric shop at Scott Field, had sewn special small parachutes so that Gray could drop heavy objects, including the ballast rack and empty oxygen bottles, without endangering those below.

Gray's oxygen system consisted of three 200-inch tanks mounted high on the side of the basket so that they could be shoved overboard with less effort. A 100-inch tank was held in reserve for use as a jump bottle in the event the aeronaut was forced to abandon his balloon at altitude. The three primary oxygen cylinders fed through two pressure valves. Gray received oxygen through a rather primitive oxygen mask covering his mouth.

When Gray emerged from a Scott Field hangar on the afternoon of March 9, 1927, the 183-pound aeronaut, clad in 57 pounds of clothing, appeared, according to one observer, like "a large brown bear preparing for winter hiber-nation."7 Gray himself remarked: "Over the heaviest of woolen underwear I wore two woolen shirts, a sweater and a winter uniform. On top of that was a flying suit, leather on the outside, reindeer fawn skin on the inside, and two thicknesses of heavy woolen blanket cloth between."8 His boots were fleece-lined, high-topped leather moccasins laced at the front and back. A leather helmet, upper face cover, mouth mask, goggles, and mittens completed his outfit.

Gray's first record attempt began promptly 1:18 p.m., when, after checking the instruments, the distribution of ballast, and his oxygen system, the aeronaut tuned in a jazz melody on his seven-tube Atwater-Kent radio and gave the command, "O.K., let her go." One chase plane followed Gray aloft, while two Signal Corps theodolites established on a three-mile north-south baseline tracked Gray from the time of take-off until he disappeared from view moments before landing.

The aeronaut's problems began soon after lift-off. He had planned a leisurely ascent that would permit time to check radio reception and conduct instrument observations. In fact, he had time to do little more than heft the individual ballast bags into the car, slit each one with a knife, and dump the contents over the side. It was an exhausting task that required Gray to dispose of 2¼ tons of ballast by hand. As he passed through 25,000 feet, the oxygen system was also proving less than satisfactory, pouring out a stream of frigid gas painful to breathe.

Gray passed out at 27,000 feet. The balloon continued to climb to 28,510 feet, then began to drop rapidly. The aeronaut regained consciousness at 17,000 feet, only to discover that he was falling at the frightening rate of 1,200 feet per minute. He immediately resumed dumping ballast, abandoning each of his three knives as they became dull, ripping the seams out of the bags by hand. Gray slowed his descent to 600 feet per minute, finally tearing through a set of telephone lines to make a hard landing near Ashley, Illinois, some 40 miles southwest of Scott Field.

The chase plane landed and returned Gray to the post hospital, where he made a rapid recovery. While the aeronaut had set a new U.S. altitude mark, he fell far short of the 35,424-foot record set by Suring and Berson. He had, nevertheless, created much favorable publicity for the Army Air Corps. More important, he could now provide some sound advice on the subject of flying clothing, oxygen systems, and other items of equipment for high-altitude flights.

His helmet, for example, had been almost completely unsatisfactory. In the future, he planned to adapt a gas mask to his needs. Such a mask would provide a tighter seal on his face to conserve oxygen and make breathing easier. Oxygen would pass from the cylinder through an asbestos-covered canister where the gas was heated by electrical coils operated by a two-volt battery. The oxygen exited the canister, which was strapped on the aeronaut's chest, and entered the mask through flat pipes located near the inside of the goggles to prevent fogging at altitude.

Thus equipped, Gray was ready for a second altitude attempt from Scott Field on May 4,1927. The aeronaut had a very specific goal for this, his 107th ascent. He intended not only to beat Suring and Berson's balloon altitude record but to climb above the absolute world mark of 40,820 feet set by French aviator Jean Callizo the previous year.

Gray had no illusions about the dangers involved. He knew that somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 feet the air pressure would be so reduced that his lungs would not function and gases would begin to bubble out of his blood. Gray would be venturing very close to the absolute ceiling, where a human being could no longer survive without artificial pressurization.

The flight began well. Gray rose rapidly toward his maximum altitude, anxious to clinch the record before oxygen shortage became a problem. Each item of equipment functioned properly. He was able to relax on the way up, listening to jazz tunes and watching his instruments. Within forty-five minutes he was approaching his ceiling.

"At 42,000 feet, having been kept alive by compressed oxygen for the last four miles, I was listening to a jazz orchestra playing in St. Louis, the music coming in clear and loud on my radio, without a single trace of static. That was the only connecting link with the world I had left. Far below, cruising along the top of the cloud banks at 13,000 feet, two escort planes, one with a movie photographer aboard and the other with the post surgeon as passenger, hovered and watched me, though I could not pick them out of the mist. Below them the clouds covered the land, except for an occasional rift. Once through such a crevasse, I caught a magnificent view of the Mississippi and Missouri, tracing their winding course for miles and miles to the north and south. "

The sky, Gray noted, "was magnificent in the depth of coloring, which was a deep, almost cobalt, blue."

His sand ballast was gone at 40,000 feet. In order to climb higher, he parachuted the first of his twenty-five pound oxygen cylinders overboard. This sent him up another few thousand feet, high enough to insure his hold on the world record.

"At that height, though still distended, I knew the gas bag above contained less than one-eighth of the gas I had started with. As the balloon had climbed into lighter air and the pressure against it was removed, the gas had rushed out through the big appendix in the bottom, keeping the silvered fabric from bursting. So long as I stayed up, the balloon would be full, but once 1 started down the gas would begin to contract under the increasing air pressure, so that if I could keep all the gas I had, there still would be less than 10,000 cubic feet when I reached the ground. "

After bouncing up and down for a few minutes at 42,240 feet, Gray valved gas to start back down. Low on gas, low on ballast, he faced the classic dilemma of the free balloonist. As his descent picked up speed, he began dumping everything disposable overboard. Keeping one eye on the statoscope, which indicated his rate of fall, Gray knew he was in trouble, and increased his attempts to lighten the load by parachuting equipment.

"The parachutes were designed to fall at sixteen feet a second, the same rate as the large chutes used by flyers, but the bag was falling so much more rapidly that when I dropped things over the sides they appeared to fly straight up in the air. It was queer to see twenty-five pound steel bottles apparently flying upwards. Two more oxygen tanks, the storage battery used to run the electric heater in my oxygen mask, my radio batteries and loud speaker, and finally the wooden frame-work which supported the ballast bags, with all the empty bags still attached, were released to lighten the balloon."

Passing through 8,000 feet, Gray could see trees and marshlands rushing up to meet him. Unable to slow his drop below 1,800 feet per minute, twice the safe landing speed, he climbed onto the side of the basket, balanced himself with one hand on the load ring, and jumped. Drifting to earth beneath his parachute canopy, Gray could see the balloon, free of his weight, rise at last, as the Air Service camera plane circled. He landed safely 1 10 miles from Belleville one hour and twenty minutes after take-off.

The precious barograph instruments were found undamaged with the bal-loon, ten miles from Gray's landing spot. They indicated that the flight had reached a crest at 42,240 feet. Ultimately, however, the effort to capture the altitude record failed. In spite of all the arguments advanced by officials of the NAA, the FAI ruled that because Gray did not land with his balloon, the record would be disallowed.

As before, the flight of May 4, 1927, provided important information on oxygen equipment, clothing, and instruments. Gray, however, was more deter-mined than ever to capture the altitude title and immediately began planning a third flight.

Army Air Corps officials, anxious to avoid the charge of publicity seeking, issued statements to the effect that "Captain Gray's flight was not made with the intention of breaking any records but for the purpose of studying atmospheric conditions at high altitude."' Newspapers were ready to accept this position. The New York Times commented that meteorologists would be more interested in the results of Gray's effort than military officials. "It is," remarked the Times, "another case of the Army Air Service laying science under obligation." Successful Air Corps propaganda notwithstanding, it was apparent that the third flight of Hawthorne Gray was nothing more than an all-out effort to set an official world altitude record.

The aeronaut lifted off on his third altitude flight from Scott Field on November 4, 1927. After bidding good-bye to his wife and son, Gray took off at 2:24 P.M., accompanied by four chase planes. Fifty-mile-per-hour winds were blowing at 1,600 feet that day, and much higher at Gray's altitude. The aircraft pilots, who had had little difficulty maintaining contact with the balloon on previous occasions, now lost sight of Gray when he flew into a cloud bank over McLeansboro, Illinois. The aircraft continued south, hoping to spot the balloon again, but were finally forced to scatter and land at Henderson and Madisonville, Kentucky, late that afternoon. Gray, they knew, had to be on the ground by this time, probably someplace farther south. At the time, however, they could only hope for the best and wait for Gray to send word of his location.

The young boy who found the mortal remains of Hawthorne Charles Gray in the trees near Sparta, Tennessee, early on the morning of November 5, was quick to inform Sheriff Hawk Templeton. A search party arrived on the scene soon thereafter with a number of phone linemen to retrieve the balloon from the trees and an undertaker to take charge of the body. There was little doubt about who this was. Nashville papers had headlined the news of Gray's disappearance in the previous evening edition. Positive identification came from papers on the body. Noting the instruments and papers in the basket, Sheriff Templeton posted a guard at the crash site, then started back for Sparta with the body.

Postmaster S. C. Dodson wired the news to Washington with a request for instructions on where the body should be shipped. The news found its way onto the Associated Press wire as well. That afternoon two of the army chase planes were headed directly for Sparta, while the other two flew to Blackwood Field in Nashville to wait for orders. Only one aircraft, flown by Sgt. S. J. Sampson with Capt. C. J. Bryan as his observer, actually arrived on the scene. The other airplane bound for Sparta was forced down short of its destination, with no injury to the crew.

Col. John Paegelow, a First World War balloon veteran commanding Scott Field, gradually took charge of the situation. Gray's body was sent on to Washington for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. A board of three, including a flight surgeon and two balloon officers, was appointed from the Scott Field staff to investigate the causes of the disaster.

On the basis of the instruments found in the basket and a hastily scribbled log that Gray had kept during the flight, the details of the tragedy came into focus. Station KNOX had been playing "Kashmiri" at take-off. The ascent was much more leisurely than on either previous flight. In March Gray had reached 28,510 feet in forty minutes. This time he required an hour to reach that point. In May he attained 42,240 feet in one hour and five minutes. He required almost two hours to reach the same ceiling on November 4.

Gray's slower pace is not difficult to explain. On both previous flights he had dumped ballast with wild abandon, attempting to rise as quickly as possible before the oxygen ran low. The result had been far too rapid a descent with no ballast left to slow his fall. It seems that Gray was now sufficiently comfortable with his oxygen apparatus that he was willing to take a chance on a very slow climb, which would permit him to conserve ballast for landing.

He was enjoying the radio during the leisurely ascent. KSD was coming in loud and clear at 12,000 feet. As Gray noted, he was beginning to feel "symptoms of rickets" as a result of the falling pressure. At 15,000 feet he turned the batteries on his electrical oxygen heater from two to four volts. The electrical heater for the lenses of a pair of experimental goggles was also switched on as the lenses began to fog. The thermometer read zero as the balloon passed through 19,000 feet at 3:05 p.m. Gray had switched channels now and was enjoying a saxophone solo of "Traumeri." At 3:10 P.M. he was at 23,000 feet, listening to "Thinking of You" on KNOX. Five minutes and a thousand feet later, "Just Another Day Wasted Away" was spilling out into that cobalt blue sky from WLW in Cincinnati. It was even colder, 25 degrees below, at 3:17. The Pied Piper was entertaining over Chicago's WLS.

Gray's fate may well have been sealed with an entry penciled into the log at 3:17: "Clock frozen." Now he was literally reduced to guessing his time in the air and the amount of oxygen remaining in the tanks.

Gray's first tank was exhausted before he reached 34,000 feet. He opened the cock on the second tank, closed the valve on the junction box of the empty cylinder, cut the hoses and lashings, and hefted it overboard to float to earth. As the cylinder tumbled free, it struck the long trailing radio antenna, ripping it from the basket. Gray was absolutely alone now. "No more music."

The journal entries continued in a shakier hand now. Gray was in the stratosphere, and the temperature was rising a bit and stabilizing. At 39,000 feet, the bag was fully distended. A thousand feet higher, the sand ballast completely gone, Gray noted that the sky was a very deep blue and the sun was bright.

This was the last entry in the log, but the barograph continued to run, providing an exact record of the balloon's movements. The craft was oscillating between 42,200 and 42,100 feet. At about 4:05 there was a sudden jump up to the peak altitude, 42,470 feet. We can assume that this jump represents the point at which Gray dropped the radio batteries that Jack Fisher, the field hand, saw descending to earth a few minutes later.

Gray was obviously still alive. He valved gas on the next down oscillation, and was on his way back to earth at last. The descent was slow and steady until he reached 39,000 feet at 4:28 P.M. Now the balloon started down much more rapidly. Gray, probably realizing for the first time that he was running low on oxygen, had valved gas again. The aeronaut's oxygen should, according to his own calculations, have run out at 4:38 p.m., at which time he was still descending through air far too thin to breathe. He must have fallen unconscious by this time, for the barograph track shows a slow, steady descent toward a landing in that grove of trees near Sparta, Tennessee, at 5:20 p.m.

The Scott Field board of inquiry had few doubts about the ultimate cause of Gray's death. "There is one thought-if the clock had only not stopped." Gray's determination to achieve the record explained the slow ascent. The aeronaut's confidence in his own experience with the oxygen system led him to continue his climb after the failure of the clock. When he realized that his oxygen was running out, he was either unable to jump or unwilling to do so, knowing that it would cost him the record. Gray's determination to gain official recognition as the world's highest man had ultimately cost him his life.

The trappings of a hero were heaped on Gray. After burial in Arlington, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross "for heroism while participating in aerial flights." "His courage," noted the citation, "was greater than his supply of oxygen." In 1938 the Army Air Corps named a facility at Fort Lewis, Washington, in his honor. None of this would be of much help to Gray's widow and three sons, who received his Air Corps insurance and $2, 700, the equivalent of six months' pay.

Hawthorne Gray's death underscored the central problem facing high-altitude balloonists. To fly above 40,000 feet without a pressure garment or the protection of a pressurized vessel was to invite death. It was a problem that attracted the attention of would-be stratosphere balloonists in the United States and Europe.

Within a year of the event, Paul E. Garber, then a curatorial assistant with the National Museum, acquired the basket and associated equipment used by H. C. Grey on his last flight. The basket, load ring and equipment are now on display in the Pioneers of Flight Gallery of the National Air and Space Museum.


This essay is drawn from Tom D. Crouch, Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of the Balloon in America (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981), pgs. 591-603.

For additional information on scientific ballooning in the 20th century, see David DeVorkin, Race to the Stratosphere: Manned Scientific Ballooning in America (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1989.)

Data Source

National Air and Space Museum


Do not reproduce without permission from the Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum

Credit Line

Transferred from the U.S. Army Air Corps, War Department


Wicker, wood, rope, metal


4'9" tall x 3'2" square

Country of Origin

United States of America



Physical Description

Basket and equipment used by Capt. H.C. Gray, USA, in a world altitude attempt. See notes.


CRAFT-Balloons & Parts

Inventory Number