4 November 1927: At Venezia, Mario de Bernardi flew a Macchi M.52 seaplane to a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a 3 Kilometer Course of 479.29 kilometers per hour (297.82 miles per hour).¹
Aeronautica Macchi built three M.52 seaplanes for the Regia Aeronautica (the Italian Air Force) for use in the 1927 Schneider Trophy Races. The M.52 was designed by Mario Castoldi. Like the earlier M.39, it was a single-place, single-engine, low-wing monoplane float plane constructed of wood and metal.
The three racers were each powered by a 2,116.14-cubic-inch-displacement (34.677 liter) liquid-cooled Fiat Aviazone AS.3 dual overhead camshaft, four-valve 60° V-12 engine which produced 1,000 horsepower at 2,400 r.p.m. The design of the AS.3 was based on the Curtiss D-12, although it used individual cylinders and water jackets instead of the American engine’s monoblock castings.
4 November 1927: Captain Hawthorne C. Gray, United States Army Air Corps, a balloon pilot since 1921, has carried out a series of ascents to study the effects of very high altitude on air crews.
Gray lifted off from Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois, at 2:13 p.m., in a helium-filled balloon with an open wicker gondola suspended below. The balloon, Air Corps serial number S 30-241, was constructed of rubberized silk and coated with aluminum paint. It had a volume of 70,000 cubic feet (1,982.2 cubic meters). In the gondola were instruments for measuring altitude and temperature, as well as two sealed recording barographs provided by the National Aeronautic Association (NAA). Captain Gray was dressed in heavy leather clothing for protection against the cold. Three gas cylinders of oxygen were provided for breathing at altitude.
Early in the ascent, high winds carried him to the south, and though he was accompanied by four airplanes, their pilots quickly lost sight of Gray’s balloon. It disappeared into a heavy overcast 20 minutes after takeoff and rose to a peak altitude of 42,470 feet (12,944.9 meters) at 4:05 p.m.
Based on Captain Gray’s notes and data from the barographs, it was concluded that his ascent was at a much slower rate than his previous altitude flights. At 3:17 p.m., he wrote “Clock frozen.” Without the clock, Gray was unable to calculate his time aloft and the amount of breathing oxygen remaining. Estimates prior to lift off were that the supply would run out at 4:38 p.m. The balloon had only descended to 39,000 feet (11,887 meters) by 4:28 p.m. The barographs showed an increase in rate of descent at this time, indicating that Captain Gray was venting helium from the balloon to try to descend faster. The descent slowed, however, suggesting that Gray had lost consciousness.
The balloon and gondola were found near Sparta, Tennessee at 5:20 p.m., with Hawthorne Gray’s body curled in the bottom of the gondola. Captain Gray suffered a loss of oxygen which resulted in his death.
Captain Gray was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, posthumously, and is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery.
His citation reads:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 2, 1926, takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross (Posthumously) to Captain (Air Corps) Hawthorne C. Gray, U.S. Army Air Corps, for heroism while participating in an aerial flight. On 9 March 1927, Capitan Gray attempted to establish the World’s altitude record for aircraft, but due to the faulty oxygen apparatus he fainted at an altitude of 27,000 feet recovering consciousness after 52 minute, when his balloon, having over shot its equilibrium point, descended to an atmosphere low enough to sustain life. Undaunted by this experience, Captain Gray on 4 May 1927, made a record attempt when he attained an altitude of 42,470 feet, higher than any other Earth creature has ever gone. On his descent, however, his balloon failed to parachute, and it was necessary for him to descend from 8,000 feet in a parachute. With faith unshaken, and still displaying great courage and self reliance, Capitan Gray, on 4 November 1927, made the third attempt, which resulted in his making the supreme sacrifice. Having attained an altitude of 42,000 feet he waited for ten minutes, testing his reactions, before making a last rapid climb to his ceiling and a more rapid descent to safe atmosphere. Undoubtedly his courage was greater than his supply of oxygen, which gave out at about 37,000 feet.
War Department, General Orders No. 5 (1928)
Hawthorne Charles Gray was born at Pasco, Washington, 16 February 1889. He was the fourth of six children of William Polk Gray, a river steamboat pilot, and Oceanna (“Ocia”) Falkland Gray.
In 1913, Gray was employed as a baggageman for the Northern Pacific Railway at the Pasco Station. Gray attended University of Idaho at Moscow, Idaho, as a member of the Class of 1913. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering, B.S.(E.E.)
Hawthorne C. Gray served as an enlisted soldier with the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry, Idaho National Guard, 1911–1912, a second lieutenant, 25th Infantry, Idaho National Guard, from 7 March 1912 to 23 April 1913. He was qualified as an Expert Rifleman. Gray enlisted in the United States Army, serving in the Hospital Corps and Quartermaster Corps from 19 January 1915 to 25 June 1917. He participated in the Mexican Expedition, under General John J. Pershing.
Sergeant Senior Grade Gray was commissioned as a second lieutenant, 32nd Infantry, 3 June 1917, and promoted to 1st lieutenant on the same day. Lieutenant Gray was promoted to captain (temporary), 34th Infantry, on 5 August. The rank of captain became permanent on 24 February 1920.
Captain Gray was assigned to duty with the Air Service from 9 August 1920, and was transferred to that branch was transferred on 29 August 1921. His date of rank was retroactive to 21 February 1920. Gray graduated from the Army’s Balloon School, Ross Field, in 1921. In 1923 graduated from the Air Service Primary Flying School at Brooks Field, Texas, in 1923, and from the Balloon and Airship School at Scott Field in 1924.
Captain Gray and Mrs. Gray traveled to Europe to participate in the 15th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett (the Gordon Bennett Cup balloon race), held 30 May 1926 at Wilrijck, a small city near Antwerp, Belgium. Gray and his team mate, Lieutenant Douglas Johnson, placed second out of eighteen competitors, and behind another American team. Gray and Johnson traveled 599 kilometers (964 statute miles) in 12:00 hours, landing in the Duchy of Meklenburgia, a free state of the Weimar Republic (northern Germany), at about 4:00 a.m., 31 May. The Grays returned to the United States, arriving aboard S.S. President Harding at New York City after an eight-day voyage from Cherbourg, on 23 July 1926.
Captain Gray reached an altitude of 8,690 meters (28,510.5 feet) over Scott Field on 9 March 1927. This ascent set three Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Records for Altitude. ¹ On 4 May 1927, Captain Gray reached approximately 42,240 feet (12,875 meters). Because of a high rate of descent, he parachuted from the gondola at about 8,000 feet (2,438 meters). Because he was not on board at the landing, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) did not recognize the flight as an official altitude record.
Captain Gray was married to the former Miss Miriam Lorette Maddux of Santa Rosa, California. They would have four children. Their first died at the age of 1 year, 3 months.
¹ FAI Record File Numbers: 10614, Ballooning, Subclass A-6th; 10615, Ballooning, Subclass A-7th; Ballooning, Subclass A-8th.
4 November 1923: At Mitchel Field, Mineola, Long Island, New York, Lieutenant Alford J. Williams, Jr., United States Navy, flew a specially-constructed Curtiss R2C-1 Racer to a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a 3 Kilometer Course, averaging 429.03 kilometers per hour (266.59 miles per hour).¹
Two R2C-1 Racers was built for the U.S. Navy by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company of Hammondsport, New York, and were assigned serial numbers A6691 and A6692. They were single-place, single-engine biplanes with a wooden monocoque fuselage and fabric-covered wings. Curtiss had made every effort to reduce aerodynamic drag, including the use of surface radiators on the wings to cool the engine. The airplane was 19 feet, 3 inches (5.867 meters) long with a wingspan of 22 feet (6.706 meters). The biplane had an empty weight of 1,692 pounds (767 kilograms) and gross weight of 2,112.3 pounds (958.1 kilograms).
The R2C-1 Racers were powered by a revolutionary 1,209.610-cubic-inch-displacement (19.813 liter) water-cooled, normally-aspirated Curtiss D-12A dual overhead camshaft (DOHC) 60° V-12 engine with four valves per cylinder. The cylinders and water jackets were cast as a monoblock and a drop-forged crankshaft with seven main bearings was used. A Stromberg NA-75 carburetor supplied the air/fuel mixture. The engine turned a two-bladed forged aluminum propeller designed by Sylvanus A. Reed. This fixed-pitch propeller had very thin blades which allowed it to turn at high speed without adverse sonic effects. The D-12A drove this propeller without gear reduction (direct drive, hence the “D” in the engine’s designation). The D-12A was specifically modified as a racing engine and did not have a power rating for normal service, however, it nominally produced 507 horsepower, with a 520 horsepower maximum. It was capable of operating at 2,500 r.p.m. The Curtiss D-12 was 56¾ inches (1.441 meters) long, 28¼ inches (0.718 meters) wide and 34¾ inches (0.882 meters) high. It weighed 678.25 pounds (307.65 kilograms).
Lieutenant Alford J. Williams, Jr., born at Bronx, New York, 26 July 1891, the first of four children of Alford Joseph Williams, a stone cutter, and Emma Elizabeth Madden William. He entered Fordham University in 1909, graduating with an A.B. degree. In 1913 Williams entered the university’s School of Law. He played professional baseball for two seasons with the New York Giants. Williams was 5 feet, 10 inches (178 centimeters) tall, weighed 145 pounds (66 kilograms), and had light brown hair and blue eyes.
Williams enlisted as a private in the New York National Guard, 4 March 1913. He was assigned to Company E, 7th Infantry. When the United States entered World War I, Williams, by then working as a machinist, joined the United States Naval Reserve Force (U.S.N.R.F.) as a seaman, 2nd class, and was trained in aviation at the Naval Aviation Detachment, Massachussetts Institute of Technology; the Naval Air Station, Bayshore New York; and at Pensacola Florida. During training he was promoted to Chief Quartermaster, Aviation. Williams was commissioned an Ensign, December 9, 1918.
Ensign Williams served as a gunnery and primary flight instructor at Pensacola, Florida before being assigned as a test pilot at the Naval Air Station at Hampton Roads, Virginia. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade), 1 April 1919, and to lieutenant, 1 July 1920. He remained at NAS Hampton Roads until being detached to fly high speed airplanes for the Pulitzer Trophy races. As of 9 October 1922, Williams had a total of 1,042 flight hours.
Appointed the Navy’s chief test pilot, he was considered to be a protégé of Rear Admiral William A. Moffet. This placed him in the center of a rivalry between Moffett and Captain Ernest J. King (later, Fleet Admiral). While Moffett was in Europe, Captain King had Lieutenant Williams transferred to sea duty. Williams was angry and in an ill-considered action, resigned his commission.
In 1925 Williams married Miss Florence Wright Hawes of Georgia.
During the 1930s, Williams requested and received a commission as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, and was soon promoted to the rank of major. However, Major Williams publicly advocated a separate Air Force, and for this he was forced to resign from the military.
Williams wrote Aviation from an Airman’s Standpoint, which was published in 1934.
Williams later served as Aviation Sales Manager for the Gulf Refining Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He commuted with a Grumman G-58A Gulfhawk (a civil version of the F8F Bearcat fighter).
Al Williams retired from Gulf in 1951, and passed away 15 June 1958. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
4 November 1909: John Theodore Cuthbert Moore-Brabazon (later, 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara, GBE, MC, PC) flew a small pig in a wicker basket tied to a strut of his Short Brothers Biplane No. 2. He flew approximately 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers).
Short Brothers Ltd., founded in 1897 as a balloon manufacturer, began building airplanes in 1908. It was the first company to build production airplanes. The Short Biplane No. 2 was designed by Horace Leonard Short. It was similar to the Wright Brothers Model A Flyer, which Short Brothers had been building under license in the United Kingdom. Rather than the Wright’s system of wing-warping, the Biplane No. 2 used ailerons. The first production batch consisted of six airplanes.
The Biplane No. 2 was 32 feet, 0 inches in length (9.754 meters) with a wingspan of 48 feet, 8 inches (14.834 meters). Its gross weight was 1,485 pounds (674 kilograms).
The Short Biplane No. 2 was powered by a water-cooled, normally-aspirated 8.990 liter (548.602-cubic-inch) Green Engine Co., Ltd., D.4 single overhead camshaft inline 4-cylinder engine, which produced 61.6 horsepower at 1,150 r.p.m., and turned two wooden 2-bladed propellers in a pusher configuration, by means of chain drive. The Green engine produced 67.8 horsepower at 1,210 r.p.m. during a 7 minute maximum power test. The Green D.4 was 44 inches (1.118 meters) long, 33½ inches (0.851 meters) high and 17 inches (0.432 meters) wide. It weighed 287 pounds (130.2 kilograms) with the flywheel.
The Short Biplane No. 2 had a maximum speed of approximately 45 miles per hour (72 kilometers per hour).