Tag Archives: Aeronaut

14 July 1897

The hydrogen balloon Örnen (Eagle) on the polar ice cap, 14 July 1897. (Nils Strindberg)

14 July 1897: At 8:11 p.m., G.M.T., the Andrée Arctic Expedition’s hydrogen gas balloon, Örnen (Eagle), came to rest on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean, at N. 82° 52′, E. 29° 32′. ¹ This was the end of a planned transpolar flight and the beginning of a three-month struggle for survival.

Balloon Örnen (Eagle) in its protective enclosure, Danes Island, Spitzbergen, Norway. (Andréemuseet, Griänna, Sweden)

At 1:50 p.m., 11 July 1897, Örnen rose from its protective enclosure on Danskøya (Danes Island) in the Svalbard Archipelago of Norway. Carried aloft in the balloon’s gondola were the expedition’s leader, Salomon August Andrée, and his fellow explorers, Knut Hjakmar Ferdinand Frænkel and Nils Strindberg.

Intrepid aeronauts: Left to right, Gustav Vilhem Emanuel Swedenborg (alternate); Nils Strindberg; Knut Hjakmar Ferdinand Frænkel; Salomon August Andrée (seated). (Andréemuseet, Griänna, Sweden)

The goal of the expedition was to fly across the North Pole and onward to Alaska on the North American Continent. Andrée considered that the balloon would need to retain enough gas during the voyage to remain airborne for 30 days. Supplies for the three men for that period were carried. 36 homing pigeons would allow the explorers to report their progress to the outside world.

This would be the expedition’s second attempt. The previous year, adverse winds forced the aeronauts to abandon the flight.

Balloon Örnen in its protective enclosure, Danes Island, Spitzbergen, Norway. (Andréemuseet, Griänna, Sweden)
Henri Lachambre

Örnen had been designed and manufactured by Henri Lachambre at his balloon factory at Vaugirard, a suburb on the Left Bank of the Seine, Paris, France. The envelope was assembled from approximately 3,360 pieces of a thin woven Chinese silk fabric called pongee, stitched by hand. The seams were covered by glued strips of pongee. The upper two-thirds of the gas bag had three layers of fabric, while the lower one-third had two plies. It is estimated that 8 million stitches were required. Once completed, the envelope was covered with varnish.

The gondola was constructed of wood and wicker. It had an upper, observation, deck, and an enclosed lower sleeping quarters/darkroom.

A net made of more than 300 hemp ropes covered the balloon, and were braided into twelve ropes which were attached to a lifting ring. The gondola was suspended below this. At Sea Level, the inflated balloon with its gondola were approximately 97 feet (29.6 meters) high, and 68 feet (20.7 meters) in diameter. Its total volume is estimated at 4,800 cubic meters (approximately 170,000 cubic feet).

Buoyancy was provided by hydrogen gas which was produced on site at Danskøya. Hydrogen is the lightest element, and gaseous hydrogen has just 7% of the density of air. This provides greater buoyancy for lighter-than-air vehicles than other gases, but hydrogen gas molecules are also the smallest and they diffuse through fabric barriers more easily than any other gas. (Tests before Örnen was launched found that the balloon was losing about 35 cubic meters/1,236 cubic feet of hydrogen each day.)

Balloons have a disadvantage in that they go where the wind takes them. They are not steerable like dirigibles. So, steady southerly winds would be needed to carry Örnen to the North Pole, and northerly winds to travel from there to Alaska. Andrée had a theory that he believed would allow him to steer his balloon as much as 30° to either side of the prevailing wind.

Andrée’s idea was that if several long, heavy ropes were dragged behind the balloon, their weight and friction would cause the balloon to travel slower than the wind was blowing. He could then use two small sails to steer.

Örnen with guide ropes dragging in the water.

Also, these ropes could be used to control the balloon’s altitude. By pulling the ropes in, the weight supported by the balloon would increase, and it would descend. Letting more rope out would mean that the extra weight would be transferred to the surface, and the balloon would rise.

Altitude was critical. Andrée planned to maintain about 150 meters (approximately 500 feet). As the balloon ascended, atmospheric pressure on the envelope decreased. The pressure differential between the atmosphere and the hydrogen would increase, forcing the hydrogen to pass through the envelope more quickly. Any hydrogen loss was permanent, and the balloon’s buoyancy would decrease.

Balloon Örnen airborne, around 2:00 p.m., 11 July 1897. The wake of the steering ropes can be seen on the surface of the sea. (Andréemuseet, Griänna, Sweden)

Problems began immediately. As the guide ropes dragged through the water, they became heavier. They pulled the balloon down to the surface and the gondola actually touched the water. The aeronauts frantically began dumping ballast. Three of the four ropes became entangled and were pulled loose. Örnen began to rise again, but having lost ballast and the weight of the three guide ropes, it climbed to about 1,600 feet (490 meters). The loss of hydrogen accelerated.

The Eagle floated northward above a fog bank. It sank into the fog and sunlight shining on the envelope decreased. The balloon cooled and the gas inside began to contract. Buoancy decreased and the balloon sank further into the fog.

An alternating pattern of rising and falling developed. After the explorers passed into the Arctic ice pack, the gondola would alternately bounce across the broken ice, then rise again into the sky. At about 10:00 p.m., July 12, the gondola settled on to the ice and remained there for the next thirteen hours.

At 10:55 a.m., 13 July, once again airborne, the balloon continued on its flight. Drizzle and fog caused ice to form on the envelope. The gondola dragged behind. After jettisoning hundreds of pounds of ballast and equipment, Örnen rose higher, but again settled toward the ice. The remaining guide rope was lost. Realizing that the end of the flight was inevitable, the crew opened to valves to release the hydrogen. The balloon settled to the ice, and at 8:11 p.m., 14 July 1897, the crew climbed down from the gondola onto the ice floe.

Örnen on the arctic ice, 14 July 1897 (Nils Strindberg)

The total elapsed time of the journey was 65 hours, 35 minutes. In that time, Andrée, Frænkel and Strindberg had traveled 295 miles (475 kilometers) from their starting point on Danskøya.

The next three months were a courageous battle for survival as the three explorers tried to make their way back to civilization. They reached Kvitøya (White Island), an ice-covered island at the northeast of the Svalbard Archipelago. Andrée’s final journal entry was made on 17 October.

The bodies of the three men were discovered in 1930. Their remains were taken to Sweden.

There is much speculation as to the cause of their deaths, ranging from exposure, exhaustion, illness, suicide, or bear attack.

Track of the 1897 Andrée Arctic Expedition.

The expedition left behind journals with detailed meteorological data and other observations. More than 200 photographic images were left on film negatives protected in metal canisters.

The 1897 Andrée Arctic Expedition is the subject of books, newspaper and magazine articles, at least one motion picture, as well as many Internet articles of varying detail. The images taken by Nils Strindberg are available on the Internet and tell of their experiences.

Salomon August Andrée (18 October 1854–1897)

¹ Geographic location of Örnen‘s landing site from the Comité International d’Aérostation (CIA, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Ballooning Commission).

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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4 November 1927

Captain Hawthorne C. Gray, U.S. Army Air Corps, preparing for his balloon ascent at Scott Field, Illinois, 4 November 1927. (U.S. Air Force)
Hawthorne C. Hawthorne C. Gray, U.S. Army Air Corps, preparing for his balloon ascent at Scott Field, Illinois, 4 November 1927. (U.S. Air Force)

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.

This photograph of the equipment carried in Hawthorne's gondola on 4 November 1927 shows the three oxygen cylinders and breathing mask. (U.S. Air Force)
This photograph of the equipment carried in Hawthorne’s gondola on 4 November 1927 shows the three oxygen cylinders and breathing mask. (U.S. Air Force)

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.

Captain Hawthorne C. Gray, USAAC, right, wearing flight suit, with an unidentified Air Corps officer. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

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)

The wicker balloon gondola used by Captain Hawthorne C. Gray on 4 November 1927, on display at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)
The wicker balloon gondola used by Captain Hawthorne C. Gray on 4 November 1927, on display at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

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 Hawthorne Charles Gray, Air Service, United States Army, circa 1923.

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.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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