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 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.
9–10 October 1900: The Aéro-Club de France held a long-distance balloon race, coinciding with the World’s Fair and Olympic Games. Six balloon teams competed for the Grand Prix, including that of Henri François Joseph, Comte de la Vaulx, and Joseph Félix Georges, Comte de Castillon de Saint-Victor, co-founders, along with several others, including Jules Verne, of the Aero Club.
From the American Monthly Review of Reviews, Vol. 23, January–June 2001, beginning at Page 609 :
Of the six balloons entered for this record-breaking race, the Centaur was one of the smaller, its dimensions being 1,630 cubic meters, while its chief competitor, the St. Louis, measured 3,000 cubic meters. The Centaur rose from the grounds at Vincennes at 20 minutes past 5 in the afternoon of October 9. From Count de la Vaulx’s account of the journey, which appears in Pearson’s for April, we glean the following facts:
“Our direction at the start was north-north-east, and very soon, the sun having gone down, Paris was nothing for us but a vast, vaguely defined patch of luminosity far to the west. The Centaur was in equilibrium at about 5,000 feet [1,524 meters] above the sea-level, when the moon rose with such a radiant brilliance that we could read all our instruments without the aid of the electric lamp. Every now and then a shooting star traversed the vault of heaven, inciting us to wish for the success of our enterprise. . . .”
Count de la Vaulx described the route of the flight, the cities and landmarks that they passed over, the weather and temperatures at various altitudes. At several times during the race, they were in sight of another balloon, the larger St. Louis.
Centaur ascended as high as 22,000 feet (6,706 meters) and experienced temperatures as low as -12 °C. (10 °F.) The changes in air temperature caused the gas in the balloon to expand and contract, and it rose and fell as the density of the gas varied.
Having expended their supply of breathing oxygen, the two aeronauts opened the balloon’s vents to descend closer to the ground. Their anchor rope caught in some trees and Centaur came to earth shortly thereafter.
La Vaulx and Saint-Victor had landed near Korostyshiv, Ukraine. The two counts had traveled 1,153 miles (1,856 kilometers) in 35¾ hours.
Having crossed the Russian frontier without passports, the two gentlemen were held in custody for four days before being allowed to return to France by train.
8 October 1958: At Holloman Air Force Base, southeast of Alamogordo, New Mexico, the Project MANHIGH III balloon was launched at 6:51 a.m., Mountain Standard Time (13:51 UTC). The helium balloon lifted a 1,648 pound (748 kilogram) pressurized gondola. Inside was Lieutenant Clifton Moody McClure III, U.S. Air Force.
Over the next three hours, the balloon ascended to an altitude of 99,700 feet (30,389 meters)¹ over the Tularosa Basin.
From this altitude, “Demi” McClure radioed to Dr. David G. Simon, who had flown a previous MANHIGH mission, “I see the most fantastic thing, the sky that you described. It’s blacker than black, but it’s saturated with blue like you said. . . I’m looking at it, but it seems more like I’m feeling it. . . I have the feeling that I should be able to see stars in this darkness, but I can’t find them, either—I have the feeling that this black is so black it has put the stars out.”
The purpose of the MANHIGH flights was to conduct scientific research through the direct observations of the pilot while in contact with ground-based scientists and engineers, and to gather physiological data about the stresses imposed on a human body during extreme high altitude flight.
Lieutenant McClure was born at Anderson, South Carolina, 8 November 1932, the son of Clfton M. McClure, Jr., a bookkeeper (who would serve as a U.S. Marine Corps officer during World War II) and Frances Melaney Allen McClure. He attended the Anderson High School, graduating in 1950. He earned a bachelor’s degree in materials engineering and a master’s degree in ceramic engineering from Clemson University. He had been an instructor pilot, flying the Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star jet trainer, at air bases in Texas, but was then assigned to the Solar Furnace Project at Holloman AFB.
Prior high-altitude balloon flights had shown the need for extreme physiological fitness, and McClure was selected through a series of medical and physical evaluations similar to those that would later be used to select astronaut candidates for Project Mercury. He was considered to be physiologically and psychologically the best candidate for MANHIGH flights.
The MANHIGH III balloon was manufactured by Winzen Research, Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota. It had a capacity of approximately 3,000,000 cubic feet (84,950 cubic meters) and was filled with helium.
The gondola was built of three cast aluminum cylindrical sections with hemispherical caps at each end. It was 9 feet (2.743 meters) high with a diameter of 3 feet (0.914 meters). Inside were cooling and pressurization equipment ,and equipment for various scientific experiments.
Lieutenant McClure wore a modified David Clark Company MC-3A capstan-type partial-pressure suit with an International Latex Corporation MA-2 helmet for protection. He breathed a mixture of 60% oxygen, 20% nitrogen and 20% helium.
During the flight, Lieutenant McClure became dehydrated. Later, temperatures inside the gondola rose to 118 °F. (47.8 °C.). The cooling system was unable to dissipate heat from McClure’s body, and his body core temperature rose to 108.6 °F. (42.6 °C.). After twelve hours, it was decidede to end the flight. MANHIGH III touched down a few miles from its departure point at 2342 UTC, 9 October 1958.
After his participation in Project MANHIGH, Clifton McClure applied to become an astronaut in Project Mercury. He was turned down because his height—6 feet, 1 inch (1.854 meters)— exceeded the limits imposed by the small Mercury space capsule. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the MANHIGH III flight. He later flew Lockheed F-104 Starfighters with the South Carolina Air National Guard.
Clifton Moody McClure III died at Huntsville, Alabama, 14 January 2000, at the age of 67 years.
¹Sources vary. A NASA publication, Dressing For Altitude, cites McClure’s maximum altitude as 98,097 feet (29,900 meters) (Chapter 4, Page 162). The Albuquerque Tribune reported McClure’s altitude as 99,600 feet (30,358 meters), (Vol. 36, No. 163, Saturday, 11 October 1958, Page 7 at Column 6. The National Museum of the United States Air Force states 99,700 feet (30,389 meters). 99,700 feet is also cited in Office of Naval Research Report ACR-64, “Animals and Man in Space,” 1962.
14–18 September 1984: Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger II, United States Air Force (Retired), lifted of from Caribou, Maine, at the extreme northeast corner of the United States, aboard Rosie O’Grady’s Balloon of Peace, a 3,000-cubic-meter Yost GB55 helium-filled balloon, registered N53NY. 86 hours later, he came rest at Montenotte, Italy, having completed the very first solo transatlantic balloon flight.
Kittinger established four Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Records for Distance, having travelled 5,703.03 kilometers (3,543.70 miles).¹ These records still stand.
This was not the first time Joe Kittinger had ascended in a balloon. The previous year he had set two FAI distance records, covering 3,221.23 kilometers (2,001.58 miles) from Las Vegas, Nevada to Farmersville, New York.² But he is best known for his historic high-altitude balloon flights. On 2 June 1957, Joe Kittinger rode the Project MAN-HIGH I balloon to an altitude of 97,760 feet (29,490 meters). One 16 August 1960, aboard Excelsior III, Kittinger reached 102,800 feet (31,333 meters). He then stepped out of the gondola and began the longest free-fall parachute descent attempted.
During the Vietnam War, Joe Kittinger flew 483 combat missions during three tours. He shot down one enemy MiG-21 fighter, and was later himself shot down. He was captured and held at the infamous Hanoi Hilton for 11 months.
¹ FAI Record File Numbers 1045, 1046, 1047 and 1048
19–20 August 1957: At 9:22 a.m., CDT (1422 UTC), 19 August 1957, Major David G. Simons, M.D., United States Air Force, lifted off aboard a helium-filled balloon at an open pit mine near Crosby, New Hampshire. This was the second flight of Project MANHIGH, MANHIGH II. This was a series of experiments to investigate the physiological effects of extreme high altitude flight. The balloon and its 1,648 pound (748 kilogram) gondola were deployed from the bottom of Portland Mine as protection from wind while it inflated.
After 2 hours, 18 minutes, Major Simon had reached 100,000 feet above the surface of the Earth. The peak altitude was a record-setting 101,516 feet (30,942 meters). While at altitude, Dr. Simon performed 25 aeromedical experiments.
32 hours, 10 minutes after lift off, at 5:32 p.m., CDT (2232 UTC), 20 August, the MANHIGH II gondola touched down 10 miles northwest of Frederick, South Dakota. Major Simons was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. David G. Simons, M.D., Ph.D., Hon., was a world leading authority on chronic and myofascial pain. He died in 2010.