Tag Archives: Balloon

2 June 1957

Captain Joseph W. Kittinger II, U.S. Air Force, seated in the gondola of Project Manhigh I, 2 June 1957. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., U.S. Air Force, seated in the gondola of Project MANHIGH I, 2 June 1957. Captain Kittinger is wearing a slightly-modified David Clark Co. MC-3A capstan-type partial-pressure suit (S836) and ILC Dover MA-2 helmet for protection at very high altitudes. (U.S. Air Force)
Project Manhigh I balloon and gondola. (U.S. Air Force)
Project MANHIGH I balloon and gondola. (U.S. Air Force)

2 June 1957: At 6:23 a.m., Central Daylight Time (11:23 UTC), Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., United States Air Force, lifted off from Richard E. Fleming Field (SGS), South Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the gondola of a helium balloon designed and built by Winzen Research Inc.

At 8:04 a.m. (13:04 UTC), Captain Kittinger reached a pressure altitude of 95,000 feet (28,956 meters). This was only 400 feet (122 meters) short of the balloon’s theoretical pressure ceiling. Using U.S. Weather Bureau data, the linear altitude of the balloon was calculated to have been 97,000 feet (29,566 meters).¹

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) was not asked to certify this flight, so an official record was not set.

Project MANHIGH I was intended to test various equipment and human physiology in a near-space condition. Cosmic radiation was a particular concern. This was the first of many high-altitude research balloon flights that Kittinger would make.

“. . .  A Winzen crew conducted the launching, as provided by the Man-High contract, in collaboration with members of the Aeromedical Field Laboratory and other units at Holloman. The 475th Air Base Squadron, Minneapolis, provided additional helicopter support. The vehicle was a two-million-cubic-foot plastic balloon, 172.6 feet in diameter, which quickly reached the planned ceiling altitude of 95,000 feet, setting a new record for manned balloons. Test specifications called for a twelve-hour flight. However, because of an oxygen leak (due to an improperly connected valve) and also certain communications difficulties, Colonel Stapp and Mr. Winzen decided that Captain Kittinger should come down after not quite two hours at altitude. The balloon pilot was not happy with the decision, replying by radio, “Come and get me.” But he did come down, and landed successfully at 1257 hours none the worse for his experience.

History of Research in Space Biology and Biodynamics, Part II, Chapter 3, NASA History Office, December 1958.

Kittinger landed next to a stream approximately 7 miles (11 kilometers) south-southwest of Alma, Minnesota. The total duration of his flight was 6 hours, 36 minutes. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first of six he would receive during his career in the Air Force.

Ground track of Project MAN-HIGH I balloon, 2 June 1957.
Ground track of Project MANHIGH I balloon, 2 June 1957. (U.S. Air Force)

The Project MANHIGH balloon and gondola were designed and built by Winzen Research, Inc., South St. Paul, Minnesota. The gondola was used in all three MANHIGH flights (Kittinger, June 1957; Simons, August 1957; McClure, October 1958).

The balloon was constructed of polyethelene sheet with a thickness of  2 mils (0.002 inch/0.051 millimeter). The seams were bonded using a heat-sealing technique which had been developed by Otto Winzen. When fully inflated with helium, the envelope had a volume of 2,000,000 cubic feet (56,634 cubic meters) and diameter of 172.6 feet (52.6 meters).

Illustration of Project MANHIGH gondola. (U.S. Air Force)

The gondola is 8 feet high and 3 feet in diameter (2.4 × 0.9 meters). It consisted of a cast aluminum section with 6 portholes which served as the primary load-bearing unit of the gondola. The rest of the gondola consisted of an aluminum alloy cylinder and two hemispherical end caps. The capsule was pressurized and filled with a 60-20-20 mixture of oxygen, nitrogen, and helium.

The gondola was suspended from an open 40.4 foot (12.3 meter) diameter parachute, which was, in turn, attached the gas balloon’s suspension rigging. Four explosive devices could sever the attachments and release the gondola and parachute.

The balloon, parachute and associated equipment weighed 1,012 pounds (459 kilograms). The gondola and installed equipment weighed 598 pounds (271 kilograms) and carried another 246 pounds (112 kilograms) of used lead-acid batteries as ballast. Kittinger, with his personal equipment, food and water, added 240 pounds (109 kilograms) to the payload. Finally, there was 70 pounds (32 kilograms) of equipment for experiments, cameras and film. The total weight came to 2,166 pounds (982 kilograms).

The Project MANHIGH gondola is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Project MANHIGH gondola at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

Joe Kittinger flew three combat tours during the Vietnam War for a total of 483 combat missions. On 1 March 1972, flying a McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II, he shot down an enemy Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21. He was himself shot down on 11 May 1972. He and his Weapons System Officer, 1st Lieutenant William J. Reich, were captured and spent 11 months at the Hanoi Hilton.

Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., United States Air Force.
Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., United States Air Force. Captain Kittinger is wearing the wings of an Air Force Senior Pilot and an Air Force Basic Parachutist Badge. The red, white and blue striped ribbon represents the Distinguished Flying Cross. (U.S. Air Force)

Joe Kittenger holds six Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world records for distance set with balloons. Three are still current.² In 2012, he was technical advisor for Felix Baumgartner as he set a new world record for the highest parachute jump from the Red Bull Stratos balloon and gondola.

Vera Winzen, founder and owner of Winzen Research, Inc. The Project MAN-HIGH gondola is in the background. (Joel Yale)

Winzen Research, Inc. was formed in 1949 by Otto Christian Winzen, an aeronautical engineer, and his wife, Vera M. Habrecht Winzen. Both were immigrants from Germany. Mr. Winzen had previously worked for the gas balloon laboratory of General Mills, Inc. Mrs. Winzen had borrowed money from her parents to start the company and held a 2/3 ownership of the company. She ran the factory and trained its workers. She also had four U.S. patents related to balloon construction.

Otto Christian Winzen was born 24 October 1917, at Cologne, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany. He was the son of Christian Winzen and Lilly Lerche Winzen. At the age of 19, Winzen sailed from Bremen, Germany, aboard the Norddeutsche Lloyd passenger liner S.S. Europa, on 29 June 1937. He arrived at New York City, New York, United States of America, on 5 July 1937.

Winzen studied aeronautical engineering at University of Detroit Mercy, a private Roman Catholic university in Detroit, Michigan. It was the first university to offer a complete 5-year degree program in aeronautical engineering. While there, he met the world famous aeronaut, Jean Felix Picard, and his future wife, Vera Habracht.

Reportedly, during World War II, Otto Winzen was interred as an enemy alien.

Otto Winzen later married Marion Grzyll. He committed suicide 23 November 1979 (the first Mrs. Winzen’s 59th birthday).

Major David G. Simons, M.D., U,S, Air Force, at left, with the Project MANHIGH gondola, Otto C. Winzen, and Vera M. Winzen (the future Mrs. Simons), circa 1957. (Photograph by Joel Yale/LIFE Photo Collection)

Wera Maria Habrecht was born 23 November 1920 at Heidenheim, Germany. She was the first of two children of Max Theodore Habrecht, a commercial photographer, and Maya Widenmann Habrecht. The family emigrated to the United States in 1923, with Mr. Habrecht traveling there first. Mrs. Habrecht followed later with her children, Wera and Roland. They first sailed from Hamburg, Germany, 13 November 1923, to the British seaport of Grimsby, Lincolnshire, aboard the passenger/cargo ship S.S. Dewsbury. On 16 Novemberl  the family boarded S.S. Montlaurier at Liverpool, England, and then sailed for New York City. The Habrecht family settled in Detroit, Michigan.

Vera M. Habrecht, 1939. (The Triangle)

With her first name “americanized,” Vera M. Habrecht attended Cass Technical High School in Detroit, Michigan, graduating in 1939. She then studied art at the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis School of Art, both in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Miss Habrecht was introduced to Mr. Winzer by Professor Picard. They were married 1 February 1941, in Detroit.³ They divorced in 1958.

Mrs. Winzer was herself an aeronaut. In 1957 she competed in the 30th Annual International Gas Balloon Races in Holland.

During Project MANHIGH, she met Major David G. Simons, M.D., U.S.A.F. Major Simons flew the MANHIGH II mission, 19–20 August 1957. They were married 12 June 1959. It was the second marriage for both. This marriage also ended in divorce, 5 May 1969. Dr. Simons died 5 April 2010.

On 26 May 1975, she married her third husband, Clifford Charles La Plante, at Arlington, Virginia.

While conducting pollution research Mrs. La Plante, under the name Vera M. Simons, set a Comité International d’Aérostation (the FAI Ballooning Commission, or CIA, world record for the Longest Flight for a Female Pilot, at 133 hours, 45 minutes, 1 October 1979.⁴

Vera Maria Habrecht Winzer Simons La Plante died at Austin, Texas, 31 July 2012, at the age of 91 years.

Vera Simons with a gas balloon, Holland, 1975. (NASM)

¹ Air Force Missile Development Center Technical Report MANHIGH I, AFMDC-TR-59-24, Pages 33 and 35

² FAI Record File Numbers 1045, 1046, 1047

³ Some sources state that Mrs. Winzen had been married previously, and that she had a daughter from that marriage. TDiA has not found any information to support this claim.

⁴ CIA Record File Number AA002

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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29 May–1 June 1862

Thaddeus Lowe ascends in the balloon Intrepid during the Battle of Seven Pines, 1 June 1863. (Matthew Brady) Library of Congress LC-B811-2348

29 May–1 June 1862: Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe, commanding the civilian Union Army Balloon Corps, relayed observations of enemy troop movements, both vocally and by telegraph, from the gondola of a hydrogen balloon which was moored on the north side of the Chickahominy River of eastern Virginia during the Battle of Seven Pines, which took place during the American Civil War (1861–1865).

Having been appointed Chief Aeronaut by President Lincoln, Lowe had previously performed aerial reconnaissance at the First Battle of Bull Run, 21 July 1861. He was also present at the battles of Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg.

Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, 1865. (Library of Congress)
Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe, 1865. (Library of Congress)

© 2018 Bryan R. Swopes

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9 January 1793

Jean-Pierre François Blanchard. (Library of Congress)
Jean-Pierre François Blanchard. (Library of Congress)

9 January 1793: At approximately 10:00 a.m., Jean-Pierre François Blanchard ascended from the courtyard of the Walnut Street jail in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, aboard a hydrogen-filled silk balloon. Aboard were various scientific instruments and a small dog.

Blanchard has sold tickets for viewing the balloon launch, and many people were present, including George Washington, who provided Messr. Blanchard with a letter of introduction.

A contemporary newspaper article described the event: [Note, at the time, the English letter ſ (“long s”) was similar to the symbol for “f”.]

M. Blanchard,

     The celebrated aeronaut made his 45th voyage in a magnificent balloon, from the Priſon court of the city of Philadelphia, the 9th inſt.  amidſt the acclamations of an immenſe concourſe of ſpectators. His aſcencion was majeſtick; he ſaluted his terreſtial gazers with his flag, and appeared to be as much elated, as he was elevated. At the moment in time when THE PRESIDENT arrived, to be preſent at the inflation of the the baloon, 15 rounds were fired by Capt. Fiſher‘s artillery; two cannon were fired every quarter hour until Mr. B. aſcended, when he was ſaluted with a federal diſcharge. At the date of our accounts, he had not deſcended; and it was impoſſible for anyone to ſay in what direction his car would move; or where he would land. If the wind in the upper atmosphere was fair, he was expected to arrive at New-York at night — The citizens of which place were on the look-out for this unusual viſitant.Columbian Centinel, Boston, Saturday, 19 January 1793, Page 2, Column 4.

Jean-Pierre Blanchard began his ascent at the Walnut Street jail, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 9 January 1793.
Jean-Pierre Blanchard began his ascent at the Walnut Street jail, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 9 January 1793. (W. Birch & Son, 1800)

The “aerostat” and its passengers rose to an altitude of approximately “200 fathoms” (600 feet, 183 meters) and drifted to the southeast with the air currents. After 46 minutes of flight, Blanchard and his balloon alighted near the village of Deptford, Gloucester County, New Jersey. Though he spoke no English, Blanchard was able to have some local farmers help him return to Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter, he returned to France.

The approximate route of travel of Jean-Pierre Blanchard's balloon, 9 January 1793.
The approximate route of travel of Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s balloon, 9 January 1793.

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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21 November 1783

Jean-François Pilâtre Rozier, etching by André Pujos, ca. 1784. (Library of Congress)

21 November 1783: At approximately 2:00 p.m., Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent le Vieux d’Arlandes (Monsieur le Marquis d’Arlandes) departed Château de la Muette, the home of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette near the Bois de Boulogne in the western outskirts of Paris, aboard a hot air balloon which had been designed and built by the brothers Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier.

De Rozier had made several tethered ascents previously, learning to control the balloon. On this, the first manned, untethered ascent, de Rozier and Marquis d’Arlandes rose to an altitude of approximately 3,000 feet (910 meters) and drifted to the southwest. After about 25 minutes, they descended to land between two windmills outside the city, at Butte-aux-Cailles. They had traveled about five miles (nine kilometers). They could have flown farther, but the embers from the fire were beginning to scorch the balloon.

The Montgolfier brothers were the sons of a paper maker. They combined with Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, a wallpaper manufacturer, to construct their balloon envelopes of taffeta (a woven silk fabric) coated by an alum/varnish mixture.

The balloon flown by de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes had an approximate volume of 60,000 cubic feet (1,699 cubic meters). It was approximately 75 feet (22.86 meters) tall with a diameter of 50 feet (15.24 meters). The air within the balloon was heated by burning coals. This resulted in a pressure differential: the heated air was less dense than the ambient air. This caused the balloon to rise.

A 1786 illustration of the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloon, flown by de Rozier and M. le Marquis d’Arlandes, 21 November 1783.

Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier was killed 15 June 1785, while attempting to cross the English Channel in a hydrogen balloon along with Pierre Romain. Adverse winds blew him back onshore, but for unknown reasons, the balloon collapsed and fell approximately 1,500 feet (457 meters) to the ground near Wimereux, Pas-de-Calais.

François Laurent le Vieux d’Arlandes died in 1806, possibly committing suicide.

François Laurent le Vieux d’Arlandes, Monsieur le Marquis d’Arlandes, etching by André Pujos, 1784. (Library of Congress)

© 2015, 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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