Tag Archives: Lighter-Than-Air

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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7 January 1785

Balloon Leaving Dover, Jean-Pierre François Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries depart Dover, 7 January 1785, by E.W. Cocks, oil on canvas, ca. 1840 (Science Museum, London)
Balloon Leaving Dover, Jean-Pierre François Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries depart Dover, 7 January 1785, by E.W. Cocks, oil on canvas, ca. 1840 (Science Museum, London)

7 January 1785: On a clear, calm day, Jean-Pierre François Blanchard and Doctor John Jeffries flew across the English Channel in a hydrogen-filled balloon. They lifted off from Dover Castle, Kent, England at about 1:00 p.m. The journey to Guînes, Pas-de-Calais, France, took about two and a half hours.

The balloon was approximately 8.2 meters (27 feet) in diameter. A gondola was suspended beneath the gas envelope, equipped with oar-like devices that were intended to steer and propel the light-than-air craft.

With sufficient buoyancy to just lift the two aeronauts and their equipment, the Channel crossing was made at a very low altitude. During the flight, all ballast, their equipment and most of their clothing were jettisoned. They crossed the French coast at about 3:00 p.m. and at 3:30, came to rest in a clearing in the Felmores Forest, near Guînes.

Balloon Arriving at Calais, by E.W. Cocks, oil on canvas, ca. 1840 (Science Museum, London)
Balloon Arriving at Calais, by E.W. Cocks, oil on canvas, ca. 1840 (Science Museum, London)

© 2017, 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. 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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17 October 1913

Zeppelin L2 LZ 18 (© Ullstein Bild)
Zeppelin L2 (LZ 18). The smoke is coming from the forward engine car. (© Ullstein Bild)

17 October 1913: On the morning of a scheduled test flight at Flugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof, an airfield south east of Berlin, Germany, Marine-Luftschiffes L2, the second rigid airship built for the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin at Friedrichshafen, was delayed by problems with the engines. The morning sun heated the hydrogen contained in the airship’s gas bags, causing the gas to expand and increasing the airship’s buoyancy.

L2 New York Times 18 October 1913
L2 at altitude. This photograph was published in the New York Times, 18 October 1913. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

Once released, L2 rapidly rose to approximately 2,000 feet (610 meters). The hydrogen expanded even more due to the decreasing atmospheric pressure. To prevent the gas bags from rupturing, the crew vented hydrogen through relief valves located along the bottom of the hull.

L2 leaves a trail of smoke as it crashes to the ground, 17 October 1913. (Zeppelin-Luftschiffe.com)

In this early design, the builders had placed the relief valves too close to the engine cars. Hydrogen was sucked into the engines’ intakes and detonated. L2 caught fire and a series of explosions took place as it fell to the ground.

All 28 persons on board were either killed immediately, or died of their injuries shortly thereafter.

At the time of the accident, L2 had made ten flights, for a total of 34 hours, 16 minutes.

The flight crew of Marine-Luftschiffes L2 (via LZDEAM.NET)
The flight crew of Marine-Luftschiffes L2

A contemporary news article described the accident:

AIRSHIP AND BALLOON NEWS.

The Wreck of the Zeppelin.

ELSEWHERE in this issue we comment upon the terrible catastrophe which befell the German Navy’s new Zeppelin L2, on Friday last week, just outside the Johannisthal aerodrome, near Berlin. From the following official account it appears that the airship was making a trial voyage:—

“She started this morning for a high flight, with twenty-eight persons on board. After three minutes she had attained a height of two hundred metres (over 600 feet) when flames burst forth between the fore engine-car and the envelope. In two or three seconds the whole ship was on fire and an explosion occurred. At the same time the airship fell slowly head downwards, until she was forty metres (130 feet) from the earth. Here a second explosion took place, presumably of benzine. When the vessel struck the earth a third explosion occurred, and the framework collapsed. A company of pioneers and guide-rope men hastened to the scene, and doctors were immediately in attendance. Two of the crew were picked up outside the ship still alive, but they died shortly afterwards. Lieut. Bleuel, who was severely injured, was taken to hospital. The remaining 25 of the crew had been killed during the fall of the airship or by the impact with the earth. The cause of the disaster appears to have been, so far as is at present known, an outbreak of fire in or over the fore engine-car.”

The commanding officer was Lieut. Freyer, and he was assisted by Lieuts. A. Trenck, Hansmann, and Busch, with thirteen warrant and petty officers. There were also on board as representing the German Navy, Commander Behnisch, Naval Construtors Neumann, and Pretzker, and three secretaries, named Lehmann, Priess, and Eisele. The Zeppelin Co. were represented by Capt. Glund and three mechanics, and Lieut. Baron von Bleuel was a passenger. The last mentioned was the only one rescued alive, and he died from his injuries a few hours later.

One of the first messages of sympathy was addressed by President Poincare’ to the German Emperor.

Extraordinary scenes, showing the way in which the calamity was regarded in Germany, were witnessed at the funeral service of 23 of the victims, held on Tuesday at the Garrison Church. Upon each of the coffins Prince Adalbert placed a wreath from the German Emperor and Empress, who with the Crown Prince and princess, and Princes Eitel Friedrich, Adalbert, August Wilhelm,  Oscar and Joachim attended in person, while the Government was represented by the Chancellor, Admiral Tirpitz, the Chief of the General Staff, Field Marshall von Moltke, and many other officers. Count Zeppelin was also present.

FLIGHT, First Aero Weekly in the World. No. 252. (No. 43, Vol. V.), 25 October 1913 at Page 1179

Wreckage of the L2 at Flugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof, Germany, 17 October 1913. (Photo Gebr. Haeckel, Berlin # 3227/2)
Wreckage of the L2 at Flugplatz Johannisthal-Adlershof, Germany, 17 October 1913. (Gebrüder Haeckel, Berlin  3227/2)

The Marine-Luftschiffes L2 had been designated LZ 18 by the builders. Both identifications are commonly used (sometimes, L.II). Technical data for L2 is limited and contradictory. One source describes it as having a length of 158 meters (518 feet, 4½ inches), with a diameter of 16.6 meters (54 feet, 5½ inches). Another states 492 feet.

Eighteen hydrogen-filled gas bags were placed inside the rigid framework and covered with an aerodynamic envelope. The airship had a volume of 27,000 cubic meters (953,496 cubic feet), and a lift capacity of 11.1 tons (24,471 pounds).

Four water-cooled, normally-aspirated, 22.921 liter (1,398.725 cubic inches) Maybach C-X six-cylinder inline engines were carried in two cars beneath the hull. They produced 207 horsepower at 1,250 r.p.m., burning bensin (gasoline). Each engine drove a four-blade propeller through a drive shaft and gear arrangement. These engines weighed 414 kilograms (913 pounds), each.

L2 had a maximum speed of approximately 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour). At reduced speed, L2 had a 70 hour radius of action.

The Kaiser and Imperial princes lead the funeral procession.
The Imperial Princes lead the funeral procession. Left to right, Prince Oskar, Prince August Wilhelm, Prince Adalbert, Crown Prince Wilhelm, Prince Eitel Friederich, Prince Joachim.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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