Tag Archives: Winzen Research Inc.

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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8 October 1958

The Project MANHIGH III balloon and gondola, shortly after launch at Holloman AFB, 1151 UTC, 8 October 1958. (Al Fenn/LIFE Magazine)
The Project MANHIGH III balloon and gondola, shortly after launch at Holloman AFB, 6:51 a.m., 8 October 1958. (Al Fenn/LIFE Magazine)

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 Clifton M. McClure, U.S. Air Force (1932–2001)
1st Lieutenant Clifton Moody McClure III, United States Air Force

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.

Lieutenant Clifton M. McClure, USAF, seated inside the MANHIGH III gondola. (U.S. Air Force)

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.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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