Tag Archives: World Record for Altitude

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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22 October 1938

Lieutenant Colonel Mario Pezzi, wearing a full-pressure suit, seated in the cockpit of the Caproni Ca.161bis.
Lieutenant Colonel Mario Pezzi, seated in a pressure vessel built into the cockpit of the Caproni Ca.161bis.

22 October 1938: Lieutenant Colonel Mario Pezzi, Regia Aeronautica, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for altitude when he flew an experimental Società Italiana Caproni Ca.161bis to an altitude of 17,083 meters (56,047 feet).¹

Pezzi was awarded the Medaglia d’oro al Valore Aeronautico and promoted to the rank of colonel.

The Caproni Ca.161bis, with Lieutenant Colonel Mario Pezzi, wearing a full-pressure suit, in the cockpit. (Mario Pezzi Family Archive)
The Caproni Ca.161bis, with Lieutenant Colonel Mario Pezzi in the cockpit. (Mario Pezzi Family Archive)

The Caproni Ca.161bis was an experimental single-seat, single engine, two-bay biplane developed from the earlier Ca.113. It was 27 feet, ¾ inch (8.249 meters) long with a wingspan of 46 feet, 9 inches (14.249 meters) and height of 11 feet, 5¾ inches (3.500 meters). The airplane’s empty weight was 1,205 kilograms (2,657 pounds) and gross weight was 1,650 kilograms (3,638 pounds).

ub The Ca.161bis was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 38.673 liter (2,359.97 cubic inch) Piaggio P.XI R.C.100/2v two-row 14-cylinder radial engine which produced 700 horsepower and drove a four-bladed propeller through a 0.62:1 reduction gear. This engine was a license-built version of the French Gnome-Rhône 14K Mistral Major.

Generale S.A. Mario Pezzi,Regia Aeronautica. (Mario Pezzi Family Archive)
Generale S.A. Mario Pezzi, Regia Aeronautica. (Mario Pezzi Family Archive)

¹ FAI Record File Number 11713. This record was retired by changes of the sporting code.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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12 October 1961

Jackie Cochran with her record-setting Northrop T-38A-30-NO Talon, 60-0551, at Edwards Air Force Base, 1961. (U.S. Air Force)
Jackie Cochran with her record-setting Northrop T-38A-30-NO Talon, 60-0551, at Edwards Air Force Base, 1961. (U.S. Air Force)

12 October 1961: From August to October 1961, Jackie Cochran, a consultant to Northrop Corporation, set a series of speed, distance and altitude records while flying a Northrop T-38A-30-NO Talon supersonic trainer, serial number 60-0551. On the final day of the record series, she set two Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world records, taking the T-38 to altitudes of 16,841 meters (55,253 feet) in horizontal flight ¹ and reaching a peak altitude of 17,091 meters (56,073 feet). ²

Jacqueline Cochran’s Diplôme de Record in the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives. (Bryan R. Swopes)
Jacqueline Cochran’s Diplôme de Record in the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives. (Bryan R. Swopes)
Jacqueline Cochran’s Diplôme de Record in the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives. (Bryan R. Swopes)
Jacqueline Cochran’s Diplôme de Record in the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives. (Bryan R. Swopes)
Northrop T-38A-30-NO Talon at Edwards Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force)
Northrop T-38A-30-NO Talon 60-0551 at Edwards Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force)

Famed U.S. Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager, a close friend of Jackie Cochran, kept notes during the record series:

“October 12  Jackie took off at 9 am in the T-38 using afterburner. Bud Anderson and I chased her in the F-100. It was an excellent flight with everything working perfect. Jackie entered the course at 55,800 feet at .93 Mach and accelerated to radar. At the end of the run Jackie pulled up to 56,800 and then pushed over. She cut the right afterburner at 52,000 feet and the left one at 50,000. At 12,000 feet she removed the face piece from her pressure suit and made a perfect landing on the lake bed.

“Northrop-Air (Norair) presented Miss Cochran with one dozen yellow roses.

“A very tender ending to a wonderful program and a fitting token to a wonderful lady—a pilot who gave Norair much more than they expected.”

— Brigadier General Charles Elwood (“Chuck”) Yeager, U.S. Air Force, quoted in Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography, by Jacqueline Cochran and Maryann Bucknum Brinley, Bantam Books, New York, 1987, Pages 307–308.

Jackie Cochran and Chuck Yeager at Edwards Air Force Base, California, after a flight in the record-setting Northrop T-38A Talon. (U.S. Air Force)
Jackie Cochran and Chuck Yeager at Edwards Air Force Base, California, after a flight in the record-setting Northrop T-38A Talon. (U.S. Air Force)

The T-38A is a two-seat, twin-engine jet trainer capable of supersonic speed. It is powered by two General Electric J85-5A turbojet engines producing 2,050 pounds of thrust (3,850 with afterburner). Jackie Cochran demonstrated its maximum speed, Mach 1.3. It has a service ceiling of 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) and a range of 1,140 miles (1,835 kilometers). In production from 1961 to 1972, Northrop has produced nearly 1,200 T-38s. It remains in service with the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Jackie Cochran’s record-setting T-38 is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum.

¹ FAI Record File Number 12884

² FAI Record File Number 12855

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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18 September 1919

Roland Rolffs after setting an FAI altitude record of 9214 meters at Garden City, 20 July 1919. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)
Roland Rohlfs after setting an FAI altitude record of 9,241 meters (30,318 feet) at Garden City, New York, 20 July 1919. The airplane is the Curtiss 18T-2 Wasp, Bu. No. A3325. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

18 September 1919: Curtiss Engineering Corporation test pilot Roland Rohlfs set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Altitude when he flew a Curtiss 18T-2 Wasp triplane, U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics serial number A3325, to an altitude of 9,577 meters (31,421 feet) over Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York.¹ Contemporary sources, however, reported that Rohlfs’ peak altitude was 34,610 feet (10,549 meters).

This record broke Rohlfs’ previous FAI World Record for Altitude of 9,241 meters (30,318 feet) set at Garden City, New York, 30 July 1918.²

aeronautics officials check altitude-recording barographs with Roland Rohlfs after a record-setting flight. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)
Aero Club of America officials check altitude-recording barographs with Roland Rohlfs after a record-setting flight. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

Rohlfs took off at 12:06 p.m. and reached his peak altitude 1 hour, 15 minutes later. The air temperature was -43 °F. (-41.7  °C.). He touched down after 1 hour, 53 minutes.

The Curtiss 18T Wasp was a two-place single-engine triplane fighter designed and built for the United States Navy at the end of World War I. A3325 had been loaned to the U.S. Army to set an airspeed record of 163 miles per hour (262 kilometers per hour), before being returned to Curtiss for additional testing. It was fitted with a set of longer wings and redesignated 18T-2. The second 18T, A3326, retained the standard 32’–½” (9.766 meters) wings and was redesignated 18T-1.

The Curtiss 18T-2 was 23 feet (7.010 meters) long with a wingspan of 40 feet, 7½ inches (12.383 meters). It weighed 1,900 pounds (862 kilograms). The airplane was powered by a water-cooled, normally-aspirated, 1,145.11-cubic-inch-displacement (18.765 liter) Curtiss-Kirkham K-12 60° single-overhead-cam V-12 engine which produced 375 horsepower at 2,250 r.p.m., and 400 horsepower at 2,500 r.p.m. The K-12 drove a two-bladed fixed-pitch propeller through a 0.6:1 gear reduction.

Roland Rohlfs takes off from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York at 12:06 p.m., 18 September 1919. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)
Roland Rohlfs and the Curtiss 18T-2 take off from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York, at 12:06 p.m., 18 September 1919. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

A3325 later crashed during a test flight. Its sistership, A3326, suffered a crankshaft failure and was destroyed. The Curtiss 18T was never placed in series production.

¹ FAI Record File Number 15676

² FAI Record File Number 15674

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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18 September 1918

Captain Rudolph William Schroeder with the Bristol fighter which he flew to a world record altitude, 18 September 1918. Note the gap between to bottom of the fuselage and the lower wing. (U.S. Air Force)

18 September 1918: Captain Rudolph William Schroeder, United States Army Air Service, the Chief Test Pilot of the Engineering Division at McCook Field, Fairfield, Ohio, flew a Bristol F.2B fighter to set two Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Records.¹ ²

Aerial Age Weekly reported:

CAPTAIN SCHROEDER ESTABLISHES WORLD ALTITUDE RECORD

THE Contest Committee of the Aero Club of America has homologated the world’s altitude record made by Captain R. W. Schroeder, in a Bristol fighter equipped with a 300 H. P. Hispano-Suiza motor, of 28,900 feet above sea level, during a flight on September 18, 1918, at Wilbur Wright Field, Fairfield, Ohio, near Dayton.

      Nothing was more fitting. While the Allies’ aviators overseas are beating the Germans on the various fronts, an American aviator, Captain R. W. Schroeder, U.S. Air Service, beats the German aeroplane altitude record.

Captain Schroeder left the ground at 1:45 P. M., September 18, 1918. and reached his highest point if 105 minutes, which would have been at about 3:30 P. M. It took him about twenty minutes to descend, landing about 200 miles from where he started, at about 3:50 P. M.

     Captain Schroeder i sin charge of all Performance Tests at the Wilbur Wright Station and his duties require him to go to 21,000 and 22,000 feet quite often, and he generally goes without oxygen. In this record climb, he got well up to 25,000 feet without oxygen. He used no anti-freezing mixture and his maximum water temperature was 85 degrees centigrade at the start minimum and of 60 degrees centigrade at the highest altitude. The temperature of the air was 32 degrees centigrade below zero.

The reports, including the two barograph charts, duly calibrated and corrected: the performance curves, and the temperature record were certified to by Lieut. George B. Patterson, O. I. C. Performance Test Reports and the instruments were calibrated by the Bureau of Standards, and adjusted locally at the McCook Field Laboratory and personally installed on the aeroplane by Lieut. Patterson.

     The previous American altitude record was made by Caleb Bragg at Mineola, L. I., September 20, 1917, in a Wright Martin, Model V machine, when he reached an altitude of 20,250 feet, and the last world’s record of the International Aeronautic Federation made by G. Legagneux in France on the 28th of December, 1913, was 6,120 meters (20,258 feet). In July, 1914, a German aviator was reported as having flown to 26,200 feet, but the record was never submitted for homologation.

     This world’s record, made by Captain Ruddy W. Schroeder, is the first world’s aeroplane altitude record held by an American since the world’s altitude record made by Lincoln Beachey, at Chicago, Ill., during the International Meet, August 20, 1911, when he reached the height of 11,642 feet (3,548 meters).

     Under the rules of the International Aeronautic Federation, the international aeronautic body which controls all aeronautic sports and gives the necessary official records, a pilot must hold the International Aviator’s certificate to have his record recognized. This certificate is issued in the United State by the Aero Club of America, which is the federation’s sole representative in this country. Captain Schroeder held the the F. A. I. certificate at the time he made the record, therefore his record will be accepted by all the countries affiliated with the International Aeronautic Federation and the Pan-American Aeronautic Federation, which represents twenty Latin American republics.

Under the rules of the Federation to establish an altitude record it is necessary to best the old record by at lease 100 meters. Captain Schroeder, therefore, beat the record by a good margin and has gone higher the the highest mountain, with the exception of the highest peak in the Himalaya, which rises 29,002 feet.

     Captain Schroder is a veteran of the aeronautic movement. He is an old time member of the Aero Club of Illinois and well known for his ability as an aviator and aeronautic engineer.

AERIAL AGE WEEKLY, Vol. VIII, No. 5, 14 October 1918

Bristol F.2B C823. (BAE Systems)

The Bristol F.2B was a two-place single-engine two-bay biplane fighter, designed by Captain Frank Sowter Barnwell, O.B.E., A.F.C., and built by the British and Colonial Aeroplane Co., Ltd., Filton and Brislington, Bristol, England, and several other manufacturers. More than 3,800 were produced and some considered it to be the best two-place fighter of the First World War.

The F.2B was 25 feet, 9 inches (7.849 meters) long. Both upper and lower wings had a span of 39 feet, 3 inches (11.979 meters) and a chord of 5 feet, 6 inches (1.676 meters). The total wing area was 405 square feet (37.63 square meters). Both wings had an angle of incidence of 1½°, and 3½° dihedral. There was no sweep. The lower wing was staggered 1 foot, 5 inches (0.432 meters) behind the upper wing. In order to give the gunner a better range of fire, the lower wing was not attached to the bottom of the fuselage. This had the effect of lowering the upper wing while maintaining a vertical gap of 5 foot, 5 inches (1.651 meters).

The gross weight of the F.2B was approximately 2,810 pounds (1,275 kilograms).

Bristol F.2A

The Bristol Fighters were powered by Rolls-Royce Falcon engines. The F.2B was equipped with the Falcon III. The Falcon was a water-cooled, normally-aspirated 867.080-cubic-inch-displacement (14.209 liters) single-overhead camshaft 60° V-12 engine. The Falcon III had a compression ratio of 5.3:1 and had a Sea Level rating of 288 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. The propeller gear reduction ratio was 0.589:1.

The F.2B had a maximum speed of 125 miles per hour (201 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, and 113 miles per hour (182 kilometers per hour) at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). The fighter could climb to 10,000 feet in 11.5 minutes, and to 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) in 21.5 minutes.

The United States was interested in producing its on version of the F.2B, to be powered by the American Liberty V-12 engine instead of the Rolls-Royce Falcon III V-12. The Royal Air Force sent two F.2Bs to McCook Field to be used as “pattern aircraft.” These were assigned project numbers P30 and P37.³

The Engineering Division at McCook Field found that the Liberty was too heavy to be practical when installed in the Bristol F.2, and other engine types were considered. One of the pattern aircraft was modified to accept a 300 horsepower Hispano-Suiza V-8 engine.

P37 was the project number assigned to the second of the two Bristol F.2B fighters evaluated at Wright Field in 1918.

When equipped with the Hispano-Suiza V-8 engine, the modified F.2B had an empty weight of 1,733 pounds (786 kilograms), and maximum of 2,630 pounds (1,193 kilograms). It had a maximum speed of 128 miles per hour (206 kilometers) per hour at Sea Level; 105 miles per hour (169 kilometers per hour) at 10,000 feet, 100½ miles per hour (162 kilometers per hour) at 13,000 feet, and 97½ miles per hour (157 kilometers per hour) at 15,000 feet. With the Hispano, the F.2B could climb to 1,000 feet in 1 minute, 10 seconds, 10,000 feet in 15 monutes, 5 seconds, 15,000 feet in 28 minutes and 50 seconds.

Three-view illustration for the Bristol F.2B. (Flight)

¹ FAI Record File Number 15463: 9,455 meters (31,020 feet)

² FAI Record File Number 15671: 9,455 meters (31,020 feet)

³ A source states that P30 carried the RAF identification number C949, and that P37, C4729.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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