Scott Air Force Base News

Meet an extraordinary Scott Airman from the Lighter-than-Air Era: Capt. Hawthorne C. Gray

Capt. Hawthorne C. Gray prepares for his fateful balloon ascent at Scott Field on Nov. 4, 1927.
Capt. Hawthorne C. Gray prepares for his fateful balloon ascent at Scott Field on Nov. 4, 1927.

Of the hundreds of Army Air Service/Air Corps Airmen who served at Scott Field during the Lighter-than-Air Era (1921-1937), three stand out, including Capt. Hawthorne C. Gray.

Born in Pasco, Washington, on Feb. 16, 1889, Gray was a graduate of the University of Idaho. He served as an officer in the Idaho National Guard. In 1915, he enlisted in the U.S. Army as an infantry private and participated in the Pancho Villa Punitive Expedition into Mexico in 1916. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant June 2, 1917 after the U.S. entered the World War I.

In 1920, Gray transferred to the U.S. Army Air Service and began piloting balloons in 1921. In 1923, he was assigned to the Balloon and Airship School at Scott Field, earning his Airship Pilot’s wings and becoming the executive engineering officer in charge of aeronautical development.

In 1920, Gray transferred to the U.S. Army Air Service and began piloting balloons in 1921.

In 1923, he was assigned to the Balloon and Airship School at Scott Field, earning his Airship Pilot’s wings and becoming the executive engineering officer in charge of aeronautical development.

Gray soon became an expert balloonist, competing successfully as the U.S. Army Team in several national and international balloon races. In April-May 1926, Gray and Lt. Douglas Johnston placed third in the Litchfield Trophy Balloon Race in Little Rock, Arkansas.

In late May 1926, he competed in the Gordon Bennett Cup balloon race in Antwerp, Belgium, the premier international balloon race.

His U.S. Army team placed second among 16 balloons (U.S. Army Teams won the Gordon Bennett Cup in 1928 and 1932).

Encouraged by his success in balloon racing, Gray decided to attempt to break the world balloon record by constructing a huge gas balloon with a wicker gondola at Scott Field. On March 9, 1927, he set an unofficial altitude record of 28, 510 feet in a special balloon launched from Scott Field. He passed out from hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) in the thin high-altitude air, regaining consciousness just in time to drop ballast and slow the balloon’s rapid descent for a safe landing.

On May 4, 1927, he set an unofficial altitude record of 42,470 feet over Scott Field. However, because of the rapid descent of his balloon, Gray was forced to parachute from the basket at 8,000 feet. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale would not recognize the altitude record, as Gray had not landed with his balloon.

On Nov. 4, 1927, Gray made a third attempt to set the official altitude record, launching from Scott Field in Army Balloon S-30-241, followed by Army chase planes.

Gray was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. His pioneering high-altitude work in balloons in the 1920s at Scott Field helped solve several problems encountered by aircrews at high altitude.

The chase planes eventually lost sight of Gray’s balloon and his body was found by a farmer in the balloon basket in a tree near Sparta, Tennessee, the next day. Gray had apparently died of hypoxia during the descent phase of the flight.

The balloon’s barograph showed that the balloon had indeed reached an altitude 43,000-44,000 feet, but the FAI nullified the record, due to Gray’s death.

Gray was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

His pioneering high-altitude work in balloons in the 1920s at Scott Field helped solve several problems encountered by aircrews at high altitude. Significant artifacts from the Nov. 4, 1927, flight are on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio and the wicker balloon basket is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in D.C.

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