Scott Air Force Base News

Scott Airmen were key to setting an altitude world record in 1935

The crew of Explorer II, Capt. Albert W. Stevens (left) and Capt. Orvil A. Anderson (right) in high-altitude flying clothing. The leather Wilson football helmets were on loan from a high school in nearby Rapid City, South Dakota.
The crew of Explorer II, Capt. Albert W. Stevens (left) and Capt. Orvil A. Anderson (right) in high-altitude flying clothing. The leather Wilson football helmets were on loan from a high school in nearby Rapid City, South Dakota. Courtesy photo

Shortly after midnight on November 11, 1935, as Explorer II balloon inflation started, the floodlights at the Stratobowl launch site, near Rapid City, South Dakota, revealed an approximately 20-foot tear in the cotton fabric envelope near the equator of the balloon.

Master Sgt. Bishop and Staff Sgt. Jensen immediately sprang into action, measuring the tear, rushing to the gondola building and cutting out a suitable cotton fabric patch, and returning to the inflation site.

With quick-drying rubberized cement, Bishop and Jensen carefully and skillfully worked their way around the more than 40 feet of edge and overlap. Although the presence of the patch lowered the safety factor of Explorer II considerably, the crew had faith in their repairmen and elected to proceed with the inflation and launch of mission. Two quick-thinking Scott Field noncommissioned officers literally saved Explorer II.

The Explorer II crew consisted of Capt. Albert Stevens, who was in command of the mission and chief of the Army Air Corps photography laboratory, from Wright Field, Ohio, and Capt. Orvil A. Anderson, experienced Army balloonist and airship pilot, formerly assigned to Scott Field in 1922, commander of Scott’s 8th Airship Company in 1925-1926, and frequent pilot of airship RS-1, who was now stationed at Kelly Field, Texas.

Later that morning in freezing weather, a crowd of approximately 20,000 spectators gathered to witness the launch of the Explorer II, a stratosphere balloon sponsored by the National Geographic Society and U.S. Army Air Corps.

Disaster was narrowly averted when a down current struck the balloon as it began its ascent when the crew quickly dumped 750 pounds of lead shot ballast and barely cleared the rim of the Stratobowl by 50 feet.

By 12:30 p.m., Explorer II had ascended to a record altitude of 72,395 feet, remaining for an hour before descending and making a safe landing near White Lake, South Dakota, at 3:10 p.m. some 240 miles east of the Stratobowl.

The flight was broadcast on the radio across the U.S. and Europe and Capt. Stevens and Anderson were national heroes, setting the world record for highest altitude in the skies over South Dakota.

Aftermath

The Explorer II flight gathered valuable information about the stratosphere and the altitude record stood until 1956. Explorer II brought back the first photographs in history showing mankind the curvature of the Earth.

On Nov. 14 1935, Capt. Stevens and Capt. Anderson had a private audience in the White House with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to discuss the flight. In addition, Stevens and Anderson were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Mackay Trophy by the Army Air Corps and the Hubbard Medal of the National Geographic Society by General John J. Pershing.

The Explorer II gondola was transported by truck to NGS Headquarters in Washington D.C. for public display. Today, the Explorer II gondola it is a prized artifact on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the Mall in Washington D.C.

The massive cotton envelope of Explorer II was cut into one million pieces and presented to members of the National Geographic Society as souvenir bookmarks. The Explorer II flight was the Moonshot of the Army Air Corps’ Lighter-than-Air Era and was a precursor to manned spaceflight. Few today remember the key role played by Scott Field Airmen to the success of the Explorer and Explorer II stratosphere balloon missions.

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