Gray Field namesake’s ‘oxygen ran out before his courage’

Mar 10, 2023, 9:57 AM | Updated: Mar 12, 2023, 11:29 am
 Pasco-born Hawthorne C. Gray was a pioneering military balloonist for three ascents in 1927; Gray Field at Fort Lewis was named for him in 1938. (Courtesy National Air & Space Museum) Detail from USGS topographic map from 1966 shows location of Gray Field at Fort Lewis; McChord Field is to the northeast. (USGS Archives)
Detail from US government aeronautical sectional chart for 'Seattle' from 1977 shows location of Gray Field at Fort Lewis. (Courtesy Feliks Banel)

The airfield at Fort Lewis is named for a nearly forgotten high-flying aviator from the Evergreen State, with family history here stretching back to the 1830s.

Gray Field is in Pierce County at Fort Lewis is not to be confused with McChord Field at the adjoining McChord Air Force Base, though Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base have been known as Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) since 2007.

It was in April 1938 when the memory of Hawthorne C. Gray was honored by the naming of Gray Field. The American military was expanding during what would become the run-up to World War II, and new and expanded military facilities were being developed in many parts of the United States.

Gray was born in Pasco in 1889 or 1890 (sources vary on this). His father was a Columbia River steamboat pilot, and his grandfather was William H. Gray, one of the Americans who came to the Old Oregon Country with Presbyterian missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman in 1836.

In 1870, William H. Gray wrote a famously vitriolic history of the Northwest from the 1790s to the mid-19th century. The elder Gray carried grudges and nursed grievances related to the death of the Whitmans and others at the mission and was critical of Catholic missionaries and of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

But that’s not why Gray Field got its name.

It was 96 years ago this week – March 9, 1927 – when Hawthorne C. Gray, officially known as an “aeronaut,” made the first of three major record-breaking solo balloon ascents for the US Army. All three ascents launched from what’s now Scott Air Force Base.

On that first ascent, Gray eventually reached over 28,000 feet. But, lacking an oxygen supply, he had passed out around 12,000 feet and only regained consciousness as the hydrogen-filled balloon had begun to descend too quickly. It ultimately crashed in a ditch, and Gray twisted his ankle. However, the recording instruments on board proved he had set a new American altitude record, even though he was unconscious at the time.

Gray’s second ascent took place on May 4, 1927. During the two hours, he was aloft, Gray reached 42,470 feet. This time, he was conscious – because he had an oxygen supply. But again, during the descent, the balloon came down too fast. And, since the partially deflated bag did not act like a parachute on the way down as they thought or maybe hoped it would, Gray was forced to parachute from the balloon at 8,000 feet. The now veteran aeronaut landed in a plowed field, uninjured this time. The balloon and its instruments were recovered and returned to the launch site.

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And though those instruments had recorded a peak altitude of 42,470 feet, this new world record was not recognized by the International Aeronautic Federation since, they asserted, Gray had exited his craft before it landed and thus had not completed the mission. This was a time of great feats in aviation – just two weeks after Gray’s record-breaking (though unrecognized ascent), Charles Lindberg flew solo across the Atlantic.

Undeterred or perhaps motivated by lack of formal recognition, Gray attempted a third ascent on November 4, 1927. This time, along with an AM radio, Gray had recording instruments, heated goggles and gloves, and an improved and expanded oxygen supply. In his log book, as he ascended into the sky, he noted hearing radio stations KMOX in St Louis and WLW in Cincinnati. WLW, Gray noted in a snowstorm at 28,000 feet, was playing “Just Another Day Wasted Away.” It was likely a 1927 recording by Ben Selvin and the Broadway Nitelites, with Irving Kaufman performing the lead vocal.

Charming musical interludes aside, something apparently went terribly wrong eight miles above the countryside. Those logbook entries became more sporadic and less intelligible.

And then they ceased.

The next morning, Gray’s balloon was found hanging in a tree near Sparta, Tennessee, some 350 miles from the launch site. Gray was in the basket, deceased but appearing to have suffered no injuries, perhaps perishing from asphyxiation or a heart attack. Authorities surmised his oxygen supply had failed, or he had overestimated how much was available in the three tanks he carried aboard the balloon.

Hawthorne C. Gray’s body was transported from Sparta to Washington, DC, and he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. For his three record-breaking ascents, Gray was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The formal citation reads, in part:

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.”

A little more than a decade after his death, it’s unclear who led the effort to name the field at Fort Lewis, but it made sense because of Gray’s local connections and the fact that the Army’s 3rd Balloon Squadron was based there in 1938. Gray Field, for a time, was the part of the Evergreen State most associated with military balloon aviation.

Nearly a century after his three ascents, evidence of Gray – beyond his name on the field at Fort Lewis – is hard to come by. The basket used in his final ascent is at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Since recent events prove that high-altitude military balloons are still a fact of life in the 21st century, perhaps there’s time to plan a proper centennial celebration for Hawthorne C. Gray in 2027 before just another day is wasted away.

Special thanks to Lee Corbin for his research assistance with this story.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.


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Gray Field namesake’s ‘oxygen ran out before his courage’