A balloon flight and Fort Lewis

Airfield named after aviation hero

By J.M. Simpson on May 4, 2017

Several Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplanes flew from what would become Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle to a grass airfield at Camp Lewis.

Those bumpy landings in October 1921 began a race between the Army and the Navy to see which site would be the area's primary military airfield.

In 1922, the Army built a hanger, Hangar Number 1, as officials continued to push that Camp Lewis be both a major dirigible and fixed wing field.

The drive to be the lead military airfield seemed to shift in the Army's favor with the erection of a Mooring Mast in 1923.

Located in the northern section of Camp Lewis, the structure that was constructed would serve as a dock for dirigibles.  On May 17, 1924, the USS Shenandoah docked as a crowd of 15,000 watched.

It was the only time a dirigible visited Camp Lewis.

Throughout the 1920s, the Army sought the funds to expand the airfield and develop a permanent dirigible site.

The idea for the site never materialized; however, the desire to build up the airfield did take off with Congress.

In 1926, Congress provided funds for a five-year plan to increase the Army Air Services; hence in 1927 - the same year that Camp Lewis became Fort Lewis - a second hangar was built.

The Ft. Lewis airfield housed observation planes.  Growth continued; by 1933, a communications and photography building had been built.

A Public Works Administration project in 1938 constructed new runways (6,175 and 2,300 feet, respectively) a boiler plant, a headquarters building, a six-plane hangar, flight surgeon's office, a storehouse and a film-storage building.

Of interest, a balloon hangar was constructed for the C-6 motorized ship, an observation balloon that could travel 40 miles per hour.

With the growth of Ft. Lewis, its airfield was named Gray Army Airfield April 12, 1938, to honor Capt. Hawthorne Gray, who had lost his life during an attempt to set a high altitude balloon flight record Nov. 4, 1927.

Gray enlisted in the Army in 1915 and served in the infantry in the Pancho Villa Expedition in 1916.  Commissioned in 1917, Gray transferred to the United States Army Air Service in 1920.

He began piloting balloons in 1921, and within five years, he had established himself as an expert stratospheric pilot.

In March 1927, Gray set an unofficial altitude record of 28,510 feet in a balloon launched from Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois.

Two months later in May, he set an unofficial record of 42,240 feet, again over the Illinois airbase.

Because Gray had to parachute during the balloon's descent, his record was ruled "unofficial."

Determined to set a new balloon altitude record, Gray planned a third attempt.

At 2:24 p.m. Nov. 4, 1927, Gray lifted off from Scott Field.

As Gray ascended, he enjoyed listening to music - he liked jazz - on his seven-tube Atwater-Kent radio.

By 39,000 feet, Gray's handwriting in his journal became shaky; his last entry was to note that the sky was a very deep blue and the sun was bright.

At some point, Gray reached an altitude of 42,470 feet.

Soon after, Gray ran out of oxygen and never recovered.  The balloon's barograph recorded a slow, steady descent toward a landing in a grove of trees near Sparta, Tennessee, at 5:20 p.m.

A Scott Field board of inquiry determined that Gray's determination to gain official recognition as the world's highest man had cost him his life.

Buried in Arlington National Cemetery, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross "for heroism while participating in aerial flights."  

The citation also reads "his courage was greater than his supply of oxygen."