200 Years of Illinois: Scott Field and the Balloon Man

hawthorne grayOn May 4, 1927, balloonist Hawthorne C. Gray, a captain in the Army Air Corps, reached new heights in human endeavor. Literally. Taking off from Scott Field near Belleville, Gray ascended to 42,270 feet in a silk, rubberized, aluminum-coated balloon. Gray’s derring-do took humanity higher than ever before.

But the feat went unrecognized in official circles. During the too-fast descent, Gray bailed out of his balloon at around 8,000 feet, a violation of rules that stated the record holder must descend with his or her craft. His climb into the stratosphere nonetheless lifted humanity to the next rung in a quest that, one day, landed Neil Armstrong on the moon.

Named after the first American enlisted man to die in an air crash, Scott Field saw its first service in 1917 as a training ground for World War I fighter pilots. Sold off postwar, the field became a station for lighter-than-air (LTA) vehicles, first airships and then balloons, with the latter particularly involved in meteorological and other scientific study. The 1st Balloon Company claimed Scott Field as home in 1929. It would revert to airplane use in 1937 and become a base for training radio operator-mechanics in World War II. In 1948, it became Scott Air Force Base.

Hawthorne C. Gray did not see the Scott Field’s later iterations, however. Undaunted, he attempted another record-setting ascent exactly six months after his May 4 feat. Somewhere between 42,000 and 43,000 feet, Gray either became disoriented or lost consciousness altogether. On November 5, 1927, searchers found his body—still in the balloon basket—near Sparta, Tennessee. The Air Corps awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously and the government granted a request by Gray’s family to bury him in Arlington National Cemetery.