Ninety years ago this month, on Dec. 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made the first sustained, controlled, heavier-than-air flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. It was an event both portentous and perilous. They and other pioneers risked, and too often lost, their lives to realize an age-old dream of mankind.
Often we think of valor as signifying extraordinary heroism in combat, but countless acts of peacetime heroism have been performed by aviation pioneers, many by early military aviators after the Army bought its first airplane in 1909. Among the earliest pioneers were Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois, who taught himself to fly in 1910, and Lt. H. H. “Hap” Arnold, who, 30 years later, commanded the Army Air Forces of World War II. The hazards confronting these men were enormous. In 1912, eight of the Army’s 14 aviators were killed in crashes.
There will be pioneers so long as the drive to push back the frontiers of air and space continues. Many of their names are well known today–Jimmy Doolittle; Chuck Yeager; astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins–but hundreds are forgotten or only dimly remembered.
This may be particularly true of the 1920s, when a handful of dedicated airmen were absorbing the lessons of World War I in order to create a modern air force. These pioneers were handicapped by the meagerness of annual congressional appropriations. With what little support was available, these few remained dedicated to developing planes that would fly higher, faster, and further. Individual acts of heroism perhaps are best illustrated in high-altitude exploration.
In September 1919, Maj. Rudolph W. Schroeder twice flew a LePere open-cockpit biplane to around 30,000 feet. On Feb. 27, 1920, he took the plane to 33,114 feet, where the temperature was minus 67-degrees Fahrenheit. At that altitude he ran out of oxygen. Gasping for breath, he tore off his oxygen mask and put the LePere in a power-off dive before losing consciousness. Major Schroeder recovered partially at about 8,000 feet and glided to a landing at McCook Field, Ohio. Covered with ice, his eyes frozen wide open, he was lifted from the cockpit and hospitalized until he recovered from his ordeal several days later.
The assault on altitude continued throughout the 1920s. On May 31, 1928, Army Lt. William Bleakley climbed to 34,000 feet. Discovering that he had only a minute’s supply of oxygen, he placed his elbow against his body to keep the control stick forward in case he passed out. When he tried to pull the throttle back, he couldn’t move his arm or raise his head. At 25,000 feet, Bleakley recovered enough to land, but it was two weeks before he regained his strength and was allowed by the flight surgeons to make a successful flight to 35,509 feet.
Other altitude flights were made to test aerial photography equipment. In October 1928, Capt. St. Clair Streett flew Capt. Albert W. Stevens and his cameras to 40,000 feet, where their instruments registered minus 76-degrees Fahrenheit. When oxygen began to run low, Captain Streett couldn’t retard the throttle or move the supercharger control. The light construction of the aircraft ruled out diving at more than 115 miles an hour. They were stuck at 34,000 feet. Finally the throttle came free, just as the engine died of fuel starvation. Captain Streett made a dead-stick landing in a pasture.
High-altitude flights also were made in Army Air Corps open-basket balloons. In March 1927, Capt. Hawthorne C. Gray lost consciousness during an ascent to 28,500 feet. Coming to at 17,000 feet, he crash-landed with only minor injuries. Two months later, Captain Gray took a balloon above 41,000 feet but had to parachute from the balloon when it descended too rapidly. In November of the same year, Captain Gray climbed to 42,470 feet but apparently ran out of oxygen. His body was found in the balloon’s basket near Sparta, Tenn. For his three ascents, Captain Gray was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, a rare decoration in those days.
Why these dangerous high-altitude flights in open-cockpit planes and balloons with rudimentary oxygen systems? Among the objectives were to study the physical and psychological effects of high altitude on humans, to learn about what now is known as the jet stream, and to help determine the requirements for airframes, engines, and equipment to function in combat at high altitude.
To some extent, these men probably were impelled by the prestige associated with establishing records, but their work and that of many other Air Force pioneers helped create an Air Force second to none. They voluntarily laid their lives on the line for that vision. They stand, along with our combat heroes, as a vital part of the Air Force tradition of valor.
Published December 1993. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.