Hawthorne C. Gray was a driven man. The Coeur d’Alene High School and University of Idaho graduate was the son of Captain W.P. Gray who piloted the steamer Georgie Oaks on Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Hawthorne Gray joined the Idaho National Guard after graduating from U of I, and later the U.S. Army. Early on in his army career, in 1916, he fought in the Pancho Villa Expedition, serving as an infantry private. In 1917 he was commissioned a second lieutenant and in 1920 transferred to the U.S. Army Air Service as a captain. Shortly after that Gray caught the balloon bug.
He participated in some major balloon races, finishing second in the 1926 Gordon Bennett, the premiere race for gas balloonists. Then he set his sights on the altitude record for gas balloons. In 1927 he set an unofficial altitude record at 28,510 feet. He passed out during the attempt and awoke as the balloon was descending on its own just in time to throw off ballast and land safely.
In May that same year he went up again, smashing the altitude record for a human being by taking his balloon to 42,470 feet. But that record would remain unofficial. The balloon was dropping like a rock and he bailed out at 8,000 feet, parachuting to safety. Since he did not ride the bag down the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the organization that sanctioned such records, refused to recognize it.
So, back into the air. He made his third attempt in November 1927, rising ultimately to somewhere between 43,000 and 44,000 feet. Alas, once again he passed out. This time that proved fatal. Hawthorne Gray died in his final record attempt. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, posthumously.
That’s a sad story, but why would it be difficult for me to write? Because I had a friend and kayak partner who spent some years in the army, as did Gray. Carol was a flight surgeon. She was passionate about balloons, too, and once broke the altitude record for a woman in a gas balloon. She also won, along with ballooning partner Richard Abruzzo, the 2004 Gordon Bennett balloon race. They competed in that race twice more. In 2010 Carol Rymer Davis, driven in much the same way Hawthorne Gray was, went down with Richard Abruzzo over the Adriatic in a thunderstorm during the Gordon Bennett. They both died.