Would we have reached the moon without the courage of men like General William Kepner?
In 1934 General William Kepner took part in an experimental stratosphere flight, in which he tried to reach the second layer of the earth’s atmosphere, a staggering 40,000-50,000 ft, in a gondola attached to a balloon. A recording of his memories of this event, held in the Norfolk Record Office (NRO, MC 376/420), gives us a great insight into the technical research and training required to try such a flight, and explains just what happened when the experiment went disastrously wrong.
The sound recording, which forms part of the United States Army Air Force collection within our sound archive, was recorded by General William Kepner in September 1970. The recording is also available via the Air Force Historical Research Agency. Kepner’s flight was a second attempt at the distance after Captain Hawthorne Gray, of the United States Army Air Corps, reached the stratosphere in 1927, but died from lack of oxygen on the descent. Hawthorne Grey’s attempt had been in a balloon with an open wicker basket. For Kepner’s attempt it was decided they would try a pressurized gondola to protect the crew from the effects of low air pressure. This was far less risky as had already been proved by Jean Piccard, who reached 61,000 feet using a metal cabin, or gondola, to protect the crew in November 1933. In the preceding years Kepner had trained as a balloon pilot, before moving on to pilot airship. Between 1927 and 1929 he took part in a number of national and international balloon races, through which he won the Gordon Bennett Cup in 1928. It was this experience which made him ideal for this attempt, alongside his crew mates Captain Albert Stevens, Captain Orvil Anderson.
The flight was due to take off from Moonlight Valley, South Dakota, and in the preceding months staff worked tirelessly on preparing the site and the inflation equipment. In the final stages the balloon was christened Explorer and the crew were visited by various people including Amelia Earhart. Then the waiting began. The team had to work hard on predicting the correct weather conditions to ensure a successful launch. Finally, on 28 July 1934 everything was ready.
The flight was going well until the balloon reached 60,613 ft, when Kepner explains that they heard a noise coming from the top of the gondola. ‘We heard a noise as if someone were knocking on top of the gondola. It sounded to me like a very light tap of a tack hammer, or such as a falling rope might make. I looked up through the top window. I could hardly believe my eyes, but there it was. As clear as an exceptionally bright sunlight on the gondola top and side of the bag, could illuminate the bottom of the bag…. I stepped away and said ‘Andy do you see what I see’. He looked and it seemed to me his face showed amazement. I said ‘Andy there’s a hole in the bag’. He said ‘you’re damned right there’s a hole in the bag’…. The hole was torn about 6 ft wide, just below the catenary rigging suspension band, and extended down 30 ft’.
The team did not know how long the bag would last and a quick decision had to be made. Kepner continues ‘The order was given for each member to get in a position preparatory for individual parachute jumps’ .However not everything went smoothly when they discovered that Anderson’s parachute has come unpacked. They stopped to pack it back again when a further disaster struck. ‘I was looking down when the Balloon apparently bursts. The sensation was so clear there was no doubt as to what had happened. Anderson glanced upward and announced that he observed a huge hole in the bag where the burst was occurring, and from the look on his face I also knew what was happening.
At this point we now know that the remaining hydrogen in the balloon had exploded at 5,000 ft. Kepner continues, I gave him a definite order ‘shove off Anderson’. He said ‘ok’ and immediately backward heaving the lose silk into the air. The chute opened immediately and held him much to my relief. Looking up I saw him clear the edge of the balloon. I looked back and Steve had gone from the other door. I thought he had jumped. I slid down through the rope birdcage and prepared to jump, but from instinct yelled ‘everybody out’. I heard Steve from inside say ‘I am coming’. Surprised, I waited…. He seemed to be struggling to get out, and I said ‘Steve, hurry’…. I pulled myself down into position and pushed him with my foot. He immediately cleared the gondola and I watched for a fraction of a second as he fell. He waited an equal amount of time and released his chute, which opened at once as it flashed by the trailing balloon bag. I immediately left the gondola and reached my own chute which opened at once. In my anxiety over Steve I watched the balloon bag as it flashed by me and saw it hit the ground almost immediately…. I landed within 200 yards of where the balloon had crashed’.
Kepner had bailed out only 500 ft above the ground. All three crew mates survived the crash. They had missed a world altitude record by 624 feet.
After the crash souvenir hunters took many items from the wreckage, whist Kepner himself had to telephone Air Corps Headquarters from a farmhouse in Nebraska in order to report the end of the flight. This telephone call was broadcast live on national radio across America. Surprisingly, this experience didn’t put Kepner, Anderson or Stephens off the work, on their next attempt in November 1935, their balloon reached 72,395 feet and set an altitude record which lasted for twenty-one years. Kepner sums up his experience saying their flight had ‘formed a very good start to space exploration’.