The Piccard Gondola: History in the Air

by Dr. Voula Saridakis, Curator

Jean and Jeanette Piccard in their Gondola
Jeannette and Jean Piccard. Photo courtesy of Mary-Louise Piccard.

Who were the Piccards?

The Piccards were a family of explorers. Twin brothers Auguste and Jean Piccard were born in Switzerland in 1884 and grew up with interests in science, engineering, and invention. Auguste’s interest in cosmic radiation in the upper atmosphere led him to design a spherical, pressurized aluminum gondola that could ascend to a high altitude where he could take measurements of cosmic rays. On May 27, 1931, Auguste and Paul Kipfer took off from Augsburg, Germany in their prototype gondola, and reached a record altitude of 51,775 feet, becoming the first humans to enter the stratosphere. Meanwhile, Jean had moved to the United States in 1931 to teach at the University of Chicago, where he met and married Jeanette Ridlon, who was working on her masters in organic chemistry at the time.

The Piccard Gondola at the Century of Progress

Interest in manned ballooning was growing in the United States in the early 1930s. Auguste was invited to design a new gondola specifically for the Century of Progress. While on a lecture tour in the United States, he even drew the designs on stationary from Chicago’s famous Palmer House Hotel. He eventually turned oversight of the project to his brother, Jean. The gondola’s first flight, from Soldier Field in October 1933, was piloted by Navy balloon pilot, Thomas “Tex” Settle. An open gas valve forced the gondola down moments after liftoff. The second flight took place a month later on November 20, 1933 in Akron, Ohio. Settle piloted once again, but this time he was joined by Marine Corps officer and instrument operator, Major Chester L. Fordney. Their flight was a success, setting the highest altitude record at the time at 61,237 feet and making them the first Americans to reach the stratosphere.

Jeannette Piccard's aeronautic license. Courtesy of Mary-Louise Piccard.

First Woman into the Stratosphere

After setting the altitude record, the balloon was returned to the Piccards who decided to fly it into the stratosphere themselves. Jean restored the gondola and balloon, while Jeanette worked on her pilot’s license. She became the first woman licensed balloon pilot in the United States in 1934.

The third and final flight of the Piccard Gondola was on October 23, 1934. That morning, Jean, Jeannette, and their pet turtle, Fleur de Lys, lifted off from Ford Airport in Dearborn, Michigan (named after Henry Ford who was in attendance along with Orville Wright). While they did not break the previous altitude record, they managed to reach 57,579 feet.

By traveling up nearly 11 miles into the stratosphere, Jeannette set the woman’s altitude record and also became the first woman to pilot a flight into the stratosphere. This record would stand for 29 years until 1963, when Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.

After these historic flights, the Piccard Gondola was retired to the Museum of Science and Industry in 1935 where it remains on view in the Transportation Gallery.