Photographs courtesy of the Oxford Historical Society.
Hartford, Connecticut—June 6, 1942: Fifty observers from the U.S. Army and Navy watch from the ground as Adeline Gray, a 24-year-old rigger at the Pioneer Parachute Company, steps from the wing of a plane 2,500 feet over Brainard Field to make her 33rd lifetime jump. She is testing, for the very first time, a parachute made from nylon, a new strong and resilient fabric primarily used to make women’s stockings.
Normandy, France—June 6, 1944: Two years to the day after Gray’s jump in Hartford, the D-Day invasions begin. Thousands of U.S. paratroopers—undoubtedly having never heard of the courageous and talented young woman who proved that nylon parachutes could work—descend under the innovative canopies that would help the Allies win the war.
By any measure, Adeline Gray was an extraordinary woman, and this is doubly true for her time. The daughter of German immigrants Martin and Pauline Gray, she grew up in Oxford, an idyllic town in Connecticut. Like many skydivers of today, her dreams of human flight began as a child. After her historic jump, she told the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, “Back home in Oxford, I used to take an umbrella and jump off the hayloft, holding it over my head like a parachute. But I ruined many umbrellas.”
At the age of 12, Gray learned about the feats of stunt jumper Joe Crane (who went on to found National Parachute Jumpers-Riggers and the Parachute Club of America, USPA’s predecessors). She was mesmerized by Crane and was inspired to follow in his footsteps. She begged her parents to let her jump, and they agreed that she could if she stayed in school and graduated. Her parents kept their word and after graduating from high school—as an honor student—she made her first jump at age 19 at Connecticut’s New Haven Airport. It was 1935. A state inspector witnessed the jump, which at the time was a requirement to receive the parachutist’s license that she ardently desired. Even though she landed off the drop zone in a tree and had to cut herself down (terrifying her parents, who were waiting expectantly for her on the ground at the airport), the inspector signed her off. Gray was absolutely hooked from the get-go. Not only did she become Connecticut’s first female licensed parachute jumper, she also became the state’s first female rigger. Two years later, she earned her pilot’s license.
Gray described her first jump to a reporter for the Hartford Courant years later, saying, “As I dive out the door of the ship headlong into space, I experience a sort of restful easy feeling with the air rushing past me. As I drop away from the plane, the hum of the motor dies away into a peaceful silence. I have actually no sensation of falling and I would not be aware that I was falling.”
Gray loved jumping so much that she opened a parachuting school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1938. She also gained local fame by jumping into airshows with The Dutton Sky Devils Air Circus. Likely inspired by her knowledge of Crane’s freefall jumps, she would sometimes go as high as 8,000 feet and open around 1,500—a shocking stunt, since the conventional wisdom was that the human body could not withstand freefall and the parachutist would pass out. “Her fame as a daredevil surprised local Oxford people, because she was known as a very shy girl,” Dorothy DeBisschop of the Oxford Historical Society wrote. “She worked in a local store to save money to purchase her own plane.”
Gray’s experience led her to work for the Pioneer Parachute Company as a rigger. During World War II, her job was to inspect and pack parachutes for the troops. She eventually became the head of the repair department. At the time, most parachutes were made of silk (although some were still made of cotton, which was both heavier and weaker and far from ideal for any jumps, much less those during combat). But by 1942, silk was nearly impossible to obtain and U.S. stockpiles were running out. Japan—the primary supplier of silk worldwide—had cut off shipments to the U.S. prior to the start of the war. The military was desperate for a substitute for parachute silk, which was critical to the war effort, not only for use by paratroopers, but also for pilots who needed to bail out of disabled aircraft. Enter nylon.
The DuPont company had invented nylon a few years earlier, primarily as a material with which to make women’s stockings. The Cheney Brothers silk mill, Pioneer Parachute’s parent company, teamed with Dupont to engineer a silk-replacement fabric to support the war effort. The result was a nylon fabric that was light, resilient, strong and perfect for parachutes. So, Pioneer produced a prototype canopy and conducted a number of successful unmanned tests. But before selling the idea to the military, they needed to prove it could work with a real human at the helm. Who better than Adeline Gray, an experienced (for the era) jumper with 32 jumps, a rigger and a respected member of the Pioneer staff?
On June 6, 1942, two days after weather scuttled the original test jump, Gray showed up at Brainard Field wearing a bright white jumpsuit that would be easily visible to the military observers on the ground. Pioneer Vice President and Chief Engineer J. Floyd Smith helped Gray into her rig. The plane climbed to 2,500 feet and Gray exited “as calmly as if she were stepping out on the porch to bring in the daily paper,” according to the Los Angeles Times. The jump went flawlessly and the parachute performed perfectly. When reporters asked Gray—not known for being chatty—how the jump felt and how the parachute performed, she said in her characteristically succinct style, “All right.”
Following the jump, Gray, already regionally famous, became lauded in newspapers nationwide. The R.J. Reynolds company found the story—not to mention Gray’s striking good looks—irresistible, and they created an advertising campaign for Camel cigarettes featuring her, sometimes wearing a flight suit and sometimes an evening dress, at its center. True Comics, the most popular of the educational comic books at the time, even featured her in an issue.
Gray continued jumping and working on parachutes after her test jump. She married parachute engineer Kenneth Johnson, and in 1951 he assigned half of his 1947 patent for a parachute release mechanism to her. (We can only assume that with her vast knowledge, she shared in the invention. The record is silent on the matter.) They had three children. Johnson died in 1961, and seven years later, Adeline married a man from her aviation past: August “Gus” Graf, a barnstorming pilot and parachutist who performed with her in airshows in the 1940s. Adeline Gray Johnson Graf died in Connecticut in September 1975 after a short illness.
The nylon parachute that Gray tested went on to make a huge difference in the war and afterward. Servicemen on D-Day and beyond used them to jump behind enemy lines. Pilots used them as a last-ditch lifesaver when their aircraft were shot down. Allied forces used them to make supply drops. Dupont switched from primarily making nylon stockings to making parachute fabric, and Pioneer became one of the biggest suppliers of parachutes in the world. During the war, thousands of employees worked multiple shifts a day to produce the parachutes so desperately needed by the troops. The longshot experiment with the new fabric worked and could help the Allies win the war! The rest, as they say, is history.
For more information about Adeline Gray, please visit the Oxford Historical Society page on Facebook or oxford-historical-society.org.