A big thank you to my friend, Karen Callahan, for introducing me to this amazing woman.
Adeline Gray was the daughter of German immigrants, Martin and Pauline Gray, born in 1917 and raised in Oxford, Connecticut. Adeline had two brothers and two sisters.
From a very young age she was infatuated with the idea of parachuting. As a girl she was inspired by reading about parachute jumps. Later in her life when interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times of Florida, she said: "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."
After graduating high school, she regularly went with her father to New Haven, where she learned to pack and repair chutes. She made her first jump at the age of 19, at the New Haven Municipal Airport, from a height of 2,000 feet. In those days jumps were made from lower heights because parachutes were not equipped as they are today with controls to help the jumper hone in on a landing site.
It is not clear whether Gray simply went to work for Pioneer Parachute (now Manchester's Clock Tower Apartments) in Manchester, Connecticut, when the United States entered the war, or if she was recruited, but as a licensed rigger, she took a job in the repair shop - eventually heading up the department. (The Pioneer Parachute Co. traces its roots to 1838 when five brothers formed theCheney Brothers silk mill in Manchester. By 1920 it was the largest silk mill in the U.S., employing 4,700 workers.)
Adeline had become known for her many parachute jumps at air shows across the country. Her fame as a dare-devil surprised local Oxford townspeople, because she was known as a very shy girl. Gray's first jump did not come without distress for her parents, who tried to discourage her from making the jump. As it was, she landed in a tree and had to cut herself loose. In the meantime, someone else had found the chute and reported back that no one was there, causing her parents some consternation. It seems that Gray was picked up on the road by a local farmer and was driven back to the airfield safe and sound. Other subsequent jumps had equally challenging landings. A planned landing in July 1940, in Lake Quassapaug in Middlebury, Connecticut, where she was supposed to then be picked up by a speedboat, resulted in a landing in the center of a state highway.
In another jump in June of 1941 in New Canaan, she pulled her ripcord, only to have the chute not fully come out. Struggling with the cord, she spun out of control, but eventually got the chute to release. She landed in a swamp, soaked and muddy, but no worse for wear.
During the war, she rode a bicycle to work. She worked extra hours in a local store to save money to purchase her own plane. She received her pilot's license at age 21.
The Pioneer Parachute Company had been producing parachutes made of silk but the Japanese cut off the silk supply to the United States making it more and more difficult to obtain silk. DuPont, with Pioneer Parachute Company, developed a new synthetic product to replace the silk, Nylon. Nylon is a petrochemical and made from extracts of oil and coal. This new material had already replaced silk for stockings that women wore. It has greater strength and elasticity than silk and did not run as easily. They saw this as the perfect material for parachute production. However, once produced, the new parachute needed to be tested by a human. They had only been tested with dummy payloads which verified the strength and inflation characteristics but controllability and aerodynamic behavior during a descent had to be tested by an experienced parachutist.
At 24 years old and with 34 jumps already under her belt she was the only female licensed parachute jumper in Connecticut. Gray was certainly in the right place at the right time. She received national recognition on June 6, 1942, when she made the first successful test jump by a human, using the new parachutes. Her tall, slender, and photogenic attributes made her a perfect advertisement to showcase Pioneer and Dupont's new chute, which eventually received U. S. military approval.
Her jump was successful and went off without a hitch and was witnessed by over 50 Army officials. This became a turning point in the manufacture of parachutes for the WWII wartime effort, moving the industry from silk to synthetics.
The battle was ultimately won on D-Day, thanks to the soldiers who parachuted into occupied France. But the victory was also thanks to those on the home-front: women like Gray, whose bravery helped make nylon parachutes a reality, and whose work in the factory in Connecticut helped make sure boys who were jumping out of airplanes to defend their country, would float safely to the ground.
It also paved the way for Pioneer to become the world’s leading producer of nylon parachutes by 1942. In the height of the war years, the company employed nearly 3,000 people who worked in multiple shifts to keep up with demand, and churned out 300 parachutes a day. Many of these parachutes were used on D-Day by soldiers, and parachutes were also utilized to safely land supplies during air drops.
After the war, Pioneer moved to the aerospace arena and developed parachutes for many of NASA’s crafts, including for the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft and the parachute systems to soft-land the Space Shuttle’s 125,000-pound boosters.
After her famous jump, Adeline Gray was featured as a heroine in True Comics.