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Dr. William Randolph “Randy” Lovelace II First Leap a Record

  • Published
  • By Major Kathy Jimenez
  • AFMS History Office

For nearly a decade, Dr. William Randolph “Randy” Lovelace II diligently researched the problems faced by pilots as they flew higher and faster. His work at the Aeromedical Field Laboratory at Wright-Field in Dayton, Ohio paid off in 1943 with the development of a high-altitude oxygen mask.

On June 24, 1943, Lovelace, a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army Air Corps, tested out his new invention. As Allied Forces began their 10-day campaign of Hamburg, Germany, Lovelace made his first ever parachute jump, to test the experimental high-altitude oxygen mask and equipment he helped design. It was the only time he ever parachuted from a plane.

The test helped resolve the major question of when to pull the rip cord during a jump. If the pilot pulled too early, would they freeze, be shot, or simply run out of air? If they pulled too late, would they spin out of control and lose consciousness? By bailing out of the Army bomber at 40,200 feet near Ephrata, Washington, Lovelace became the first person in the U.S. to jump from an altitude over 40,000 feet.

Lovelace’s parachute automatically opened as he left the aircraft. The resulting shock caused him to black out and ripped off one of his gloves. He regained his senses at about 30,000 feet and completed the jump, suffering only a frost-bitten hand.  The Army Air Forces awarded Lovelace the Distinguished Flying Cross for this experiment that collected valuable data.

Lovelace returned to private practice in 1947 and transferred to the Air Force Reserve.  He established the Lovelace Foundation for Medical Education and Research in Albuquerque, New Mexico, turning his uncle’s specialty health clinic into an institute that conducted research and education as well as providing health care.  In 1958, Lovelace served as the chairman of NASA’s Special Advisory Committee during the agency’s founding.

On April 20, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson officiated the swearing in of Lovelace as the director of Space Medicine for Manned Space flight at NASA. In his remarks, Johnson referenced Lovelace’s record breaking jump.

“In order to test the face mask that he had helped to develop, he bailed out of an airplane at 40,000 feet. I can only hope that Presidents are not put to any such test.” 

Johnson also proclaimed, “the Nation is the beneficiary today of a good man and a great talent who places his skills and his courage at the disposal of his fellow countrymen.”

Lovelace was promoted to Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserves in 1961. In December 1965, Lovelace and his wife Mary died in a plane crash in Colorado. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of Major General in February 1966.