Published Assembly Jan '90
Thomas Leigh Gatch, Jr. No.15885 Class of 1946
Lost in a balloon over the Atlantic, last sighted 21 February
1974 about 1000 miles west of the Canary Islands, aged 48 years.
Tom came to West Point from a long and
illustrious military family tradition. His grandfather, Robert
B. Dashiell, graduated from the Naval Academy in the 1880's.
His uncle, General Julian S. Hatcher, was also an Annapolis graduate,
but transferred into the Army in 1909. Tom's father, Vice Admiral
Thomas L. Gatch, gained fame in World War II as the skipper of
the battleship South Dakota, also known as "Battleship X"
in the decisive Battle of the Coral Sea. Tom was born in Annapolis,
Maryland, 13 September 1925. He graduated from Woodrow Wilson
High School in Washington, D.C.
One of Tom's roommates recalls that his plebe
year was reminiscent of the adventures of Ducrot Pepys-full of
high jinks superimposed with Tom's irrepressible good humor.
One of his favorites was Tom standing atop his desk with a pillow
stuffed in his B-robe, expounding on a variety of subjects a
la "Senator Claghorn," the Al Capp character from the
Lil Abner comic strip. Tom demonstrated that he was a very smart
guy as a cadet, but his love of life was too great to take himself
or his intelligence too seriously.
Going into the Field Artillery. Tom served with the 7th Division
Artillery in Japan following the basic course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
He returned to Fort Sill for the advanced course and then served
in the Korean War with the 58th Artillery Battalion of the 3rd
Division. This was followed by assignments with the 11th Airborne
Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and the 8th Division in
Germany. In this latter assignment, he was detailed as an advisor
to the German Army, and later served as a liaison officer to
the British Army of the Rhine. In 1961, Tom left active duty
to try his hand at other things, but he stayed active in the
Army Reserve. He later served several tours on active duty and
graduated from Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth,
Kansas in 1964. He received the Legion of Merit for his work
in the Reserves, particularly for his efforts with the Defense
Civil Preparedness Agency. At the time of his disappearance,
Tom held the rank of colonel in the US Army Reserve.
Tom received a master of fine arts from Catholic University
in 1963, majoring in drama and English literature. This, in reality,
was a continuation of Tom's interests, as he had written a novel
while on active duty. This book entitled King Julian had as its
premise that George Washington had agreed to become America's
king instead of president. He later wrote several plays including
musicals. One of his plays was produced in the Ford Theater in
In 1970, Tom took his first hot air balloon ride, an event
that had far more significance than he could ever have believed
at that time. One of Tom's sisters described him as enthusiastic,
original, creative, and imaginative. All of these descriptive
terms came into play as Tom continued to delve into the realm
of lighter than air flight. Ironically, Tom's father, as a young
naval officer, had been the chief investigating officer for the
Macon dirigible disaster. Tom became a student and advocate of
the use of the wind as a natural resource that must be utilized
if our planet is to survive. He had always been fascinated with
the forces of nature, and he began to contemplate the feasibility
of pollution-free transportation using the wind as an energy
source. He believed that man had to free himself from dependence
on fossil fuels which were ruining this planet. To him, the harnessing
of the energies of nature is the salvation of the earth; wind,
water, and sun are there to be used wisely. When they are working
with us, and we with them, our world will once again be clean,
beautiful and healthy.
Tom's attempt to be the first person to cross the Atlantic
by balloon was different from any previous approach. Vincent
Lally, manager of the Global Atmospheric Measurements Program
for the National Center for Atmospheric Research at Boulder,
Colorado, said at the time, "All the others have been adventure
flights. I feel this is the first attempt for an Atlantic crossing
based on reasonable, technical grounds. Gatch is attempting to
work with nature instead of working against it." Tom planned
to ascend to 39,000 feet using a cluster of 10 high pressure
helium balloons, and let the jet stream winds push him to Europe.
Unlike other projects, Tom had no rich backers. For the attempt
to cross the Atlantic, he spent $60,000 of his own plus two years
of full-time work preparing his project, which he named Light
Heart. He built the gondola at his home in Virginia. Six feet
in diameter, extremely lightweight, it was insulated and also
had the capability to bounce off radar if he were forced to ditch.
The gondola was to be sealed and pressurized during its flight.
Finally, at 1929 hours on 18 February 1974, at Harrisburg Airport
in Pennsylvania, Tom Gatch stood in the hatch of the Light Heart
and waved goodbye to his friends and family as they released
the ropes that allowed the Light Heart to rise into the heavens.
In the rigging of the gondola was a pennant from his father's
battleship, the South Dakota.
In 33 minutes, Tom had reached 18,000 feet over Dover, Delaware
and headed toward Atlantic City. At 2100 hours, he reported that
he had stabilized at 33,550 feet. He also reported that at 2045
hours one of his ten balloons had burst, reason unknown, but
Tom was determined to go on. Tom said the balloon was draped
over his sealed gondola and covered one of his three portholes.
Asked how his spirits were, Tom answered, "I think the situation
is stabilized now. No reason I shouldn't proceed." That
night and the next day, Tom floated on an easterly course. He
consistently checked in with passing airliners at 35,000-36,000
feet. The final contact was with BOAC flight 583 at 1250 hours
Tuesday, 19 February, 925 miles northeast of San Juan. It was
evident from the airliner's communication that the Light Heart
was moving on a course far to the south of Tom's plots. Also
he was moving away from the most heavily traveled commercial
air lanes. Through Tuesday night and Wednesday, there were no
reports from Tom nor any sightings. Tom's associates were not
alarmed at this point, as they assumed that he was simply out
of radio range. The Liberian freighter Ore Meridian spotted the
Light Heart shortly after dawn on Thursday, 1000 miles west of
the Canaries. Even farther south than before. The Meridian's
report didn't reach his associates until Friday at noon. Now
they were worried. The Meridian reported an apparently lifeless
balloon floating far off course and at an unaccountably low altitude.
Except for unproven balloon or life raft reports in scattered
areas, no further information about Tom has been received since
the Meridian's sighting on 21 February 1974. There was an intensive
search by US military aircraft and ships, as well as commercial
planes and vessels, all to no avail. Tom's sister offered a $10,000
reward and distributed flyers in likely areas with information
about Tom's flight. Again, no response.
We will never know for sure what happened to
our friend, classmate, and brother. We do know that the world
lost a remarkable man. His niece, Jocklyn Armstrong, wrote an
article about Tom's flight in Pegasus. She wrote, "Tom did
more than think and dream; he made what he thought and dreamed
about happen. He used his own logic, and in areas where he did
not have expertise, he consulted those that did. He listened
and he dared. Tom's lifestyle rejected apathy and inertia. His
drive had to do with freedom and going beyond himself. February
18, 1974, Tom Gatch lifted off in a small white sphere suspended
under ten white balloons. He has disappeared. His determination
and imagination have not."
One of Tom's roommates said, "Tom was a wonderful
person and I am certain that he 'shed this mortal coil' in the
fashion which matched his temperament-with a flair." Tom's
family endowed a scholarship for an acolyte in the National Cathedral
Choir in Tom's memory. This was done because Tom had a beautiful
boy-soprano voice and had spent two years as a choir member at
St. Albans. At the memorial service, the Dean of the National
Cathedral read from a credo that Tom carried in his wallet. It
said in part, "You are as young as your faith, as old as
your debts. Live every day of your life as though you expect
to live forever." In reminiscing about Tom, one of his sisters
said, "Little did I realize that someday I would enter the
Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington to see my young
brother's balloon pictured on its beautiful take-off from the
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania airport. He was one of the balloon immortals."
Tom faced a different danger than we anticipated
when we were cadets, but faced it as we all knew he would. Tom
Gatch has joined "The Long Gray Line." Those of us
who remain behind can only say, "Well Done, Be Thou At Peace."
'46 Memorial Article Project and his sisters, Nancy and Eleanor