Booker Balloon Launch!

On April 16, 2005, I attended my first balloon launch-- in the far northeastern Texas Panhandle. It was an unmanned helium balloon, the 20th flight of the Perryton High School "Reach For Space" Program, this one being launched from the K5IS/N5IS farm. (These photos will take a while to load if you are on a dial-up connection.)

Hams, balloon enthusiasts and neighbors converged on the farm of Jerome, K5IS, and Bobette, N5IS, located northwest of Booker, northeast of Perryton. The sign at left directed visitors to the launch area from State Highway 15.

Everything was pretty wet, from showers which had crossed the area earlier in the morning. But winds were light to calm near the ground. Technical problems postponed the launch from its scheduled 9:30 a.m. to a lift-off at 11:37 a.m. The payload was extensive: three separate containers, which carried seven delicate pieces of equipment.

I was especially interested in the APRS beaconing equipment. Below you see Paulus, N5SNN, with the 144.34 package, which would transmit (as KE5BFH-11) the balloon's location and altitude over the national balloon tracking frequency.

Obviously, it would not be a good idea to leave this unit unattended in an airport or shopping mall :-)  It also contained enough battery power to keep transmitting over 10 days. Here it is on the ground near what would be the launch site.

The interesting package below, wrapped with black electrical tape, contained a 10 meter transmitter which beaconed on 28.322 and a 2-meter CW transmitter which used a frequency of 147.410. Also (at the bottom) was a digital camera which snapped pictures about every minute. The camera was a "$20 Wal-Mart Special" which used an IDer chip, modified by Michael, WC5Z of Lubbock, to activate the shutter.

Here is the camera and CW beacon package on the ground, having been put in place for its connection to the balloon. On the left was Dempsey, K5DJI, and on the right was Michael, WC5Z.

A plastic, rectangular container held a crossband repeater, made from Hamtronics receiver, transmitter and COR units. Signals were received on 444.950 and transmitted on 146.520. For much of the flight this system worked extremely well. With my little Yaesu VX5-R handie-talkie, I was able to talk (through the repeater) to Brad, N5LUL, in Amarillo, a distance of about 110 miles from where I stood at the launch site. Seen on the ground below, this box also held a data logger and temperature probe, called "Hobo"-- made up of four instruments which logged every two seconds-- and a backup APRS beacon which transmitted (as K5IS-11) at 144.39, the regular nationwide APRS frequency. It was this unit which 'held up the show' for a while, when it was found to have very low audio output. Opening up the package (below) was Cesar Ramirez from Guymon, OK.

Below, "Smokey" Adair, KD5DYP, watched as Austin, KB5IIM, began a procedure to change out a resistor in the Tiny Trak.

The yellow object is the parachute which opened after the the balloon rose to the altitude which caused it to burst. The highest confirmed altitude was 86,000 feet. Pictured below are (left to right) Michael, WC5Z; John, AB5NS; Bobette, N5IS; and Thomas Beal.

The first steps in the process of inflation were putting on rubber gloves and then extending out the balloon. Pictured left to right: Jamie Lear, Natasha Hunnington, Terry, WL7II; Jerome, K5IS; Thomas Beal, John, AB5NS; and Zack, KE5EFR.

Here the helium began to flow. Terry, WL7II, controlled the flow, while Jerome, K5IS, held the balloon's input pipe. At one time the gas could be obtained free of charge for such projects, but it now costs about $72 per bottle.

As the balloon slowly increased in size, the payload units on the ground were double-checked for being tied securely. Other hams in this picture, not previously mentioned, were Stewart, AD5OK; Melessa, KD5ZWG; Bryan, KD5VIU; and Lenna, N5MZK (sitting on the red truck tailgate).

The amount of lift was measured with a scale to be sure it was around nine pounds, enough to carry the payloads (about six pounds) aloft.

Next came the tying-off process and connecting the balloon to its payload cords. In this photo, George, KY5C, was securing the knots. Behind him was Jim, N5LNR. Everyone gave this step special attention, since a previous balloon left WITHOUT its payload!

Everything was then 'walked' into a clearing...

The balloon was allowed to stretch slowly upward...

And then all of the work by many individuals was on its way!

Within minutes, trackers on the ground, in Borger, Amarillo and other areas were receiving all of the signals. Both APRS beacons were copied over a wide area. The 144.34 beacon was inserted into the Internet via the EOC station in Borger, W5WDR.

Everyone (except me) headed east for the chase. The balloon and its cargo eventually came down at 1:22 p.m. near Laverne, Oklahoma, in a pasture area close to the intersection of Highways 283 and 270. The landing site was actually first located via the 10-meter beacon, its 5th harmonic being heard on 141.610. Those using a big beam for locating the 2-meter beacon were unable to hear it-- It was later discovered that the center conductor had broken off the beacon's antenna lead sometime after it reached altitude.

Reports are currently be studied, and some interesting facts have already been noted: The 144.39 APRS beacon did not work above 60,000 feet, but again functioned normally on its way down. The 144.34 APRS beacon transmitter shifted up in frequency, from 144.34 to 144.37, and hams in Amarillo could for a time hear the 146.52 signal better on 146.525. The assumption is that the frequency changes were caused by temperature variations.