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|Map of balloon and tracking teams.|
CNSP set a new Amateur Radio balloon altitude world record, now at 136,545'. The previous record by Cornell University with a 3-story tall Mylar ZPE (zero pressure envelope) balloon was 135,030'.
See the event photos.
Callsigns on the map:
Volunteers who provided remote support for the search:
|Bay Area NBC 11 interview of Ron Meadows of CNSP (right) and Ian Kluft of Stratofox (middle)|
"Rising to the Challenge" at Bay Area NBC11
The motto for today could be "don't give up while the game is still on."
A new Amateur Radio balloon altitude record was set today by the California Near Space Project. The balloon was launched at 7:38am from South San Jose. It burst at 136,545' (25.8 mi / 41.6 km) just east of I-5 at Tracy at 11:18am. Stratofox teams were at the Tracy Municipal Airport when the balloon went directly over the airport shortly before it burst.
There was no more in-flight telemetry after the balloon burst. Stratofox relocated and visually acquired the balloon during the last 2000' of descent over Manteca at 11:47. A little before noon, we knocked on the door of the correct house in town where the resident graciously let us into their backyard. CNSP-10 was on the deck next to the pool.
If that sounds like some important details are missing, yeah, read on...
CNSP will hold a news conference Monday. Here's my account of the event.
Stratofox team participants on the event were (alphabetically): Justin Fernandez, Dave Goodin KI6KGP, Bernhard Hailer AE6YN, Ian Kluft KO6YQ, Ryan Sbranti
|CNSP-10 leader Lee Meadows walks the balloon out for launch.|
I met up with my flight students Justin Fernandez and Ryan Sbranti at the launch site. Neither are Hams yet. But even before today, both were already planning to get their licenses because of Stratofox. Ryan was my navigator for the CNSP balloon in August, and among the 4 who hiked to the top of the hill to get that one. Based on the motivation from that, he is now ready with his studying for the next Ham exam. Justin was on his first Stratofox event.
The balloon fill went as previous ones did. Launch was at 7:38am. This was the first CNSP flight led by Lee Meadows, son of Ron Meadows K6RPT. He had done all the calculations for attempting this with the smaller size balloon and the right amount of gas to put in it. Lee was certain this experiment could be made to work. Ron let Lee lead the execution of his own plan.
Based on the winds aloft forecast and flight prediction, the Stratofox crews decided to rendezvous at Tracy Municipal Airport. That would give chase plane pilot Dave Goodin a chance to join us, whether he could find a new navigator or not. We heard he discussed that with Brad Douglas KB8UYR. But Brad couldn't make it.
I drove Ryan and Justin to Tracy. We met up with Bernhard, who had arrived a few minutes ahead of us. We were going to have to transfer one of the navigators to Bernhard's vehicle. Since all three of them are flight students of mine, they have viewed me as an authority figure for their own safety. For this event we needed to establish early in the event an equal teamwork environment - that's the Stratofox way. So I said I'll go with any decision they made. They decided Ryan would navigate for Bernhard and Justin would navigate for me.
Dave arrived, flying from Reid-Hillview Airport in his Comanche. We introduced him to Ryan and Justin. We all fly at RHV.
We monitored the balloon telemetry. As it climbed higher and approached us, we noticed that we were getting packets on aprs.fi via our smart phones (a mix of iPhones and Android) increasingly more often than direct over the air on the mobile Ham radios. The reason was technical, but obvious to us. Our high-gain antennas get the extra gain from looking outward, with a null directly above, which was where the balloon was. But there were a few times that we got packets direct over the radio which did not show up on the Internet. So it was good to have both tools in our toolbox.
We visually scanned the sky see if we could get a lucky sighting of the balloon. Nothing. The sun wasn't at the ideal angle we would have needed. But this time of year, the Central Valley's sky fills with strands of spider webs as some species of spider migrates in the wind. Every search of the sky turned up nothing but spider webs. One even snagged on an antenna on Dave's plane while we were talking with him on the airport ramp.
|Stratofox crew monitoring balloon telemetry at Tracy Airport.|
But it was climbing slowly. Before 130,000' the climb rate was showing about a 500' gain every 30-second transmission. But it was slowing to 100' every packet. We were watching for the inevitable burst.
I was looking at the map knowing things were going to go nuts when it burst. And it was east of us now. We had to move. I got the latest flight prediction printout Ron gave me at the launch site. I put my thumb and index finger on the forecast burst and landing points, then moved them so my thumb was east of Tracy where the balloon was. My index finger was on Manteca. So I said we needed to go there ASAP. We hit the road.
A few minutes into the drive, Ryan (using Bernhard's callsign) called on the radio saying they weren't getting any more packets. Justin checked on my radio. He confirmed (using my callsign) that we also had no new packets from it. It was still showing 136,545'. We concluded it had probably burst and lost GPS lock as it tumbled. We've seen this before, most recently in August where Bernhard, Ryan and I were participants.
My road GPS suggested Tracy Blvd, Valpico Rd, Chrisman Rd and 11th Street (I-205 Business) through Tracy to I-5 was the fastest route to Manteca. Though the altitude record was confirmed by APRS telemetry, things looked bleak for recovery. If there was any chance at all, we needed to listen for packets around the Manteca area. We didn't know if there would be any more.
We maintained radio contact on the freeways. Justin and I gave directions so Bernhard knew which way we were going... I-5 north, SR120 east, SR99 north and off at the Yosemite Nat'l Park Exit for SR120 east again. We found a parking lot to stop.
We watched for telemetry. Nothing. We had 2 pairs of binoculars in the team, which were scanning the sky.
I got a phone call from Ron. So the others kept scanning. Ron and Lee were 5 miles south of us, near the San Joaquin River SW of Ripon. They thought they had a visual on it. But as he described where he was, I thought that was impossibly too far south based on the position of the last packet, because it was going to encounter winds taking it north again as it fell into the Troposphere. He agreed that made sense. It may have been another spider web.
It was discouraging. Bernhard was beginning to suggest it was time to give up.
I got a call from Mark Caviezel in Santa Barbara. He had been monitoring the telemetry and had some questions. We didn't get to say much before Ryan said, "Is that it? That's it!" He was pointing at it. I don't remember how abruptly I ended the call with Mark. Maybe something like, "We've got a visual. I gotta go." I know I told him we had a visual, which he e-mailed to the Stratofox team.
Ryan gets the eagle-eyes award for this event. He pointed out the falling straight line of payload and balloon shards. All four of us got a visual on it. I was last to see it, after coming from the phone call and looking above the wrong landmark at first. We saw it fall behind trees WSW of us. We didn't know if it was on the same side of the freeway (SR99) or the other side. We were 1/2 mile east of SR99 on SR120.
After no telemetry for the entire descent, the game was back on in dramatic fashion. That was a first for us, though not the first time that following an educated hunch turned to surprising good luck.
We marked the direction. But how far away was it? It couldn't have been far. But it was in the city of Manteca. There was a lot of uncertainty how much we could do in town. It might still be over. I got on the road first. Then I glanced at my radio and saw K6RPT-11. "Did we just get a packet from it?!" I pulled over again at an empty lot. I had gone only 500ft.
I viewed the packet and pulled up the GPS coordinates. Justin started writing it down. I radioed to Bernhard telling him to watch for where we pulled over. Then when they saw us, I entered the coordinates in my Garmin Nuvi road GPS. Justin gave Ryan the coordinates. My road GPS said it was 1.2 driving miles away, on the other side of SR99. Now we had driving directions.
As we turned onto the neighborhood street where it was, I told everyone to look in trees and roofs on the right. Nothing. I parked in front of the house where the GPS pointed 90 degrees to my right.
I knocked on the door, not sure what to expect. A woman answered, who was understandably surprised when I said we were looking for a high altitude research balloon which we thought may have fallen in her backyard. She had us wait while she went to check. She came back and asked, "does it look like a roll of paper towels?" We answered, "Yeah, the styrofoam would look that size." She let us in.
|Found it! Left to right: Ryan Sbranti, Justin Fernandez, Bernhard Hailer AE6YN and Ian Kluft KO6YQ|
We always document the landing site with pictures before moving it. We took her picture next to it. Then she took our group picture next to it. I called Ron on speakerphone, who thanked her for letting us in to get it. Of course, we had also thanked her. We asked if she would like to be acknowledged by name or kept private in the media release - she preferred to keep private. So that's why I haven't given her name or the landing site coordinates. But make no mistake - we appreciate her help.
Then we got out of her way. I can hardly imagine what it must be like to have this happen in your yard. As we got it to my truck, she told her neighbors what just happened. They came over and wanted to see. Bernhard answered their questions and showed CNSP-10 to them. I called Mark back to let him know we got it.
Interesting note: the one packet that I received after landing was apparently the only one. Then the transmitter went silent. Bernhard never received anything from it after landing, even as we drove up to the house. It was a combination of being nearby and having the very high gain antenna on my truck that gave us the ability to take advantage of the luck of that one packet. Otherwise we would not have found it. We'd have had to hope the resident would have eventually called the phone number labeled on the payload.
Then we headed back to San Jose. Ron treated us to lunch, a victory lunch, at Sonoma Chicken near Reid-Hillview Airport. While the APRS telemetry was enough to claim the record, the successful recovery makes it much easier to tell the story. Expect possible media coverage Monday. Ron will tell me when that's up, and I'll forward it to the team. We'll be invited to participate in the news conference.
Wow! What an adventure!
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