Flight should have been called – Slow balloon to the desert. Everything was working great at the launch site, we met the team at Starbucks at a little after 5am for the pre-dawn launch. At the launch site, Josh and I setup for the launch smoothly and with precision, everything was checked, weighted and running smoothly, with the exception of our GoPro, although I had it set the night before, it did not seem to be staying on. The director got his GoPro working, and then set ours, seemed to be working – all was a go for launch.
We successfully launch pre-dawn at 14:10Z (06:10). It was a brisk 28 degrees (f) (-2 c) outside, with no ground wind – perfect launch. We celebrated, packed up, checked for a radio signal from APRS – all was a go, so we headed out to get some gas and proceed to the planned landing site in Yucca Valley. At the gas station, panic set in – we had not heard from the on-board radio for more than 30 minutes. Past launches the radio has been flawless, sending signals via APRS every 60 seconds. Panic turned into sheer terror now. We were hired to launch and recover a payload carrying the crews GoPro, to capture important footage to the film and while we were clear that we couldn’t guarantee success due to so many unknowns, were should at the very least be able to launch and recover – but without the radio sending GPS it would be impossible. We told the team the situation, and continued to the planned landing site.
One hour and ten minutes later – we received a signal from KJ6UXA-5 on APRS! It’s alive! Josh and I were elated and relieved. We pulled over and updated the team – we have good signal and coordinates – all is well. Phew! We stopped at Starbucks in Joshua Tree for some coffee.
The planned flight time was two hours, with an estimated max altitude of 98K ft – two hours into the flight we could tell something else was wrong, the ascent rate was slower, and it only reached an altitude of 73K ft – and the decent rate was very slow – the chase was on now with no idea where it was going to land. The decent path was over the Joshua Tree National park if it had landed here it would have been next to impossible to retrieve, on the plus side due to the slow decent it cleared this, on the other hand it landed almost 30 miles away from the planned site – in the middle of nowhere.
Recovery – Josh did an amazing job coordinating the coordinates, GPS, and terrain and found a small dirt road as close to the landing site as possible. We had to 4 wheel it out about 2 miles to get near the landing area. We hadn’t heard from the APRS radio for about 40 minutes, until we reached the dirt road when our handheld received a signal with the coordinates. From here we had to go on foot. We ended up hiking about 6 miles in total but found the payload – with the balloon, mostly deflated but still intact! It was clear now that the balloon must have had a small pin hole leak which caused the problem – but we recovered it!
We returned the equipment to the team, re-hydrated, celebrated the recovery and hoped we got the video footage the team wanted. With the long flight time our camera batteries were dead so we’d have to wait until we got home to know for sure.
Our GoPro was mistakenly reset to take still time-lapse pictures instead of video, with half the stills damaged, they turned out purple and overexposed – not sure why. The Down Angle Cannon lens was destroyed on impact, but captured more than 1700 still. Word from the Movie crew is they received ascent video but no decent due to the long flight and slow decent. Some of the early am pictures we captured turned out beautiful though.
We were pleased we recovered the payload, even though we didn’t reach all of the flight goals. We offered the crew to another flight, as they want the rapid descent video – which after five flight we have not been able to capture either – we may do another on our own just to capture it anyway.
Another successful adventure for the JHAB Project! Until next time.