It all seems so simple. Launch a balloon, follow the GPS data, pick it up between 90 and 180 minutes later. What could go wrong?
The launch team arrived at the high school between 7:20 and 7:45. We were running a little behind, but no big deal. We began filling the 350g balloon and stopped a little early to get a free lift check. However, the duct tape I used was not quite up to the job and the balloon pulled off the filler tube and floated away.
No real problem yet. We had a 2nd 350g balloon, and there seemed to be enough helium left to fill it. Maybe a little short, but if I had to I'd delete the camera/simplex repeater payload and save 5 lbs. We do a more thorough job of taping the neck to the tube and start again. When we emptied the helium, we tied off the neck and got a free lift estimate (wind wasn't too bad). The balloon had 14 lbs of lift and we needed to fly 11 lbs today, so we were in good shape.
Fired up the payloads, checked the data, and everything was running fine. We released about 0838 CDT (1338 UTC) and away we go. However, the camera didn't fire off the six low-altitude shots it was supposed to. Nuts. I hoped the logic that took pictures every 10,000 ft would still work, but the balloon gets to 11,000 ft and no indication of pictures taken. Nuts again. We pack up and start the chase, heading east of Treynor.
See the launch from the payload's point of view (2.5 MB RealVideo 23.5 MB MPEG-3)
We stop in Griswold to wait for the burst. Simplex repeater is working well, data is good, batteries are holding up. Still no indication of 35mm pix taken, but oh well. I didn't have time to debug that much anyway. We could see the balloon in amongst some wisps of cirrus. Burst occurs at 54,380 ft about as expected. Initial descent rates are good, simplex repeater isn't fluttering too badly, so looks like a fine descent.
Watch the burst and initial descent (2.0 MB RealVideo 19.1 MB MPEG-3)
Now the transmitter is firing off position packets every 5 seconds. It's stuck in the terminal-descent loop, which was to take pictures and positions that often until landing. Well, at least I'm getting pictures now. My concern for the batteries comes back, as now it is transmitting about 6 times more often than it should. A few minutes later I check the telemetry and the batteries are holding up - certainly well enough to sustain it until touchdown.
We head south on US71, then east across some gravel roads. Larry N0BKB is chasing from the east and north and appears to be in position for the landing. We estimated we'd be a mile or two away at the time.
The descent below 10,000 ft is about as expected - slow ground speeds, a loop back to the north. The telemetry program exits the terminal-descent loop and goes back to 30-sec intervals - shoot, now we can use the extra posits. As it gets below 5000 ft, it appears the landing will be near a road which was convenient. We approach the landing site from the east.
As I crest the hill, I can see the parachute. It's almost hovering and appears to be off the ground a ways. At first I thought it was catching a gust of wind on the ground, but then I see it's hung up in power lines. I blurt out on our simplex frequency "oh, ****, it's in the wires" (our local OO and chase team member has already admonished me for such things). As we get closer I see a puff of smoke coming from one of the payloads.
It's about 1015 CDT now. We stop near the payloads and get out, taking some care not to park or stand too close. The smoking payload is now a burning payload and a few seconds later falls free into the grass at the side of the road, starting a grass fire. Two of the vehicles in the chase have fire extinguishers and the fire is put out. This was the telemetry payload.
Meanwhile, the second payload with the video camera and simplex repeater is still caught in the wires. There are five wires on this set, three 40-kV lines and two 6.5-kV lines (we learned all this later). The second payload is hanging on the topmost 40-kV line and the parachute is dangling from the load line coming from the balloon neck, which is hung up on another 40-kV line. It appears the J-pole antenna and coax was just long enough to touch two 40-kV lines with obvious effects. The second payload appears undamaged - the simplex repeater is working fine dangling from its perch above us.
Of all the luck. Half a bazillion acres of open fields in Iowa and I snag a power line. Not only that, but it's of just the right size for me to short out. We are about 200 yards from a farm house - the owner came outside to see the commotion. Since we're nearly out of cell phone range, we're unable to get a reliable call in to the power company, so I walk over to ask to use her phone. She says heard a bang and the power glitched for a few seconds. She thought it was a raccoon with good climbing skills but poor knowledge of power lines (again).
She graciously lets us use her phone. We call one utility company, but it doesn't service that area. The operator forwards the information to the proper one. We go back out and wait for the truck to arrive.
The truck arrives about an hour later at 1145. Since it wasn't an emergency, they weren't in too big of a hurry on a Saturday, and later they said they didn't know we were waiting for them. The truck responding owns the 6.5kV lines but not the 40kV and he's not going to work their lines without their permission. So he radios the proper company and they have a truck not far away that's doing some tree trimming.
About 1230 or so the bigger truck arrives. They shut down the section of line, retrieve the package, and cut loose the parachute for us. We exchange names and addresses and head our separate ways. The power company crew was very professional and courteous for the whole thing.
The telemetry package is a total write-off. Most everything is burned beyond recognition. The battery may still work, and the KPC-3 is not particularly melted. I may try powering it on just for giggles. The GPS-35 isn't identifiable as such - it's a lump of roughly the correct shape and volume. The 35mm is soot-covered and partially burned, but the interior appears intact.
The camcorder and simplex repeater, on the other hand and other payload, are fine. Since we had plenty of time to speculate, we figured the camcorder had enough tape to record its interaction with the power lines. At a minimum, that would be really really unique - I bet Paul KD4STH from TVNSP doesn't even have a tape like this. But, of course, as a final twist of the knife from Murphy, the batteries appear to have run down about 15 minutes beforehand.
The VX-1R running the simplex repeater is the same one that impacted with the previous video camera on Flight 01-B. It has now survived a 13-mile free fall and tangling with high-voltage lines. I do not wish it any other unique incidents.
The 35mm film was pretty intact, but indeed all the pictures were taken within 2 minutes after burst. The videotape was excellent - no fogging this time. I had attached the capsules much more closely together and closer to the parachute's spreader ring. This resulted in a much more stable ride on ascent and descent.
The simplex repeater performed very well. Click here to listen to the recorded audio (4.5 Mbytes - Real Audio G2)
|Callsigns heard on simplex repeater|