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Category: 2003
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I guess it could have been worse........

Most of the crew arrived by 7:45am. We learned the evening before that ES-OS would not be flying today, so no EBBE experiment to Colorado. After we get our equipment unloaded I call Don KA0JLF to see how HABITAT is doing. He is still enroute to his launch site, but won't be too far behind us.

The winds have been fairly steady about 10 knots - enough to make us have to be more careful, but not too bad to this point. We hook up our 1200g balloon and start filling. After putting in about 15% of the T-tank, one of the crew notices a hole in the balloon as part of the inspection we do. The hole is about the size of a nickel. We stop filling and unhook the balloon and vent it out. I'm going to call the manufacturer to see if I can return this one.

One of our launch crew this morning is Rich from the Nebraska Balloon Club. His group flies hot-air balloons. He commented after we arrived that we were wasting our "boundary layer", the quieter air early in the morning near the surface. The winds about a thousand feet above us are over 50 knots, and they'll make their presence felt soon.

We start filling our spare balloon (600g). Fortunately we detected the hole in the first one before we wasted too much helium - there was enough remaining in the first tank that there was no need to open the second. We did notice that this balloon appeared lopsided with one side very stretched out. We get the second balloon filled, but as we were doing so the winds started to increase some more.

After we get the balloon tied off, we are getting gusts to 15-20 knots. This makes it difficult to handle the balloon and keep it from striking other objects. I'm working on a video clip that will show the fun we had. We get the payloads attached and start moving everything to the release point.

Now the wind is really gusty. The balloon is nearly out of control, and it is difficult to maneuver it into an area where it can't strike a tree or the ground. With more luck than skill, we get it winched out. However, the wind is so strong that everything is tilted over about 45° and the balloon isn't high enough to pick the payloads off the ground - we can barely get the parachute off the ground. This isn't satisfactory for us, as we'll have problems with the payloads striking the ground or becoming tangled. The gusty wind threatens all the time to take our last balloon into a tree.

Just then, one of the lanyards breaks. We still have hold of the balloon, but even less control and we still don't have the balloon high enough to take up the slack on the payload train. I decide that the thing to do now is to release the last lanyard, get tension on the payload train, make any last maneuvers to straighten it out, then release it. The wind is still strong enough to cause the balloon to come close to the ground. I wait for a lull, then let it go.

The payloads just clear the nearby outbuilding and tree line. I run to the car to check on the data - payloads are running fine. We get in our cars and head for US71 and I-80 north of Atlantic to wait for burst.

As we're going, a couple of things start to disturb me. Doug KA0O reports that he is no longer receiving data from the backup beacon on 144.39. Also, I notice that as the payload gets above 30,000 ft I'm decoding fewer and fewer packets. Listening to the audio, I can tell that the payload is still transmitting OK, but only 20% or so are getting decoded. I begin to get a little concerned that we might lose both of them and be unable to track them. The SSTV is still running fine, however.

Burst occurs at 81,072 feet, which is pretty good for a 600g balloon and one as lopsided as we had. Doug and Wayne KE6DZD had missed us stopping at I-80, so we head north to join them near Audubon. As we're heading north, we hear from several other chasers who came from Des Moines and the surrounding area. We begin to decode packets OK again, so the stress is off concerning our tracking ability.

Now the guessing game begins. We knew from the winds at launch that there was a low-level jet centered about 3000 ft MSL with stronger winds than those above it. We set up in a position where we think the balloon will pass overhead, but figure the landing will be too far away from the road to bother with trying a "catch". Suddenly we get an update indicating the balloon is passing about a half-mile to our southeast instead of coming overhead. We see the parachute canopy as the balloon passes behind us.

The landing is in a soybean field about 600 yards from the closest roads. The payload was still transmitting after it hit the ground, so we were reasonable sure it was not seriously damaged. Larry N0BKB heads to the nearest farmhouse to get permission to enter the field, but no one's home. About five of us hop the fence and head into the field. It's a hard slog, as the top few inches of soil are muddy but probably still frozen underneath. A few grassy patches makes it easier.

The payloads appear intact. I check out the backup beacon - it's still powered on and showing a good GPS lock. I'm beginning to suspect the antenna system has a problem somewhere. Only two position reports were captured by FindU.

SSTV was good, though the high-altitude photos were hazy - that was expected. Stations in Des Moines, Bellevue NE, and Independence MO were able to decode pictures, and I had a report of the SSTV signal being audible but not decodeable in St Louis. APRS data was also decoded in St Louis, which was a range of about 330 miles. The onboard Elph film camera again perfomed flawlessly.