Our fourth flight of the year took us to Hutchinson, Kansas, for the 2004 Great Plains Super Launch. The first Super Launch was held in 2001 near Manhattan and is an annual event usually held around the Fourth of July weekend. Most of us arrived Thursday evening and attended the symposium on Friday, while the flight itself was on Saturday morning.

Because of the predicted flight profile, our launch site was about 25 miles northeast of Hutchinson, at the McPherson airport. We arrived at the airport around 0730 in anticipation of an 0845 launch time. The surface winds were pretty light on arrival, but began to pick up a little and were around 10 knots by launch time. Our designated balloon filling area was between two rows of aircraft hangars, which gave most some protection from the wind. NSTAR, however, was at the north end of the row and was a little more exposed than the others. This caused us a little difficulty, but we got the balloon filled and tied off, then waited for everyone else to finish filling.

By 0850, everyone was ready to move to our release site, the adjacent aircraft parking apron. The Project Traveler group took the upwind position, planning to release first so as to get video of the others as they launched. I had my handheld radio with me, but I could not find the frequency they were using to broadcast their intentions. The EOSS group was closest to us and had their handheld turned way up, so I told Paul KC0KXR that we would launch as soon as we saw EOSS was in the process of releasing their balloon.

At 09:03:40, we let our balloon go. I was a little surprised at the slower-than-usual ascent but not too concerned at that point. As I looked up, I saw our payloads ascent through a small cumulus cloud perhaps a thousand feet overhead. I thought to myself ‘gee, this will make for some neat video……..had I turned the camcorder on!’. Cursing at that, I then thought ‘well, maybe we’ll get some still photos….but I didn’t open the lens for that camera!’. In the pre-launch excitement, I had left the checklist with the fill equipment and didn’t run through it mentally after we walked to our release position. With a contingent of two, we had our hands full keeping hold of the payloads and balloon – our normal procedure is to have a person reading the checklist and watching the whole thing. But our tracking equipment was working normally, so I figured we get the payloads back OK and do better next time. The SSTV was transmitting but because the camcorder had powered off automatically it only transmitted blank pictures.

Paul KD4STH, from Idaho, rode with me, my wife, and 11-month-old daughter to track his equipment during the flight. The expected landing for NSTAR, and most of the other flights, was about 8 miles southeast of Newton, near Whitewater. Since Paul’s flight was with a larger balloon, we expected his to go higher and farther west, perhaps near I-135 south of Newton. We headed to the south side of Newton and stopped at a Sonic to get some snacks while we waited for the flights to progress.

While we were driving south on I-135, it was apparent that NSTAR was not rising as fast as the rest. With a 12-lb payload and a full T-tank in our 1000g Kaysam balloon, I had expected an ascent rate of close to 1000 ft/min. However, our rate for the first 20,000 ft was about 800 ft/min, then slowed above that level to about 400 ft/min. This would extend our mission at least another hour longer than expected. Since NSTAR would be the last to burst, we concentrated on where Paul’s flight would end up. We went south on I-135 to Hwy 196, then east towards the expected landing site west of Whitewater. His balloon went up a little farther than expected, to almost 105,000 ft. This also took his track farther west-northwest than expected, so we headed back to the west to chase it.

As Paul’s flight was descending west of Newton in its last few minutes of flight, NSTAR burst at 84,875 ft and 1126 CDT east of Newton. This would put our respective landing sites about 30 miles apart, and would be impossible to get from one to see the other land. Paul KC0KXR was with us for the chase, so we made the decision that I would stay with the Paul STH for the Idaho flight’s recovery, and Paul KXR would take off for the NSTAR site as soon as the Idaho flight was on the ground. We made our way west on US 50 to near Halstead, then north. Paul’s flight landed just barely within our sight about ¼ mile off the road.

After the Idaho flight landed at 1136 CDT, I got out with my Kenwood D7 and a GPS to find our way to the landing site. I continued to monitor 144.34 MHz, but soon noticed that N9XTN-11 had stopped sending data at about 30,000 ft and 1143 CDT on its descent. I surmised that its batteries became exhausted, so I switched to 144.39 MHz to monitor the N9XTN-12 backup beacon. I continued to get posits and helped Paul recover his payloads.

Back at the car, I switched my APRS gear to 144.39 and managed to catch the last 2-3 position reports from the backup beacon before its landing at 1203 CDT. The positions were digipeated through one of the local digipeaters, otherwise I probably would not have heard it. This was a relief, as we now had a good handle on the landing site. Paul KXR contacted me by repeater and said he did not copy any of the backup beacon’s packets, so I directed him to the last known location about 3 miles SE of Potwin.

We made our way to Potwin and found a relatively wooded area as our probably landing site, with poor visibility into the section where we surmised the landing to be. The last report was at about 1400 ft AGL and with a forward speed of 30 mph and about one more minute to go in the flight, I expected the landing to be about a half-mile downwind of the last report.  Since that was very near the road bounding the section, that would put the landing near the center of it, well away from the roads. We made two laps around the section, but could not pick up any signals. We knew part of the EOSS Tracking and Recovery (T&R) crew were enroute with better equipment to help us out, so we turned to finding out the landowner. After stopping at a paintball range and getting directions, we found where the landowner lived and made contact.

We asked if we could walk out to conduct a search, but he very generously offered to drive us around the farm in his 4WD truck. Three of us piled into the truck and we headed out. Our first stop was a small lake that had a good chance of containing our payload. It might float for a little while, and with a brightly-colored chute we might at least spot it. But after looking it over we decided it either was not in the lake or was no longer floating. We went north a little bit and then east, looking for a place to walk between a tree line into another field. But with the recent rains the creek between the two was impassable by foot or vehicle. At that point we were near the center of the section and figured that now it would be best to go back to the west towards the last known position to see if it came down short.

As we crested a rise in the field, I could see the parachute lying on the open ground about 200 yds in front of us. I called "tally ho" on my D7 to the T&R crew still hunting for our signals to let them know we had found it. It was a great relief once again to know I could at least take everything home with me even if the flight had not gone all that well.

Examining the payloads, I found that the SSTV and backup beacon radios were off. When I turned them on to test them, both indicated decent battery voltage, so I think they powered off at impact for some reason. All the equipment was intact, so we packed up and headed back to the farmhouse. We gave our profound thanks to the farm’s owner and headed back to Newton for lunch.

With our delayed return, most of the other teams were leaving the restaurant by this time. We had a quick lunch, then took Paul back to the McPherson airport to pick up his car. After that, we headed back home to Bellevue and finally arrived about 2130 after a very long day of ballooning.

The main payload used a Li-ion battery pack that worked for six hours on the bench, but failed after 3 hours in flight. It was one of the first Li-ion packs I had built and tested, but it may not have been fully charged for the flight. With only at 3400 mAh capacity, it probably does not have enough reserve capacity to be suitable for the main payload. A new battery pack will be built and tested for the 04-F flight.