I had the feeling that “this is going to be one of those days” from the start. I had set my alarm for 0600 the night before, but was somewhat surprised to wake up at 0605 without the alarm going off. It turned out that it was still set for “weekdays only”. No big deal, only five minutes late.
I took a look outside and saw the trees waving in the breeze. Uh-oh. Looked like 15 mph instead of the expected 5 mph. Another bad sign. I start driving towards Gretna for our launch and begin to get sprinkles on the windshield. Just great.
I got to the launch site and scoped out a sheltered area on the grass next to the school. The sprinklers were running on a soccer field nearby – it had been pretty dry the last couple of weeks. Next to the building the winds were pretty quiet so it looked like a good place to fill our balloons. No rain at the launch site so things are looking up.
Our flights today (NSTAR and Paul Verhage/NearSys) were to support the UNO Aerospace Education Workshop. About 20 teachers created five BalloonSats earlier in the week and they would be flown on our two balloons.
Soon the teachers arrived and we began to set up in earnest. Since three BalloonSats were already attached to the NearSys flight train, we opted to fill and launch NearSys first, with NSTAR and its two BalloonSats to follow shortly. We got a break on the surface winds and the NearSys balloon fill went smoothly. After the tracking payloads were checked out, we began to raise the balloon into launch position.
Suddenly we heard a ‘snap’ and the balloon floated away without anything but fifteen feet of line attached to it. We looked around and found that the ring attaching the load line to the parachute apex had failed.
Now we had a problem. We had only enough helium to completely fill two balloons, plus a bit extra. With the loss of the balloon and its helium, we could only fill one more balloon. Our sources for helium were not scheduled to open for at least two hours. We decided to transfer the BalloonSats and one of the lighter NearSys experiments to the NSTAR flight train and just fly one balloon for the day.
We got the payloads transferred to the NSTAR flight train and were almost ready to start filling the second balloon. Suddenly the sprinklers on the edge of the sidewalk went off, spraying the entire area. We managed to get four people to stand on the tops of the sprinkler heads to suppress the spray and everyone else grabbed the flight train, fill equipment, and the tarps and moved everything to the adjacent parking area. After getting off the sprinkler heads, one of them came apart and became a two-foot-high geyser. I found the parts and attempted to insert them back into the sprinkler head, but only managed to get myself soaked in water and a bit of mud in the process.
The balloon is filled and the rest of the launch process goes smoothly. With Paul’s experience of a balloon loss that morning and NSTAR’s own loss at GPSL, we decide on a “Hail Mary” launch – stretch the payloads downwind from the balloon and let the balloon lift the payloads off. This works well when you have enough handlers to hold the payloads, which we did that morning. We launched our balloon at 0829 CDT (1329 UTC).
Our first stop on the chase was a truck stop at Hwy 63 and I-80, about 20 minutes away. The balloon was at about 50,000 ft when we arrived and was passing to our southwest and south. Once the balloon got some angular separation from the sun’s position, we were able to see it in the sky when the clouds were not in front of it.
Our predicted path took the balloon a little southeast before turning to the west, with an expected landing comfortably east of Lincoln. As the flight progressed, the balloon went more south than southeast. We also expected a burst around 85,000 to 90,000 ft, but the balloon kept ascending beyond that altitude. The teachers kept cheering the altitude reports as they went higher and higher, but our projected landing site kept moving farther and farther west into Lincoln itself.
This was making me very nervous. I had participated in a handful of flights with KNSP and other balloon groups where the landing occurred in a populated area. All three times, fortunately, ended well with the payloads landing safely on the ground and not on a roof, in a tree, on a street, or hung up in power lines.
Finally, burst occurs at 1002 CDT (1502 UTC) and 97,409 ft. The burst location is about 10 miles west-northwest of where I expected it to be. I did some quick looks at the map and estimated a landing site somewhere around Hwy 2 and 14th or 20th Streets, in the southwest part of Lincoln. This was still a built-up area, but at least we were getting towards the edge of town.
We depart the truck stop and head towards Lincoln. I chose to chase south to US 34 and planned to come into Lincoln from the east – in retrospect, we probably should have headed on I-80 and then south on US 77. As the flight was descending, I slowly got more optimistic again. The winds were taking the track a little west of south, which was moving the landing to the west side of the Salt River which largely defines the western edge of the built-up areas of Lincoln. With a little luck, we’d have some open ground to work with.
As we come into Lincoln, it’s apparent we won’t be there for the landing. We make our way west on Old Cheney Road on the south side of Lincoln and the balloon is due west of us on the west side of US 77. From the maps, it looks like it’s not very built up over there. We’re still a few miles away when the landing happens at 1043 CDT (1543 UTC).
We arrive about 10 minutes later. As we’re approaching the landing site, a lot of the area is wooded and still somewhat residential. About a mile away, we see two police cars off the side of the road with lights flashing, next to a sports field complex. We thought briefly that we may have landed there and caused a stir, but our maps show the landing was quite a ways away from there.
As we make our last turn to get to the landing site, I can scarcely believe our luck. There is a 20-acre soybean field right where our landing should be. There are some trees nearby, but we don’t see the parachute in them. There’s even a gravel access road running very close to the landing site, and shortly we can see the parachute lying on top of the beans.
One other concern I had as we were pulling up was that the descent rate was much slower than usual. With right at 12 lbs of payload, I would have expected our near-surface descent rate to be about 1200-1300 ft per minute, but instead it was a bit under 1000. Plus our backup beacon had not been heard from since burst. I had visions that our BalloonSats and backup beacon had left formation somewhere over north Lincoln. But again luck was with us and the entire flight train was still strung together in the corner of this soybean field. Examining the landing configuration, I noticed that the balloon had not fouled with any of the payloads or chute so we must have had a nice clean ride on the way down.
We packed the payloads out and the teachers examined their experiments while I looked over the NSTAR equipment. The digital camera took almost 400 photos with many interesting ones of the varying cloud cover we encountered. The backup beacon had quit due to a DB9 connector coming loose after burst. Otherwise everything worked very well on this flight. Later I got a note from K9KK in Norman OK saying he heard our main payload at a distance of 393 miles.
We planned to meet at a Chinese buffet in Omaha to review photos and talk about the flight. But in one last bit of bad luck, that restaurant had been closed by the health department a few days earlier. Instead we went to the Valentino’s nearby for some lunch.