Balloon cluster goes up, up and 'away'

Test for manned flight goes awry as craft disappears

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 

Somewhere in Skamania County, an unmanned balloon cluster slipped its high-tech leash Sunday.

"We hope somebody finds it and gives us a call," said Joe Barbera, a member of the team that launched the helium balloon cluster.

Actually, they launched it twice: once from the Fargher Lake area north of Battle Ground, and again from a forest clearing.

After the team's next launch, Barbera figures he'll be in a much better position to monitor the June 21 flight. He will be sitting in a lawn chair harnessed to more than 40 surplus weather balloons.

So even though they don't know what happened to the test flight, "It's full-speed ahead on the manned one," Barbera said Monday afternoon.

On that flight, Barbera is hoping to better a couple of cluster-ballooning feats by sailing more than 240 miles and staying aloft for more than 14 hours.

In Sunday's unmanned flight, "The whole idea was to develop procedures," Barbera said

They also had to deal with some unexpected developments.

The initial launch Sunday was delayed when one of the three main balloons failed; they replaced it with a test balloon that had about half the lifting power of the original.

They also got some additional lift with "safety" balloons — much smaller balloons above the main cluster; they're designed to burst at designated altitudes, slowing the ascent.

"It goes up, the tracking system works perfectly, and then all of a sudden, it's

coming down and we don't know why," Barbera said.

"It's close enough to find, in a steep ravine along a tributary of the Lewis River," he said.

They followed the signal along a logging road to within a quarter-mile or so of the craft, wondering what they'd do if the balloon cluster was snagged in the top of one of the towering trees:

"Who can climb a tree like that?"

Nobody had to. When they found the craft, it was "in a little clearing in a slash pile," he said.

"The last-minute replacement was popped but it's still got two balloons. We take all the ballast off this time and launch it. It shot up like a rocket," he said. The cluster went up so fast that the safety balloons were trailing behind it.

"We're tracking it great — and all of a sudden, no more updates. It stopped talking," he said. "At the time, the craft was more than 11,000 feet and climbing, heading south at about 30 miles per hour."

The craft was somewhere above Beacon Rock when it disappeared into thin air … or maybe into thick woods.

They're theorizing that the safety balloons that were dragged behind the cluster in the second launch got tangled with the antenna in the signal gear, he said.

Now the team is pinning its hopes on old-school communication, Barbera said. The payload includes a card with contact information.