Balloons' camera bursting with bird's-eye images (video)

Cluster lost during Sunday test flight found in Skamania County

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 

 Photo Gallery: Balloon's-eye view

Images taken from James Sutherland's test balloon, which rose nearly 12,000 feet over Clark County.

A traveler that lost its way Sunday is back, thanks to three guys who navigated a rock slide and some bear poop to rescue it.

… And now it is sharing some great photos of its trip.

Those panoramic images of the Northwest skyline documented the path of an unmanned balloon cluster that was launched north of Battle Ground.

The Sunday flight, designed to set the stage for Joe Barbera's manned lawn chair flight on June 21, ended in western Skamania County.

The balloon cluster's 11-pound payload operated pretty well, said James Sutherland, who was in charge of tracking the flight path.

"We lost tracking for the last few minutes of the flight," Sutherland said.

On Tuesday, they were able check photos from the onboard camera to see what went wrong with the locator signal.

But the launch team only has those photos because Justin Allen, his cousin Josh Allen and their friend Gene Carlin were driving around Sunday afternoon on a back country road.

"We had stopped to look off a cliff and this balloon came floating by, just above us," Justin Allen said. "We thought, 'That was cool!'"

They watched as the balloon cluster and its payload gradually descended into a ravine.

"It ended up down a huge rock slide, tangled in some trees," the Yacolt resident said. "Gene was wondering if it could be from Japan," and he talked the Allens into checking it out.

"We had to crawl down a gully -- there was baby bear poop and mama bear poop -- and through a boulder slide," Justin Allen said.

"When we found it, it had tracking stuff and a camera," Allen said. "You could totally tell someone had put some work into it. Where it was, no one would have found it for years."

Meanwhile, members of the launch team were wondering where their payload had landed. The group was discussing that Monday night over pizza when Barbera's cellphone rang. It was Justin Allen.

"I told him, 'I found your balloon.'"

When Barbera relayed the message to his teammates, "They were all hooting and hollering," Allen said.

Now they're looking for a little more help, Sutherland said.

"We're looking for sponsors to adopt a bottle of helium for $140 each," he said … and they plan to use 40 bottles.

What went wrong

The breakdown in the tracking system was traced to an unanticipated landing and relaunch Sunday. After the 11 a.m. liftoff from Barbera's property, the three main balloons — supplemented by three smaller balloons that floated above the cluster — went down after a 30-minute flight.

"It was on the ground for two hours, but the tracking worked perfectly," Sutherland said. After driving to the vicinity, "We walked right to it."

The team removed the ballast for the 1:30 p.m. relaunch; the craft went up so fast that those three supplementary balloons, which were supposed to lead the ascent, wound up getting dragged behind. And that's what disconnected the antenna that was transmitting the location, Sutherland said.

"We looked at images, and you can see a string wrapped around the antenna. It was screwed on, but we should have put a dab of hot glue on it," Sutherland said. "That's what this flight was all about, learning those lessons.

"On the plus side, our balloon came down nice and gently each time, just as we designed," Sutherland said. "This is the great advantage to having more smaller balloons over a large balloon. You come down soft and slow after the right number of them pop."