UPDATE: Lawnchair balloonist touches down east of Sunset Falls

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

Updated: June 22, 2013, 4:35 PM

 

Lawn-chair flight

BATTLE GROUND — Just after the sun started to rise above the trees Saturday morning, Joe Barbera rode his lawn chair toward the clouds.

Barbera achieved a dream of 30 years when a cluster of helium-filled weather balloons lifted him and a lawn chair mounted on a lightweight wooden deck from his home north of Battle Ground.

After about two hours, an online tracking system indicated that Barbera was at about 15,000 feet, traveling southeast on a heading that would take him north of Beacon Rock.

But winds shifted, and Barbera’s flight ended two miles from Sunset Falls Campground, on the east edge of Clark County. He was unable to make contact with his team and spent a few hours in a tree, according to updates on the project’s website, before searchers zeroed in on him.

“We found him; he’s good,” team member James Sutherland said Saturday evening. Barbera was not immediately available for comment.

It wasn’t far from where the team lost track of an unmanned test balloon earlier this month. And Justin Allen, the same Yacolt-area guy who helped find that wayward test balloon cluster, helped point rescuers to Barbera’s location Saturday afternoon.

Allen said he watched the launch and was keeping track of Barbera’s flight. Barbera had a mobile radio aboard, and “I was talking to him as he went by at 22,000 feet,” Allen said.

They were able to remain in contact after Barbera’s flight ended — and Allen apparently was the only person in the area who could pick up Barbera’s transmission.

“He had gotten hung up in a tree,” Allen said. “I made sure he was OK.”

Allen called Sutherland and passed along the coordinates Barbera had radioed to him.

“Three or four cars showed up with ladders,” Sutherland said.

They still weren’t sure Saturday night how long Barbera had been in the air or how many miles he logged, Sutherland said.

“We lost communication,” Sutherland said, and the tracking system’s path stopped after about 25 miles.

Barbera knew before he left his front yard that it wasn’t going to be a record-setting day. His goal had been a flight of 240 miles or more, but after checking wind patterns early Saturday morning, Barbera said that he wasn’t going to find much push up there.

After he lifted off the ground at about 7:30 a.m., it took a while for Barbera to leave his own neighborhood — although he certainly was seeing it from a different perspective.

After about 30 minutes in the air, members of the launch team could still see the cluster of white balloons in the brilliant blue sky.

Sutherland, the team’s communications and tracking specialist, got some of Barbera’s early impressions via mobile radio.

“This is kinda spooky, kinda quiet: I’ve got the view,” Barbera said.

“I so appreciate what everybody did to get me here,” Barbera added.

Barbera had hoped to launch at 4:15 a.m. Saturday. However, inflating about 80 balloons with helium and then rigging them to the aircraft without tangling the lines was a painstaking process.

The team had to deal with several unexpected issues early Saturday morning. They weren’t able to generate as much lift as they’d calculated.

Some balloons appeared to be damaged, and others couldn’t be inflated as much as expected.

A couple of them burst, and rather than risk popping more balloons, “We made a judgement call to fill them a little less,” team member John Provost said. They still had helium left when Barbera launched.

After some of the balloons were rigged to the aircraft, an unexpected precipitation started to fall, despite clear skies. It was moisture that had condensed on the balloons. It began to drip, wetting down the aircraft as Barbera was sitting in the lawn chair to make some final adjustments.

It wasn’t only messy, it was extra weight.

Barbera fashioned a black trash bag into a makeshift poncho. The ground crew found a towel to wipe the water off the wooden deck.

That wasn’t all the weight-watching: Barbera took off his shoes and left them behind, along with his oxygen supply. The crew pulled a couple of pieces of wood from the deck frame.

They even sacrificed an on-board camera before the craft started to show signs of buoyancy.

“We were making this up as we went along,” said Jay Elder, a member of the rigging crew.

As a send-off, the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Barbera, who turned 60 on Friday. Which means he’s had this trip in mind for more than half his life.

Barbera said he was inspired by the 1982 voyage of “Lawnchair Larry” Walters, a Californian who ascended to more than 15,000 feet in a lawn chair lifted by 45 helium-filled balloons.

McKinley Barbera said she realized in early May how serious her dad was getting about his goal. It was when they went out for pizza to discuss the project.

“I thought it was going to be me and a couple of other people,” she said.

“Then I saw all those guys in the room,” McKinley Barbera said, and she realized how much engineering experience was signing up for the mission.

Those guys were calling it a success Saturday morning even before Joe Barbera had sailed out of view.

Elder summed it up as he watched the white cluster slowly drift across the sky: “He’s flying.”


Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com.