Getting stuck in tree scariest part of balloonist's trek

Lawn chair pilot flew at more than 15,000 feet before hitting a snag

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 
photo Jess Seekins of the Volcano Rescue Team sets up a rope system to help Joe Barbera get down from his stranded lawn chair, anchored to a wooden deck.

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Did you know?

The FAA classifies a cluster balloon as an unpowered ultralight, along with hang gliders and parasails; pilot’s licenses are not required. The Experimental Aviation Association describes those flying regulations as “the most lenient rules in the world.”

BATTLE GROUND — After floating in his lawn chair at more than 15,000 feet Saturday, what really jolted Joe Barbera was a one-inch drop.

At that point, Barbera and his balloon-equipped lawn chair were about 40 feet in the air, marooned in a tree.

His balloon flight was over—- and so, most likely, was Barbera's ballooning career.

"I couldn't have asked for a better tree," Barbera said Monday as he reviewed the final few feet of his eight-hour adventure.

"The craft was suspended upright in an amazingly stable posture," he said. However, it still was "too far to jump and too far to fall."

That's why things got scary, Barbera said, when he felt his garage-built craft suddenly drop.

"Things were settling, and it dropped an inch," he said.

That was the end of their journey together. But Barbera still wasn't back on solid ground. That took the Volcano Rescue Team.

Following the 7:30 a.m. launch north of Battle Ground, his support team had been in contact with Barbera via mobile radio; they also were following the route of the 80-balloon cluster through an online tracking system. And then ... nothing.

Jared Allen, a Yacolt-area resident who'd been following the flight, was able to remain in radio contact with Barbera and passed along word of the situation.

"We got called at about 12:30 p.m. about a balloonist stuck in a tree," said Tom McDowell, spokesman for the Volcano Rescue Team. Along with a Skamania County sheriff's deputy, rescue team members headed out.

At about 2 p.m., they were able to pick up Barbera's radio transmissions.

"We had a really strong signal," McDowell said. "We found out he was fine, not injured. We blew a siren, and he said he heard it. He blew his whistle, and we heard him. We followed a decommissioned spur road, and 300 feet down, we actually made voice contact."

Rescue team member Jess Seekins climbed the tree and rigged a rope system that was used to lower Barbera, who was back on the ground at 3:30 p.m. or so.

While it operates out of the North Country Emergency Medical Service station in Yacolt, the Volcano Rescue Team is an all-volunteer effort. "There are no (public) expenses associated with it," McDowell said.

Saturday's cluster-balloon flight probably was his last, Barbera said.

"I would do it again in a minute," he said Monday. "And I would do it better.

"Will I? Highly unlikely. I can't imagine mustering that much manpower again," Barbera said, referring to the self-styled "redneck engineers" who met all the project's different technical challenges.

Then there are all the other resources that went into the project, including about $5,000 worth of helium and $1,683 for the main batch of surplus weather balloons.

And Barbera can't even show off any pictures of his trip.

"I have zero images," he said.

That's because of some calculations that didn't pan out. The surplus weather balloons didn't hold as much helium as was estimated, resulting in less lift. And the launch was delayed by about three hours. Balloons leak: Minute by minute during the three-hour delay, precious lift leaked through the latex.

Even the balloon tethers created problems. The material was unexpectedly abrasive, and several balloons burst when they rubbed against those lines.

All that lost lift resulted in a last-minute push to shave ounces from the craft. Along with almost all the other supplies, the team had to jettison two onboard cameras.

There were no cellphone images because of unexpected precipitation. Moisture that had condensed on the balloons dripped on Barbera as he was sitting in his lawn chair just before takeoff, ruining his phone.

Because the tracking system quit working, Barbera doesn't know for sure how far he flew or high he went.

"From Point A to Point B was 24 miles, but I probably traveled twice that distance," he said. That included a couple of course reversals after the wind changed.

Still, "It was a good day," Barbera said.

"I was aloft for about four hours," he said.

Even landing in that tree "took some extraordinary combination of circumstance," he said.

"It had to be a good day."

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