DATE: Saturday, June 14, 2014
LAUNCH: 4:46 AM CST, Hutchinson, KS [ 38.10151, -97.93992 ]
WEIGHT: 6 lb 6oz (including chute, lines, and radar reflector)
ALTITUDE: 106,236 feet [ 38.30178, -97.69412 ]
BURST: 7:00 AM CST [ 38.30256, -97.70536 ]
LANDING: 7:31 AM CST, Canton, KS [ 38.42181, -97.46185 ]
TOP SPEED: 95 mph, 153 kph
TEMPS: Internal High: 80.78 F (27.1 C), Internal Low: -0.58 F (-18.1 C)
DURATION: 2 hour, 45 minutes
DISTANCE: 34 miles



Click to view largerThe Wizard of Oz resides six-hundred and fifty feet below Hutchinson, Kansas, alongside all the characters from Star Wars, Gone with the Wind, Men in Black, and the Shawshank Redemption. A Paleozoic Era salt deposit underlies much of the state; beneath Hutchinson it's three-hundred feet thick and the home of the only salt mine in the U.S. open to the public. One corner is occupied by the Underground Vaults & Storage Company. The mine's even temperature and humidity are perfect for preserving old film stock.

I was in Hutchinson for the Great Plains Super Launch, an annual gathering of high altitude balloon (HAB) enthusiasts. Having arrived a day early, before exploring the edge of outer space, I wanted to dive down into inner space. On a trolley deep inside the dark mine, the tour guide likened the rib-like walls to the innards of Jonah's whale and pillars of salt to Lot's wife. Some geologists, he said incredulously, believed the deposit dated back 250 million years.

In addition to salt mines "Hutch" has a large prison complex and Tyson meat plant. Three railways run through town, and forming the skyline are some of the largest grain elevators I'd ever seen, including one half a mile wide. The broad downtown streets, designed for horse drawn wagons, are lined with 19th century brick edifices, many with ornate limestone facades, as well as more recent Art Deco examples. Between the salt mine, downtown amenities, state fairgrounds, and Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center there was plenty to attract day trippers from nearby Wichita, as well as travelers passing through.

The Great Plains Super Launch

Day one of the Super Launch was held in a large conference room at the Cosmosphere, with a group balloon launch scheduled for the following morning. The Cosmosphere is a world-renowned facility, home to many important artefacts from the U.S. space program, including the Liberty Bell 7 capsule, which was recovered from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The entry hall is dominated by an enormous SR-71 spy plane poised dramatically above.

I wanted to learn more about radio tracking and connect with other HABers. One often launches these balloons in out of the way places, sometimes alone, and often with the thought that what you're doing is completely crazy. There was some comfort to being surrounded by other balloon nuts, in a setting where ideas and experiences could be exchanged and conclusions reached on best practices.

The conference room was a sea of laptop screens scattered across table tops cluttered with electronics and balloon payload boxes. Coffee and pastries were set out on the side. About fifty people were seated, most belonging to a certain demographic: middle-aged, gray-haired, a paunch. Attendees came from as far as Alabama, Tennessee, Maryland, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Colorado, Idaho, and New York. A couple of fellows had even traveled all the way from England. Together they represented some of the most skilled HABers anywhere, some with decades of experience. The group included a NASA engineer, scientists, programmers, pilots, and teachers, all fields that require a certain methodical and exacting mindset. Attendees introduced themselves using their ham radio call signs.

While establishing myself at a table Ryan Couch from Kaymont Balloons came over to say hello. We had talked several times on the phone. He had flown out from New York to give a presentation. Kaymont sells balloons to the National Weather Service. Lately, he said, they were keeping more in stock to meet the growing amateur demand.

The meeting opened with a talk by Paul Verhage (KD4STH), an AP chemistry teacher from Boise, Idaho, and the godfather of the GPSL (he founded the event fourteen years earlier). Verhage spoke about his educational BalloonSat program and experiences working with various school districts. His goal was to educate, inspire and excite students in science and technology through the adventure of high altitude ballooning. In an effort to become a "near space evangelist," Verhage had recently started a non-profit called NEAR (Near Space Education and Research). After the Super Launch, he had to race back home to organize a balloon flight at a school in Washington State.

Next, Keith Kaiser (WA0TJT) from Near Space Ventures, an educational group based in Missouri, gave a presentation entitled "Jurassic Pigs," which spotlighted many of the zany adventures their group has had recovering balloon payloads. In one case they were forced to hand over $500 to four gun-toting rednecks and in another were chased across a pork farm by dozens of pigs. Young people, Kaiser remarked, can be drawn into the hobby through the excitement of the balloon chase and payload search, which is similar to geocaching.

Ryan Couch stepped up to the mic and related the history of Kaymont Balloons, the exclusive distributor of the Japanese-made Totex brand. Kaymont started out selling balloons to missile ranges and the space program and has since become the main supplier to the National Weather Service. Ryan explained that their contract stipulates the balloons must be able to reach 26km when launched from the ground at a temperature of 70 f and that the failure rate can't exceed 10%. He said the weather service goes through an incredible 7,000 balloons a month. Kaymont has been at the forefront of providing balloons to individual hobbyists, the demand for which, Ryan noted, only really took off in 2009 after students from MIT's Project Icarus posted details of an inexpensive balloon flight online.

Before breaking for a BBQ lunch, a show and tell took place with participants sharing the design of their payload boxes and instrument packages. Being new to the world of ham radio, to me, much of the talk was a blur of mumbo jumbo: offsets, repeaters, gain, gigahertz, milliwatts, kilohertz, megahertz, and a slew of unfamiliar acronyms.

After lunch, Zack Clobes (W0ZC), who lives in Hutchinson and was central to organizing this year's event, educated the group on hydrogen safety. Helium has become so scarce and expensive that many HABers have switched to the cheaper alternative, which actually performs better, but with it comes some major safety concerns. Everyone was very eager to learn about best practices, including such tips as to wear cotton clothing when working with hydrogen because it won't instantly catch fire or melt, like some synthetic fabrics.

Next up, John Dinneen (KC0L) and Michael Riedel, from a group called ARBONET (Amateur Radio Balloons Over North East Texas), offered advice on starting outreach programs with local schools. They related a few amazing stories, including the time when a Texas homeowner wanted to blow their payload off a power line with a shotgun. I had encountered somebody toting a rifle during one of my own escapades. It's likely the one hazard in high altitude ballooning completely unique to America.

Following ARBONET, Bill Brown (WB8ELK), an experienced HABer from the aerospace Mecca of Huntsville, Alabama, gave a talk on "Pico" balloons. In fascinating detail, he described how an enthusiast in Britain named Leo Bodnar had constructed a tiny 12 gram, solar powered instrument package, which stayed aloft suspended under a small mylar balloon for eight days, travelling 5,280 miles across eastern Europe, Russia, China, and directly above the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, before subsequently vanishing at an altitude of 40,000 feet off the coast of Japan.

Brown had been experimenting with balloon tracking using the Iridium satellite system, a competitor to the Globalstar constellation, which powers the popular Spot GPS device. Unlike Globalstar, the Iridium system can handle two-way communication and he had recently programmed a device to release a paper airplane at high altitude using a command sent via email.

The last presentation of the day came from Don Fraser; a technical discussion on vertical pointing VHF/UHF antennas, gain, and Loop Yagi tracking. Afterwards, Zack went over the weather forecast and preliminary balloon flight predictions. High winds were expected in the morning, which would make launching more difficult, but recovery was expected to be easy because high altitude cross winds would keep the balloons relatively close to Hutchinson. The only worry was the presence of a nearby reservoir, Lake Marion. Arrangements were made so that participants didn't transmit on the same radio frequencies. And if your payload lands on private property, someone added, proper etiquette was to find the landowner and under no circumstance trespass.

Finally, it was announced next year's Super Launch would take place in St. Louis, and preliminary plans were made for future meetings in Texas, Kansas City, and Maryland. A full solar eclipse is set to take place in August, 2017 over Missouri, but it was unclear if the event would overlap with the Super Launch.

In the evening a dinner was held downtown on Main Street at a popular Mexican restaurant. I was seated at a table with Paul Verhage and Richard von Glahn from Edge of Space Science (EOSS) in Colorado. Over plates of tacos and refried beans we talked cosmic rays and neutrinos.

The Launch

Click to view largerI took a last look at the clock at 11 p.m. When I peeked again it read 2 a.m. Between the sound of the hotel room's air conditioner, the toilet inexplicably re-filling almost continuously, and blaring freight trains passing nearby every twenty minutes, I was unsure if I had even slept at all. Zack Clobes planned to be at the launch site with eight cylinders of hydrogen at 6:30 a.m., but I intended to launch nearly two hours earlier. A full moon was setting simultaneously with the rising sun. To get it on film from high altitude meant an early start. Having had little sleep, but feeling amped, I departed the hotel at 3:45 a.m.

I arrived at the parking lot of the Crossroads Christian Church at four o'clock. It was a balmy 67 degrees. Across the street was the First Church of the Nazarene, and just down the road the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Per Zack's advice I found a shielded spot next to a large shed by a line of trees on the north-side of the lot. Unloading the huge 291cf cylinder of helium from my car was a struggle.

In an attempt to reach a personal best in altitude, I was trying out a giant 3000 gram balloon for the first time. Fully inflated it dwarfed the car. Hoping I had the optimum volume of helium inside, I released the balloon at a quarter to five, with four still cameras inside the payload box clicking away and two Spot GPS devices providing tracking. The high altitude cross winds would send it back and forth, east and west, but as the crow flies it was predicted to land less than fifty miles away.

The Chase

Click to view largerAt a nearby Kwik Shop I grabbed breakfast (an energy bar, banana, and cup of coffee), then sped north in the dark up Highway 61 toward McPherson. Forty-five minutes later, with dawn approaching, I pulled off Highway 56 by a historic marker commemorating the Santa Fe and Chisholm Trails. To the west the full moon was visible suspended in the sky above a lonely tree, and to the east the rising sun cast a partly cloudy sky in vivid hues. The view from above must be even more spectacular, I thought, praying the cameras were working.

Click to view largerAfter sunup I drove on to Hillsboro near Lake Marion, fifteen miles east of the predicted landing site, fully expecting the balloon would overshoot, as was often the case. However, as the hours passed and the Spot GPS signals started coming in on my smart phone, it seemed apparent this time might be different. I drove back west and parked in front of the Post Office in tiny Canton and stood by. A signal appeared just a few miles north. Usually, I waited for a repeat from the same place before assuming the payload had landed, but out of a combination of instinct and boredom, I decided to check this one out in person.

The roads around Canton, all unpaved, are laid out in a grid around one-mile square, pancake-flat corn and wheat fields. The scenery was anonymous and could have been parts of Nebraska and North or South Dakota; hardly the rolling steppe one often thinks of when picturing Kansas. I passed Moccasin Road, then Mohawk Road, and finally stopped at the junction of Navajo and 25th Avenue. The signal had come in over the south-west corner of a wheat field abutting the intersection. A lonely farm house stood kitty-corner. Far out in the field I thought I recognized an unnatural shape. I fished out some binoculars. Sure enough, it was the payload box. It had been the most routine flight to date, with the payload parachuting down just three miles from the predicted location, and in an easily accessible spot.

The Recovery

Out of a sense of courtesy, or perhaps the irrational fear I might be picked off by rifle fire the moment I set foot on the field, I crossed the road and approached the farm house. An elderly dog guarded the porch. There was no door bell. Patting the old hound on the head, I knocked on the door. A cheery woman answered. I explained why I was there. She assured me nobody would care if I walked on the field.

Click to view largerCrossing the road again, I looked out only to see the parachute flying across the field, fully inflated by the wind, with the payload box tumbling behind. Running full out, it took a few minutes to catch up. The box along with some of the camera lenses were caked with mud. Everything inside had come loose and was tumbled around as though in a washing machine. I trekked back to my car keeping the muddy box at arm's length. Nearby an oil pump bobbed up and down and above the incessant wind the sound of chirping crickets filled the air. As I cleaned off the cameras a tractor appeared, criss-crossing the field, and sprayed pesticide right where the payload had landed.

The Aftermath

Click to view largerThree days after the group launch one of the participants posted on a message board that his pico balloon was still in the air, and presently floating 4,600 feet up over Kentucky. My own flight had not broken any personal records, having reached an altitude of only 106,236 feet. It's unclear why.


3000 gram Hwoyee balloon, Chinese made

6' Parachute from Rocketman

Davis Emergency Deluxe Radar Reflector

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website: purchased on
  • Note: per FAA FAR 101 regulations. You could easily make your own with some cardboard and tin foil.

2x Spot GPS Personal Tracker Device

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website:
  • Note: You can do without this if you use a smart phone that has excellent coverage, but you run a risk without a backup device.

Eagle Flight Computer from High Altitude Science

Pentax Q7, w/PENTAX 01 Standard Prime 8.5mm f1.9 lens, positioned for landscapes

  • Cost: already owned, lens purchased off eBay for $127

Olympus PEN E-PL5, w/Panasonic Lumix 20mm f/1.7 Aspheric G-Series Lens, positioned for landscapes

  • Cost: already owned, lens purchased off eBay for $285

RM-UC1 Remote Cable Release

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website: B&H Photo
  • For interval shooting with Olympus PEN E-PL5.

    Canon PowerShot G12, positioned for landscapes

    • Cost: already owned

    Canon PowerShot G15, positioned for landscapes

    • Cost: $280
    • Purchased off eBay

    4 Adhesive backed HotHands Toasti Toes

    • Cost: $3

    Miscellaneous including: duct tape, plastic zip ties, velcro strips, tarp, Everbilt 5/32 in. x 75 ft. Diamond-Braid Poly Cord (all from Home Depot)

    • Cost: $30

    291 cf Helium from Sheeley Service, Wauwatosa, WI

    GRAND TOTAL: $1,490

    Gas, hotel, and food count as extra!
    Cost: $746

    ► MAPS & DATA

    CUSF Trajectory Prediction:

    UMich Trajectory Prediction:

    Spot GPS Map:

    Eagle Flight Computer 3D Map:

    Click here to download the data (Google Earth KML file -- rename to .kml)


    1. Launch 10 featured the most accurate flight trajectory predictions to date, and for the first time I was able to use a secondary resource to double-check the prediction--the new University of Michigan Flight Prediction Page. The more time spent calculating accurate inputs, the better the results.
    2. The goal had been to photography the sunrise and simultaneous moonset from an extremely high altitude, but that wasn't quite how it worked out. Despite launching over an hour before dawn, the balloon wasn't nearly as high as hoped when the sun came up. The flight prediction had the balloon in the air for 2 hours and 41 minutes, which proved to be off by only 4 minutes. Descent times usually range around 45 minutes, so I should have launched about a half hour earlier than I did.
    3. In addition to velcro straps to keep the cameras in place, usually I glue small styrofoam wedges around them as well. I didn't do that this time, and it likely helped allow many of the cameras to come lose when the payload box got dragged and tossed by the parachute on the ground when the winds picked up. It was only luck that nothing was damaged.


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