DATE: Sunday, December 30, 2012
LAUNCH: 6:11 AM CST, Mendota, Illinois [ 41.560118, -89.133282 ]
WEIGHT: 7 lbs (including chute, lines, and radar reflector)
ALTITUDE: Apx 95,000 to 100,000 feet
LANDING: 10:40 AM CST, Lincoln, Indiana [ 40.6068, -86.20472]
DURATION: 4 hours, 29 minutes
DISTANCE: 178 miles



Launch 1 was such a nerve-wracking experience I promised myself never again. But after a few days had passed, I ordered another balloon.

The main goal of Launch 2 was to capture video of the entire flight without lens fogging. A second PowerShot camera would be added, positioned for portrait shots. And instead of a 2000 gram balloon, Launch 2 would use a 1500 gram. The test would be if it could make a similar altitude.

Consulting with Kaymont Balloons, their advice was to use the payload weight plus 50% that value as the dead weight when filling the balloon with helium. In Launch 1, the dead weight was payload plus 1 lb. Kaymont felt the extreme distance the balloon traveled in that case (about 350 miles) was due to a lack of helium, which resulted in a slow ascent. The balloon became trapped in the jet stream and couldn't escape for hours. With the new setup, they felt we should see an ascent rate of about 4.1 meters per second and an altitude of 95,000 to 100,000 feet.


The Launch

Click to view largerIt was 13 degrees fahrenheit when my brother and I left the Comfort Inn at 5:00am in Mendota, Illinois. We were heading to the soccer fields at Mendota Lake Park. The plan was to launch at 5:45. It didn't happen. Working under moonlight in the freezing cold, bare fingered, it was slow going.

Following Kaymont's instructions I used 9 lbs of dead weight to hold the balloon down (roughly payload weight + 50%). Once the first M sized helium cylinder was empty, I attached the second. The balloon hovered above, roughly six feet in diameter. The dead weight didn't lift. When the second cylinder was almost empty I became concerned. There might have been as much as 250 cubic feet of gas in the balloon. According to Kaymont, with a 6.6 pound payload and 208 cubic feet of helium you could make 100,000 feet. Too much helium and the balloon would burst at a lower altitude. Discouraged, I cut the spigot before the cylinder emptied completely. I didn't know how much helium was in the balloon.

Click to view largerThe last tasks remaining were to switch on the tracking devices, start up the cameras, and secure the lid of the payload box with duct tape. Fingers frozen, I had trouble getting the cameras going. Finally, fixed in place, they started clicking away. Next, lid closed, I tried wrapping duct tape around the box. In the damp cold it wouldn't stick. Flustered, I snatched some line and quickly looped a piece around the box, tied a knot, and hoped it held. Wasting no time, the balloon was unceremoniously released, and after a minute no longer visible. Meanwhile, the batteries in cameras at hand to record the liftoff from the ground had died in the cold. My brother, having stood stationary for an hour holding the neck of the balloon, later said it wasn't until the next day that his feet felt warm again.

The Chase

Click to view largerAfter tanking up with gas by the I-39 on-ramp we headed south, picking up I-80 east in Peru. Cell coverage was good. On an iPad we were able to access both the AccuTracking and Spot GPS websites for real-time balloon position updates. At 7:37am the balloon crossed I-80 by Ottawa at over 23,000 feet. Then we lost AccuTracking coverage from the cell phone. The Spot GPS device would be our only intermittent link for the next several hours.

The CUSF prediction had the payload landing near Rensselaer, Indiana. We determined the fastest way there, which took us south off I-80 at Morris and onto Highway 47, where we picked up 17 east in Dwight. By Kankakee we turned south on 1. Somewhere directly overhead was the balloon. Then we got lost. The plan had been to enter Indiana on 114, which leads into Rensselaer. Finally, after what seemed an eternity crisscrossing isolated backroads, we stumbled into Beaverville and found our way out of Illinois on County Highway 3.

The Spot GPS only provides a position. Monitoring the website, we had no idea if the signal was coming from 60,000 feet in air or 60 feet up in a tree. Then the Spot updated three times from one location, indicating a landing. Quickly checking the satellite view on Google Maps, it appeared the payload might be sitting amidst piles of junk and wrecked cars in front of dilapidated farmhouse. But by the time we reached I-65 in Rensselaer not only had Spot updated again, but so had the AccuTracking website. The signals consolidated and stayed in one place. This time the payload really had landed.

The Recovery

Judging by the satellite view, and knowing the accuracy of GPS, we could see on the iPad that the payload had either landed in a tree, on a railroad track, a road, or in a field. The main route between Longansport and Kokomo is Highway 35. The box had parachuted down by the highway near Lincoln. It was signalling from the east side by a small parallel road called South Lincoln Pike, right next to a rail line. A farmhouse stood only a few hundred yards away.

Click to view largerSpeeding down 35 from Logansport, we passed the hamlets of Walton and Lincoln, then turned onto South Lincoln Pike. While 35 was a busy thouroughfare, it seemed unlikely there could be much traffic on the Pike. If someone did stop to pick up the payload, at least we could watch where they went in real-time. But looking down the road, there it was, three feet off the side in the snow, directly under a powerline. The shredded remains of the balloon still clung to the parachute. It was 11:45am. The balloon had landed at 10:40. Over five hours had elapsed since launch. I walked up to the payload. One of the still cameras was still clicking. Turning the box around I looked into the GoPro's lens. It was recording.

Later, reviewing the video we saw that the payload, hanging under nine feet of line and the 70" parachute, had swooped over the passing motorists, clipped the top of a tall tree, ducked under the powerline, and plopped down right beside the road. A pickup had even stopped to take a look. It all proved very lucky, and convenient.


1500 gram balloon from Kaymont (sells Totex balloons from Japan), the most popular choice

70" Parachute from Top Flight Recovery in Spring Green, WI

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.

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

Samsung Android Smart Phone, from US Cellular

  • Cost: already owned, $60 for 1 month of service

AccuTracking App for smart phone

Garmin Edge 500, data logger meant for bicycles

Go Pro Hero 2 camera, easily the most commonly used camera for a project like this

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website:
  • Note: I bought a 64gb SD memory card for $65 with the hope of getting more recording time.

New Trent iCarrier 12000mAh External Battery Pack, dual USB ports

Canon PowerShot A1100 IS (uses AA lithium batteries)

  • Cost: already owned
  • Note: I used the CHDK software to hack the camera for fifteen second interval shooting. It's very important to use lithium batteries as they can still function in the extreme cold of the upper atmosphere.

Canon PowerShot A3300 IS, positioned for portrait photos

  • Cost: $120
  • Note: I bought a new 32gb memory card for $20, using CHDK I found the battery will last 2 hours and 40 minutes with the exposure interval set to 30 seconds. It would be nice to find a camera that could take pictures and charge simultaneously while plugged into the New Trent iCarrier.

1 Proheat Reusable Hand Warmer, supersaturated liquid (doesn't require air to work) - used to heat the payload box

  • Cost: $6.50

2 HeatMax HOTHANDS warmers (requires air to work)

  • Cost: $2.50

Miscellaneous including: duct tape, plastic zip ties, Everbilt 5/32 in. x 75 ft. Diamond-Braid Poly Cord, a Styrofoam cooler, and PVC plumbing pipe and hardware, all from Home Depot on Capitol Ave. in Milwaukee

  • Cost: $40

Helium from Aero Compressed Gases in West Allis, WI

  • Cost: $168
  • Note: The cost would be a bit less if I could have found the exact amount needed, I had two M size cylinders. You can use hydrogen as well, but due to it's explosive nature, while a lot cheaper, it's not generally recommended for amateurs.

GRAND TOTAL: $586.50

Driving to Illinois and Indiana, gas, hotel, tolls, food counts as extra!
Cost: $190


CUSF Predicted Flight Path Map: (Google Earth KML file -- rename to .kml)

Spot GPS Map:

AccuTracking Maps & Data: (Google Earth KML file - rename to .kml)

(Records with red Report Time are cached records; red Lon/Lat are cell tower locations; green Lon/Lat are network locations)

# Status Report Time Latitude, Longitude Alt Speed Hdg Map Fence
2012-12-30 11:39:30 40.6068, -86.20472 649 0 - Map
> 2012-12-30 10:25:00 40.6067, -86.20476 587 0 - Map
2012-12-30 10:24:06 40.60569, -86.20655 1184 25 NE Map
2012-12-30 10:19:02 40.61305, -86.25649 5759 46 SE Map
2012-12-30 10:19:02 40.61122, -86.25212 5523 39 SE Map
2012-12-30 09:57:52 40.80809, -86.62469 26633 105 SE Map
2012-12-30 09:57:33 40.81153, -86.63422 27046 117 SE Map
2012-12-30 09:57:09 40.81656, -86.64647 27581 117 SE Map
2012-12-30 09:57:02 40.81794, -86.64951 27716 102 SE Map
2012-12-30 09:56:56 40.81906, -86.65272 27843 113 SE Map
2012-12-30 09:43:43 40.94473, -87.10246 48547 78 E Map
2012-12-30 09:43:36 40.94484, -87.10539 48747 91 E Map
2012-12-30 09:43:31 40.94489, -87.10806 48957 68 E Map
2012-12-30 09:43:20 40.94557, -87.11053 51122 82 E Map
2012-12-30 09:43:08 40.94519, -87.11596 51164 91 E Map
2012-12-30 09:43:00 40.94515, -87.11967 51200 88 E Map
2012-12-30 09:42:55 40.9453, -87.12245 51233 90 E Map
2012-12-30 09:42:48 40.94526, -87.12535 51302 91 E Map
2012-12-30 09:42:43 40.94547, -87.12808 51351 77 E Map
2012-12-30 09:42:36 40.946, -87.13054 51571 80 E Map
2012-12-30 09:42:24 40.94693, -87.13576 51784 78 E Map
2012-12-30 09:42:24 40.94693, -87.13576 51784 78 E Map
2012-12-30 09:42:12 40.94814, -87.14053 52181 75 E Map
2012-12-30 09:42:12 40.94814, -87.14053 52181 75 E Map
2012-12-30 09:41:39 40.95033, -87.15091 54382 73 E Map
2012-12-30 09:41:39 40.95033, -87.15091 54382 73 E Map
2012-12-30 09:41:18 40.95065, -87.15844 54569 65 E Map
2012-12-30 09:41:18 40.95065, -87.15844 54569 65 E Map
2012-12-30 09:40:30 40.95186, -87.17216 56878 48 E Map
2012-12-30 09:40:30 40.95186, -87.17216 56878 48 E Map
2012-12-30 09:40:30 40.95186, -87.17216 56878 48 E Map
2012-12-30 09:40:05 40.95239, -87.17806 58288 50 E Map
2012-12-30 07:37:40 41.41037, -88.76927 23694 93 SE Map
2012-12-30 07:25:34 41.52216, -89.03398 11686 46 SE Map
2012-12-30 07:14:27 41.56227, -89.13173 1203 9 E Map
2012-12-30 06:53:02 41.56196, -89.13348 682 0 - Map

Garmin Edge 500: (Google Earth KML file -- rename to .kml)


  1. If the timing of the launch is critical to your plans, give yourself more setup time than you think is necessary. Unexpected problems always seem to crop up.
  2. Given the right input the CUSF landing prediction can be fairly accurate in terms of path (a smaller parachute would probably have meant a landing much closer to the prediction)
  3. When chasing the balloon stick to major roads. There is better cellular coverage and inevitably you will get to your destination quicker.
  4. Don't chase the Spot GPS signal. Wait until your secondary cell phone running a tracking app also starts communicating.




AT 105,000 FEET





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