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 had been such a nerve-wracking experience I promised myself never again, but after a few days passed I ordered another balloon.


This time around, the goal was to capture clear video of the entire flight, experiment further with still photography, and try out a smaller, less expensive balloon.

Hoping to avoid a repeat of the first launch, I consulted with the experts: Kaymont Balloons, U.S. distributor of Totex balloons, a popular brand. I briefed them on my first time out. They were quick with an explanation. The extreme distance the balloon had traveled (about 340 miles) was due to a lack of helium, they explained, resulting in a slow ascent. The balloon likely got stuck in the jet stream, which carried it far beyond the prediction. In the parlance of high altitude ballooning, it was something known as "going floater". Don't use just one extra pound on your dead weight, I was told. Try adding 50% the weight of your payload, meaning if it weighs four pounds, the dead weight should be six.

I was learning the hard way.

The Launch

Click to view largerIt was 13 degrees outside when my brother and I left our hotel in Mendota, Illinois at 5:00 a.m. We were headed to the soccer fields at Mendota Lake Park. Launch was planned for 5:45, but it wasn't to be.

Working under a moonlit sky, bare fingered in the freezing cold proved slow going. I had procured two M sized helium cylinders and when the first was empty, I wrestled the second into place with my numb hands. The balloon floated above, roughly six feet in diameter. Careful to follow Kaymont's instructions, I waited for the dead weight attached to the balloon to lift and hover in the air, indicating the right amount of helium had flowed into the balloon. But when the second cylinder was nearly exhausted and the dead weight still hadn't budged from the ground, I knew something was wrong, but wasn't sure what it was. I cut the spigot before the cylinder completely emptied. There could have been as much as 250 cubic feet of gas in the balloon. With that much helium it would likely burst at a relatively low altitude, making the flight trajectory prediction unreliable. It was already past 6:00 a.m. There was nothing to do but keep going.

Click to view largerAll that remained was switching on the two tracking devices, starting up the cameras, and securing the lid of the payload box. With frozen fingers, manipulating the tiny buttons on the cameras was a challenge. Finally, clicking away and installed in the payload box, I slammed the lid down and unwound a length of duct tape to seal it off, but in the damp cold I found it wouldn't stick. Flustered, I snatched a length of rope, looped a piece around the box and tied a knot, hoping 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 Interstate 39 on-ramp we headed south, picking up I-80 east in Peru. Occupied with driving, I handed my brother an iPad and asked him to monitor the AccuTracking and Spot GPS websites, which would provide balloon position updates from the two tracking devices inside the payload box. At 7:37 a.m. 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 few hours.

The CUSF flight prediction showed the payload landing near Rensselaer, Indiana. The fastest route there took us across a maze of highways and local roads through Morris, Dwight, and Kankakee. Then we got lost. After what seemed an eternity criss-crossing isolated backroads running through snow covered fields, we stumbled into Beaverville and found our way into Indiana on Illinois Route 114.

The Spot GPS device only provides a position. We had no idea if any given signal showing on the website was coming from 60,000 feet in air or sixty feet up a tree. Then three updates appeared from the same position, suggesting a landing. Quickly checking the satellite view on Google Maps, it looked as though the payload was sitting amidst piles of junk and wrecked cars in front of a dilapidated farmhouse. But by the time we reached I-65 in Rensselaer, not only had the Spot GPS updated again, but so had the AccuTracking website. The signals converged. This time the payload really was on the ground. But given the fifteen foot accuracy of GPS, looking at the satellite view on Google Maps we couldn't tell if it was in a tree, on a railroad track, a road, or lying in a field.

The Recovery

The payload had parachuted down by Highway 35 near Lincoln, half way between Longansport and Kokomo. It was signalling from the east side of the highway along a narrow frontage road called South Lincoln Pike, right next to a tree-lined railway track neighbouring a huge field. A farmhouse stood only a few hundred yards away. Far from landing short, as I had worried, it had actually traveled fifty miles past the prediction.

Click to view largerSpeeding down 35 from Logansport, we blew through the hamlets of Walton and Lincoln, then exited onto the Pike. While 35 was a busy thoroughfare, it seemed unlikely much traffic came through here. The payload would be easily visible from the road, if it wasn't in fact lying in the middle of it. At least if someone stopped and picked it up we could track them. But looking down the Pike, there it was, three feet off one side in the snow, directly under a power line. The shredded remains of the balloon still clung to the parachute. It was now 11:45 a.m. The payload had been sitting there for over an hour. As I ambled up to the box, the sound of a still camera clicking away was audible. I looked into the GoPro's lens. Five hours had elapsed since launch. It was still recording.

The Aftermath

Later, upon reviewing the video I was astonished to discover just how lucky we were. Dangling under the bright orange parachute, the payload had swooped over passing motorists on Highway 35, clipped the top of a tall tree next to the rail line, just missed the power line, and plopped down next to the road sitting upright. By pure chance the GoPro camera happened to face the Pike and for over an hour it recorded birds chirping and hopping from branch to branch across the road. A pickup truck had even stopped to take a long look, but drove off. 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 Map: (Google Earth KML file - rename to .kml)

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. When chasing the balloon stick to major roads. There is better cellular coverage and inevitably you will get to your destination quicker.
  3. Don't chase the Spot GPS signal, after launch just drive directly to the landing area, with one eye on the Spot GPS website in case you need to adjust your course.








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