NEAR SPACE BALLOONING - STRATOSPHERIC PHOTOGRAPHY

MISSIONS

► LAUNCH 4 : GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, ARIZONA

DATE: Saturday, July 20, 2013
LAUNCH: 5:09 PM PST, Indian Route 6135 Terminus, Navajo Nation, Arizona [ 35.97926, -111.64079 ]
WEIGHT: 6 lbs, 5.5 oz (including chute, lines, and radar reflector)
ALTITUDE: 105,000 feet
BURST TIME: 7:17 PM PST
LANDING: 7:28 PM PST, Near Camp 5 Road, Boquillas Ranch, Hunting Unit 10, Arizona [ 35.99264, -112.66716 ]
DURATION: 2 hours, 21 minutes
DISTANCE: 58 miles


THE STORYEQUIPMENTMAPS & DATAPHOTOSVIDEOLESSONS LEARNEDCOMMENTS


► THE STORY

In the mid 90s I worked several seasons at the Grand Canyon National Park. Much free time was spent photographing the canyon and exploring the remote backcountry along both rims. The first near space balloon I launched lifted off in Iowa, unexpectedly crossed Lake Michigan, and landed in a tree near Grand Rapids, by pure chance just thirteen miles from my former roommate at the Grand Canyon (he helped retrieve it). It seemed like launching a balloon over the National Park would bring things full circle.

The Grand Canyon is one of the most photographed places on Earth, but pictures taken from a weather balloon floating at the edge of space would be completely new and unique. Pulling it off seemed like an expensive, time-consuming, and risky proposition; gambling not just the equipment, but due to the likelihood of a landing in some remote spot, there was a personal risk as well. In June a team of graduate students from Stanford suffered a failed balloon launch east of the Grand Canyon near Tuba City. Clearly, it wouldn't be easy.

Planning

The first question was when? In the summer months the Grand Canyon is subject to frequent, spectacular monsoon storms. When they coincide with a sunset, the visuals are amazing. I checked the lunar calendar and discovered a full moon on July 20th would be rising in synchronization with the setting sun. Given the time of year, a simultaneous thunderstorm was a distinct possibility. I had a date.

Click to view largerThe next question was where? The trick to finding a launch site is first identifying a suitable landing zone, and working backwards from there using prediction tools online to experiment with different flight paths. Judging by the forecast, it appeared an east to west flight was in the cards. But given the serpentine geography of the Grand Canyon, it was the worst possible trajectory. Making matters more complicated, special flight restrictions cover the national park. The balloon would have to be above a certain altitude when it crossed the canyon. I quickly ruled out a launch over the North Rim; it risked a landfall in heavily wooded forest. And any flight headed west over the South Rim might end in the canyon itself or a deep side canyon, but there was one possible landing zone, a thirty-five mile wide stretch of ranchland in-between the Hualapai Indian Reservation to the west and the Kaibab National Forest in the east. To hit it, I'd have to launch the balloon from the Navajo Nation, which borders the Grand Canyon's east rim. I communicated with the Navajo Land Department and ordered a custom-made map of the area west of Tuba City. Additionally, I armed myself with topographical maps, USGS satellite topos, Kaibab National Forest maps, an aeronautical chart, and road maps from AAA.

The day before flying out to Las Vegas, the latest flight prediction showed a landfall in the middle of the desired landing zone, just east of Supai Canyon on Unit 10 state hunting land. However, the prediction tool was operating in "beta" mode. Significant programmatic changes had just been made. How accurate it ultimately proved was unforeseeable.

The Launch

My brother, who had tagged along for Launch 2 and nearly succumbed to frostbite, was in Chicago attending a summer seminar on Marx. I invited him to come, and he eagerly agreed. After arriving in Vegas, I found him at a Starbucks, recovering from a meal at Caesars' Bacchanal Buffet. Together, we headed off in a rented SUV to Mister Balloon's house where we picked up the helium I had reserved weeks earlier. An hour after leaving town, a record storm hit the city, flooding the casino floor at Caesars. We spent the night in Kingman, Arizona.

Click to view largerThe next morning forecasts showed overcast skies for the Grand Canyon. We had to return to Las Vegas in two days. If the launch didn't go forward that afternoon, the only remaining window was the following morning, but there'd be no moon in the sky and the weather didn't look much better. We decided to drive to the launch site and see how things looked in person before determining what to do. Were the mission scrubbed for the day, we'd have to camp in the desert in order to make a sunrise launch.

Click to view largerFrom Kingman, we took Route 66 east through Peach Springs, picked up Interstate 40 at Seligman, and arrived in Flagstaff at noon. From there we traveled north on Highway 89, touring Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monument on the way. The skies above the Navajo Nation were mostly clear. Right before the exit for Tuba City we turned west on Indian Route 6135, a dirt track leading out across the wide-open Painted Desert. Sixteen miles from the turn off the road faded away in-between two red rock buttes. The only signs of civilization were an old wooden corral and abandoned Navajo hogan dwelling. The Little Colorado River canyon snaked by just to the south. It was 3:30 p.m. The launch had been planned for 5:00. The sky overhead was blue, but towering thunder heads were forming in every direction. I decided to go for it.

Click to view largerSetting up and inflating the balloon went off without a hitch. While I hurried about, my brother documented the process in pictures. Finally, when it came time to power on the seven cameras and two tracking devices (a smart phone and Spot GPS device), I went through a mental check list. Ten minutes later the lid on the payload box was closed and sealed with duct tape. Holding the twenty-five foot tall payload stack above my head (box, radar reflector, parachute, balloon), I walked into the scrub, paused, then let it go. The balloon rocketed up. Lying on my back, I watched with binoculars until it disappeared five minutes later. I had forgotten to loop a line around the box as a backup to the duct tape holding down the lid.


The Chase

Click to view largerThere would be no recovering the payload that day. Instead, the plan was to head out to the landing site the following morning. None-the-less, driving back across Indian Route 6135 I was eager to get a wifi connection so we could check for a balloon position update online. But there was no signal. On Highway 89 we were overtaken by a storm. What had been dry washes along the road a few hours earlier were now flooded with muddy, brown water. I pulled into the parking lot at the Cameron Trading Post. There was wifi coverage here. On an iPad I checked the AccuTracking website, which should have been getting updates from the smart phone. Nothing. But not surprising; cellular coverage seemed spotty. With some trepidation, I logged into the Spot GPS site. It was tracking. The balloon was following the predicted path.

An hour later we arrived in Flagstaff. At a gas station I re-checked the iPad. Still nothing from the AccuTracking site, but there had been a number of Spot GPS updates. The balloon was over the Kaibab National Forest, just east of Highway 180/64, about eight miles south of the Grand Canyon. If it stuck to that line, hitting the landing zone looked likely. We drove to a motel and I asked my brother to watch the iPad while I ran inside to get a room. Returning ten minutes later, he was in a state of high anxiety. The Spot GPS had updated again. The balloon had unexpectedly moved north. It was now tens of thousands of feet directly over the canyon by Moran Point. Was the flight prediction wrong? We wouldn't know the answer for another hour.

A short time later, hunched over a burrito at the Kachina Restaurant, iPad on the table, I was barely aware of my surroundings. The Spot GPS device had been quiet. Nervous, we waited. Finally, a new update appeared. The balloon was signalling to the west of Supai Canyon, dozens of miles beyond the predicted landing site. We held our breath. Ten minutes later another update appeared in the exact same place, and then another. Clearly, the Spot GPS device was on the ground, but I knew something might have gone wrong.

In past launches the Spot GPS had always sent a steady stream of signals as the payload box slowly descended by parachute after the balloon burst. It hadn't happened this time. But why? Perhaps the box had been tossed around in the passing storm, making it impossible to connect with a satellite? It seemed logical, but as it turned out was quite wrong.

The Recovery

After dinner I marked the exact location of the payload on several maps. It had landed in what seemed like an ideal spot, on treeless, public range, accessible on ranch roads, and only a few hours away. I plotted a route and went to bed.

By 6:00 a.m. we were up, heading north to Valle on Highway 180. The road was eerily empty, absent any Grand Canyon tourist traffic. A heavy rain had fallen. The back roads leading out to the payload had likely become very muddy. Having 4-wheel drive was reassuring.

Click to view largerIn Valle we tanked up with gas and then struck out west on Wilaha County Road, an unpaved route. Except for herds of cattle, we seemed to have the vast landscape all to ourselves. At Anita Station, nothing but an old corral, we crossed the Grand Canyon Railway tracks, which rolled out in both directions as far as the eye could see. A short distance later a sign informed us we had entered the Boquillas Ranch, a huge property owned by the Navajo Nation that encompasses much of Arizona Hunting Unit 10. It wasn't long before we discovered a herd of elk trotting across the range, a scene not unlike wildebeest crossing an African savannah.

Click to view largerThe farther along we went the worse the roads became until finally they were nothing more than deeply rutted two-tracks covered with mud pools and rocky scree. It would have been impassible without a high clearance vehicle and 4-wheel drive. Progress was slow and cell coverage was spotty. At times we could make out where we were on Google Maps, but mostly relied on landmarks and the printed maps. After getting lost for a time, we found ourselves on Supai Road, then connected up with Camp 5 Road, drove a ways south and stopped. The payload was lying somewhere in the low grass a quarter-mile off to the east. We set out on foot expecting to see the bright yellow parachute at any moment. No luck. Frustrated, we drove east on another road and attacked the area from the opposite side. Still nothing. Judging by the map, it seemed like we were right on top of it. The parachute should have been easily visible, let alone the white payload box.

Click to view largerAfter more fruitless searching I realized what must have happened: the duct tape sealing the lid of the payload box had somehow worked loose, and because I had forgotten to tie a backup line around it, the contents must have spilled out and plummeted to the earth. The Spot GPS device was probably lying nearby, hidden in the brush. But if this theory were true, I had to be certain. We couldn't abandon the search. But I'd neglected to copy down the Spot GPS's coordinates from the website. And while I had come prepared with a hand-held GPS device, without that information it couldn't lead us anywhere. Resigned, we resolved to drive on in hunt of a strong wifi signal. We stomped back to the SUV and headed west. Five and a half miles later a car appeared on the horizon speeding north. We had stumbled on Hualapai Hilltop Highway; a paved road.

Fifty-five miles to the south, in Peach Springs, we found a wifi connection at the Hualapai tribe's visitor center. The next problem was gas. We didn't have enough to make it back to the landing site and return again. Peach Springs had no station, but eleven miles further east we found a pump at a dilapidated tourist trap, the "Grand Canyon Caverns".

Click to view largerAn hour and half later, after a depressing one-hundred and thirty mile diversion, we were back at the landing site. I plugged the latitude and longitude into the hand-held GPS and started walking. Using an iPhone, my brother did the same. It wasn't long before we were standing further off Camp 5 Road than earlier. I had a pang of hope. My brother stopped, the iPhone indicating he was in the right place, but there was nothing there. Meanwhile, the GPS device told me to keep going east. A few hundred feet later I spotted a white shape hidden in the grass. I started running. It was the payload box. My theory was wrong. The duct tape had held. But in the middle of the lid, where the line to the parachute should have been affixed, there was nothing but a gaping hole.

The Aftermath

Click to view largerI had used a thinner walled styrofoam box for this launch, and as it turned out the violent spinning and flipping that always happens when the balloon bursts simply proved too much. The chute was yanked from its mooring, and the payload box plummeted unencumbered from over 100,000 feet. The bottom of the box had been crushed in, and various bits of equipment poked out. One camera was destroyed. Inside, everything had more or less held, including the gimbal keeping the Spot GPS face up and in communication with satellites.

After hitting the ground three of the cameras had clicked away for hours; one even capturing a nearby lightning strike. Unfortunately, due to cloud cover the only images of the Grand Canyon itself were of the East Rim. In a way, the parachute mishap was lucky. If it hadn't ripped loose, the payload would have landed further west, likely in forested land on the Hualapai Reservation.

The following day, returning the rental in Las Vegas, the clerk rolled his eyes when he saw the thick red mud encasing the lower half of the SUV. The trip odometer had clocked just over 1,100 miles.


► EQUIPMENT

2000 gram balloon from Kaymont sells Totex balloons from Japan, the most popular brand

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

Davis Emergency Deluxe Radar Reflector

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website: purchased on Amazon.com
  • 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: http://findmespot.com
  • 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, $70 for 1 month of service
  • Failed as a backup due to a lack of coverage in the landing zone

AccuTracking App for smart phone

Go Pro Hero 2 camera

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website: http://gopro.com
  • Note: Easily the most commonly used camera for a project like this. Used a 64gb SD memory card as well as the additional BacPac battery

New Trent iTorch IMP52D 5200mAh External Battery Pack

Canon PowerShot G12 positioned for landscapes, ten second intervals

  • Cost: $299
  • Note: Purchased off eBay, I wanted to see what a highend Powershot could do, The quaility was excellent, but despite lasting hours in testing, for unknown reasons it stopped working 28 minutes after launch.

2 x Canon PowerShot A1100 IS (uses AA lithium batteries), positioned for portrait and down-facing photos

  • Cost: already owned
  • Note: I used the CHDK software to hack the camera for ten second interval shooting. It's very important to use lithium batteries as they can still function in the extreme cold of the upper atmosphere. This is the last time I will use these cameras as one was destroyed in the landing and in general the A3300 IS just takes better photos, though a charge won't last 14 hours like the A11000 IS setup for 15 second interval shooting.

3 x Canon PowerShot A3300 IS, two positioned for landscapes, one down-facing

  • Cost: already owned
  • Note: Using CHDK I found the battery will last almost 3 hours with the exposure interval set to 15 seconds and the camera settings tweaked to conserve power.

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

  • Cost: already owned
  • Note: In the past I also used several HeatMax HOTHANDS warmers, but decided not to for this launch with success.

Miscellaneous including: duct tape, plastic zip ties, tarp, scissors, Everbilt 5/32 in. x 75 ft. Diamond-Braid Poly Cord, a Styrofoam cooler, all from Home Depot

  • Cost: $30

229 cf Helium from Mister Balloon, Las Vegas, NV

GRAND TOTAL: $1157

Flying to Las Vegas, car rental, gas, hotel, and food count as extra!
Cost: $1566


► MAPS & DATA

  • Click here to download the University of Wyoming predicted flight path (Google Earth KML file -- rename to .kml)
  • Click here to view the most accurate from a series of CUSF predicted flight paths generated the morning of the launch
  • Click here to view the Spot GPS tracked flight path

CUSF Prediction:

Spot GPS Map:



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


► LESSONS LEARNED


  1. Use a checklist when powering up your electronic devices and cameras. It's easy to forget certain steps.
  2. If using a single, centered eye-bolt and washers to attach the line from the parachute to the top of the payload box, make sure the lid is at least 1" to 1.5" thick and reinforce the box lid with duct tape on both top and underneath. Many alternative setups existings, but this is the probably the simplest.
  3. When recovering a payload in extremely remote areas, if possible, take a two-way radio or satellite phone, bring extra gas, a portable tire-pump, tire puncture sealer, and even a mountain bike along with your 4x4 during the recovery. If something had gone wrong with the SUV out in the boonies, having some of those items would have sealed the gaps in my preparation.
  4. Marking the landing site on a map, or even a color satellite photo, is unlikely help you find it even in seemingly flat, open country. Be sure to bring along a hand-held GPS device with the landing coordinates plugged in. Don't rely on a smart phone as reception may be non-existent.
  5. If using the CUSF Landing Predictor assume your actual landing site could be dozens of miles off from the prediction. In remote areas this means you need to plan your flight around the landing zone. It may need to be quite large and should contain enough backcountry roads so that no point will be more than a few miles from your vehicle.


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