DATE: Thursday, November 28, 2013
LAUNCH: 2:31 PM MST, Rainbow Tank, Espee Ranch, Hunting Unit 10, Arizona [ 35.669596, -112.56697 ]
WEIGHT: 7 lb (including chute, lines, and radar reflector)
ALTITUDE: 88,963 feet over Aneth, Utah [ 37.18287, -109.21595 ]
BURST: 9:20 PM MST near Cortez, Colorado [ 37.43870, -108.40226 ]
LANDING: 9:51 PM MST, San Juan National Forest, Colorado [ 37.58493, -108.11053 ]
TEMPS: High: 75.74 F (24.3 C), Low: -50.98 F (-46.1 C)
DURATION: 7 hours, 20 minutes
DISTANCE: 300 miles



The goal of Launch 4 had been to photograph the Grand Canyon from the edge of space, but clouds obscured the view. It was still an adventure, and the pictures of the Painted Desert, East Rim, and Little Colorado River demonstrated promise. When the balloon burst the mission suffered a parachute failure. The payload box plummeted 100,000 feet, hitting the ground after just eleven minutes. Amazingly, everything was recovered intact. At the time I said to my brother, who had tagged along, this would make a great story in National Geographic. As it turned out he knew somebody who'd worked there.


A few weeks later I was exchanging emails with JJ Kelley, an acquaintance of my brother's friend. Some years before JJ had made a documentary while biking across Alaska and sent it off to National Geographic in Washington DC. They took him on as an intern, and he worked there for five years, becoming a producer. Along the way JJ formed a production company with a friend called Dudes on Media. They produced several more adventure films, such as Paddle to Seattle, where he and his friend built their own kayaks and then spent months paddling the Inside Passage. Another recent work, Go Ganges, followed them from the headwaters of the Ganges River in the Himalayas to its mouth at the Bay of Bengal. Lately, he's gone undercover in Africa posing as an ivory trader and filmed artists on the shores of Alaska creating works out of plastic flotsam. JJ is an experienced adventurer and professional filmmaker. He considers himself an honorary Wisconsinite, having gone to high school there, but now lives in Brooklyn, New York. I was from Brooklyn and now lived in Wisconsin.

Intrigued, JJ offered to come along on my next outing. "I'll be a fly on the wall," he wrote. Logistically, it was simpler for me to drive somewhere nearby than fly to an unfamiliar place and organize everything. The Bad Lands of South Dakota seemed to fit the bill. Thanksgiving would afford several days off work.

Several weeks later an epic storm dumped four feet of snow on western South Dakota. If the weather was like this in October, the idea of launching balloons there in November suddenly didn't seem so smart. But a little research showed the weather in Arizona might be mild enough to go back to the Grand Canyon. Thanksgiving was over a month away. I called around the Phoenix area. No welding gas suppliers had helium, but surprisingly I found a party balloon outfit with a ready supply and for a comparatively low price. Aware that some party stores mix nitrogen into their helium, I asked if it was pure. They assured me it was. I reserved two 220cf cylinders.

JJ was constantly on the road, one week in Alaska, another in Colorado. A few weeks before the trip I asked if he could come. As it turned out, he said, National Geographic magazine was running a story on the Grand Canyon soon. As a tie in, he pitched them the idea of a short video documentary following a near-space balloon mission over the park. A few days before the trip he got a text message. Story approved.

The Launch

I arrived in Phoenix on the evening of the 26th, a Tuesday. The party balloon shop was closing at noon the next day and wouldn't be open on Thursday, Thanksgiving. In the morning I made my way up the Piestewa Freeway in a rented Chevy Suburban to Paradise Valley Village. The folks running the store were friendly. I again expressed my surprise at the relatively low price and asked once more if the content was pure helium. Despite the "balloon grade" label, it was 99%, I was assured. "Almost medical grade, just not filtered as much." They could charge less, it was explained, because they didn't store flammable gases and their insurance costs were consequently lower. Also, they got their helium directly from a supplier, with no middlemen. Thanks to a persistent global shortage, paying exorbitant prices had become the norm. It seemed a stroke of luck. Leaving with two heavy helium cylinders in the back of the Suburban, I switched on the radio. Frank Sinatra was singing Come Fly with Me.

JJ was flying out of New York that evening and arriving in Phoenix via Charlotte at 12:30 a.m. Accompanying him was his girlfriend Katy, who aside of having an unusual Thanksgiving break, would act as an associate producer. While Katy had visited the Grand Canyon many times, JJ had never been there.

Days before, a monster storm had swept across the Southwest and was now on the verge of socking the Northeast. Sitting in the hotel in Phoenix Wednesday night, I watched in suspense as JJ's flight was delayed and then delayed again. If they didn't make the Charlotte connection we'd lose an entire day. I had to return the helium cylinders on Monday. Pulling off two launches in four days was already ambitious. To do it in three might be impossible. Finally, the plane took off, but they'd have just twenty minutes to make their connecting flight. The plane landed in North Carolina. A short time later I got an email. They were on the tarmac, waiting to take off for Phoenix, but JJ didn't know if their baggage had made the transfer. I couldn't sleep. Sometime after midnight another message arrived. They had made it, along with their bags. Relieved, I went to bed. We were to meet at 8 a.m. I slept fitfully.

It was a five-minute drive to JJ's hotel. He and Katy appeared at the appointed hour, dragging a baggage cart piled high with suitcases, bags, and camera equipment. We'd only corresponded via email. It was odd to finally meet in person.

With everything packed in the Suburban, we headed north out of Phoenix on I-17. The plan was to do the first launch that afternoon. The aim was to make flight apogee shortly before sunset. This meant a 2:30 p.m. launch. Unlike Launch 4 back in July, this time the winds were heading from west to east. And instead of launching the balloon on the Navajo Nation, I was expecting it to land there.

Time passed quickly. In a couple of hours we were in Flagstaff. JJ had been there just weeks before following a runner preparing for the New York City marathon. We headed west on I-40 to Williams, then turned north on Highway 64 to Valle, where we'd strike out west on Wilaha County Road, an unpaved route--coincidentally the same road used to recover the payload in Launch 4.

By the time we reached Valle, the skies above had clouded over, but looking south it was all blue. Finding a wifi signal proved hopeless, and the only motel was closed. A weather update was impossible. Just north of Valle we turned west on Wilaha. In July, my brother and I hadn't encountered anyone along here, but now the way was surprising crowded. Twenty-six miles out, near the Tin House ranch compound, we turned south on Espee Road. A few miles later we stumbled on a large cattle tank with high banked dirt walls, forming a perfect wind shield. I pulled off the road and drove a few hundred feet out to the pond. The sky had cleared. From here the distance to the Grand Canyon was such that the balloon would be well above the restricted airspace when it reached the skies over the park. As we unloaded the Suburban a couple of vehicles passed by. They slowed, but didn't stop.

Click to view largerJJ had rented tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment. As I set up, he broke out a video camera, huge lens, and enormous tripod. A white truck went by, stopped, then backed up. The driver stared at us, seeming to consider. Finally, he made a turn our way. I walked out to intercept him. He was a thin, stubbly man with a fifty mile stare. A rifle sat in arm's reach on the passenger seat. I explained what we were doing. "I thought you might be stuck in the mud!" he said, smiling. "Elk season opens tomorrow. I was heading for camp." That explained all the traffic, and the gun. We chatted for a few minutes. He lived near Williams now, but had spent thirty years running the gas station out in Cameron.

Everything proceeded smoothly. While JJ circled, filming video, and Katy took still photos, I laid out a large tarp for the balloon to rest on, unloaded a helium cylinder, and set out the payload box. After an hour not a cloud was visible. I felt confident. The balloon now inflated and tied off, the payload stack attached, I started up four still cameras, two video cameras, a Spot GPS Tracker, and a brand new Eagle Flight Computer, generously donated by High Altitude Science of Colorado Springs. Every few seconds it would log the latitude/longitude, altitude, barometric pressure, heading, and temperature.

Click to view largerThe payload box sealed, JJ positioned himself at a distance for a wide shot. I strutted into the grass holding the payload box, the balloon twenty-feet above. Three, two, one. I let go. Instantly, I saw something was wrong. Instead of rocketing into the air, the balloon drifted lazily from my hands. Either the helium cylinder hadn't been full or this "balloon grade" gas wasn't pure. Or was I just imagining things? After the previous launch it seemed like I finally knew what I was doing, but now I wasn't so sure.

The Chase

Ten minutes later, back on the road and heading east, the balloon was still visible in the sky. Normally, it should have been far out of sight by now. I said to JJ, "I'm not sure what's going to happen."

The flight prediction had the payload parachuting down eighty-five miles away on the Navajo Nation in a desert area riddled with back-country roads, in-between Tuba City and Page. If we overnighted in Tuba City and retrieved the payload by mid-morning, there'd be plenty of time to turn around, head back, and do another launch that afternoon. Of course, this assumed everything went as planned.

Click to view largerTo reach Tuba City meant a trip through the Grand Canyon National Park. Since working there fifteen years earlier, I had not been back. Returning with a filmmaker from National Geographic in tow was a sureal experience. Just outside the park in Tusayan, I hopped on the internet using an iPad. Checking the Spot GPS website, it was a great relief to see the balloon on the predicted path. Perhaps the unusual lift-off was some kind of fluke? We continued into the park, where like a shock the first view of the Grand Canyon appeared at Pipe Creek Vista.

Click to view largerAs the sun began creeping below the horizon, we stopped at the crowded Desert View overlook and filmed a spectacular sunset; the snow covered canyon rim contrasting with the red rock lit up below. The sounds of Japanese and Indian tourists echoed all around.

In the dark now, we exited the park and drove on to Cameron, where we hoped to find a wifi signal. A half hour later, under the awning at the gas station there, we tried getting online. No luck. The nearby Cameron Trading Post was closed, the motel shuttered. As I walked around the parking lot an employee happened to drive by. I explained our problem. He gave us the username and password for their wireless network. "It works best in the garden out back."

JJ and I trudged down behind the motel. As I started the iPad, he filmed, no doubt hoping for a dramatic reaction shot. Hours had passed. Surely, the payload must have landed by now, I thought. The Spot GPS website came up. The latest signal was twenty minutes old. The balloon was south-east of Page, still within the prediction's margin of error. Generally speaking, when the balloon exceeds the 60,000 foot communication limit of the Spot GPS a silent gap follows as it makes apogee, then three or four signals appear as the payload parachutes to earth. When it lands, the signals repeat from the same place. But I was puzzled. In this case, the Spot GPS had gone quiet after the balloon crossed the East Rim of the Grand Canyon, then started signalling again forty miles to the north-east, as though it had reached apogee and was coming down. It followed the usual pattern, the trajectory nearly duplicating the prediction. But why were no repeat signals coming from the landing site? We waited, refreshing the webpage. The Spot GPS was mute.

Discouraged, we drove on to Tuba City. After settling into a motel, we checked the Spot GPS site again. A half hour had passed. Still nothing. I wondered, could the box have hit the ground hard enough to dislodge the Spot GPS from the gimbal keeping it face up and in communication with satellites? In the future, I thought, switching to radio tracking might be an idea.

Dispirited, we ate our Thanksgiving meal at a Denny's, the only restaurant open in Tuba City. An hour later we found the Spot GPS still hadn't updated. I couldn't understand. JJ and Katy went to bed. We had agreed to go to the last known location in the morning. If by chance we found it, great, otherwise we'd drive back west and try another launch. I was not optimistic.

Before turning in for the night I checked the Spot GPS website one last time. There was an update. Without pause, I dashed out the door and roused JJ. We hurried back to my room. The balloon was over Colorado, heading into the Rockies. I was shocked and relieved. But we had no idea if it was still going up, coming down, or worse, had become a "floater". Using the same exact balloon, a group in California had launched a mission that landed off the coast of North Africa. And while their payload could be measured in grams, the idea didn't seem so far fetched that given too little helium ours might continue to drift for hours. It was deja vu. Something similar had happened in Launch 1.

Every ten minutes the Spot GPS updated, showing the balloon heading further into Colorado. It was getting late. I said to JJ, we'll have to see what happens in the morning. JJ went to bed. But I couldn't sleep. Finally, the signals settled over the same location. After three or four repeats, I was sure. Touchdown.

The Recovery

Click to view largerThe balloon had stayed aloft for seven hours and twenty minutes, and traveled a distance of three hundred miles. It crossed parts of Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, and had landed 9,300 feet up in the foothills of the San Juan range, between Durango and Telluride--amazingly, just 3,000 feet from a road. Switching to a contour map view on Google, I could see a thousand feet of elevation gain stood between the road and the payload box. There'd be no trail. From the satellite image, the woods seemed thick. Snow could be a problem. And when we got to the top, there was no way of knowing if the payload was dangling in a tree. I turned in for the night, but barely slept.

We had agreed to meet at 8 a.m. I knocked on their door at 7:45. Smiling, I told JJ to grab his camera. Seated in my room, I explained what had happened while JJ filmed. It was obvious now that some kind of helium deficiency had occurred. The resulting slow rate of ascent allowed a jet stream coursing over northern Arizona to carry the balloon far longer than would otherwise have been the case. We made our plans, packed up, and headed out. It was a four hour drive to Colorado.

The trip on US Route 160 across the Navajo Nation took us through Kayenta, Mexican Water, and Teec Nos Pos. Low clouds and thick fog impaired visibility. The John Ford landscapes were uncharacteristically covered in snow. Dilapidated trailers stood in scenic spots where elsewhere you might find a million dollar home. In perspective, Phoenix seemed like another world, in a different time, a million miles away.

We stopped in Kayenta, a muddy red place, rusted pickup trucks, and gray skies. At a hardware store I purchased an axe and handsaw. JJ and Katy bought breakfast at a McDonald's. Near Teec Nos Pos we passed Red Mesa High School, an oddly isolated facility that looked more like a prison camp. A sign out front extolled their football team, the Redskins. Passing briefly into New Mexico, we drove by the Four Corners Monument, marking the spot where Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. Still inside the Navajo Nation, the political boundaries didn't seem to carry very much weight. In Colorado, we stopped to gas up near a casino on the Ute Mountain Reservation.

East of Cortez the road steadily gained elevation. We had thirty more miles to go, all on the San Juan Scenic Skyway. When working at the Grand Canyon I'd taken exactly one road trip. Coincidently, it was along this route.

The skyway traced its way along the Dolores River valley. A few miles past Priest Gulch Campground we turned onto Roaring Forks Road, an unpaved spur. Dense spruce covered the hillsides, aspen on top. A foot of snow coated the ground. It was sunny with temperatures in the thirties. A mile down we pulled over. The payload lay opposite the road, high a top a hill overlooking Roaring Fork Creek. JJ took one look and said, "It will take two hours to climb that." It was 1 p.m. Once on top, there wouldn't be much time to look around if we want to make it back before dark. We weren't equipped for a night outside at 9,000 feet in the winter.

Click to view largerNot wasting any time, we set out, JJ lugging his camera, Katy following. But before we could ascend we had to climb down and ford the creek. At the bottom of the valley, we pushed our way through thick brush lining the icy stream. On the other side, I took a waypoint on a hand-held GPS. Then we started climbing. Thick deadfall littered the hillside. Deer tracks criss-crossed the snow. JJ suggested we take the steeper ridge line instead of following a debris choked ravine, which might end with a cliff. After fifty feet, I felt discouraged. Coming from Wisconsin, the altitude left me gasping for air. But JJ didn't seem affected at all. Wearing only a thin down parka, no gloves or hat, he seemed completely untroubled, floating up and down the hill, toting the heavy camera, while I panted and leaned on the axe for balance. When one of us was out of sight we kept in contact by shouting. After an hour we'd made it half way. The sky was still blue, the forest absolutely quiet. Standing there, catching my breath, I felt at one with the scene.

We continued up and up, but the blue dot representing the payload on the GPS device always seemed a third of a mile away. After reaching a false summit, the terrain levelled out. Finally, we made it, Katy still a bit behind. JJ set up his camera one last time. This was the money shot. He didn't want to miss the moment I found the payload, whether it be lying on the ground or hanging from a tree.

Click to view largerHolding the GPS in my hand like a homing device I trudged through the snow, scanning the tree tops for any glimpse of orange, the color of the parachute. Suddenly JJ said, "I think you're going to be happy!" I looked around, didn't see anything, but then there it was, sitting upright in the snow a few yards ahead: the payload box, radar reflector, parachute, and the entire balloon, which instead of exploding into fragments had simply burst at the seam and come down still attached. While I cracked opened the box, and JJ filmed, Katy appeared.

The Aftermath

Click to view largerGetting back down the hill was a treacherous ordeal, more dangerous than going up. Hidden branches threatened to catch and twist a ankle, and at any moment one false step might send you tumbling. After two hours we made it back to the Suburban, exhausted, feet frozen. We spent the night in Cortez, and the following day saw us on US 160 heading back to the Grand Canyon. Along the way JJ became intent on filming wild horses. After a lunch of Navajo Tacos at the Cameron Trading Post, we returned to the South Rim and checked into Yavapai Lodge. For dinner we ate at the Bright Angel Restaurant, where I had worked years before.

Click to view largerEarly Sunday morning there was a knock on my door. It was JJ. Time to shoot the sunrise! In a rush, we drove through thick fog to nearby Yavapai Point. Not sure there'd be anything to see, upon arriving we were astonished to discover a temperature inversion. The sky above was bright blue, but below the entire canyon was filled rim to rim with rolling clouds. As we watched, mist swept up the canyon walls like a wave, then quickly receded, revealing the vast hidden depths. Looking east was like peering over an ocean of cloud, a single butte sticking up like an island, the sun rising above, lending color to the scene. Later, we discovered the episode was even rarer than thought. It was a total inversion, covering the entire canyon, a once in a decade event, according to the Park Service. It even made the news. And by chance JJ was there to film it.

Click to view largerOn the way back to Phoenix that afternoon, we stopped in aesthetic Sedona to shoot an interview segment near Red Rock State Park. An hour and half later, back in sprawling Phoenix, it felt as though returning to America from another country. I dropped off JJ and Katy then headed to a hotel near the airport. In the evening I packed everything up, but the axe and handsaw I bought in Kayenta wouldn't fit, so I left them for the housekeeper in the trash bin.

After two attempts I still hadn't quite captured the view of the Grand Canyon I'd envisioned. Each launch had been a learning experience. There are still many camera variations to try. Clearly, it will take a third expedition.


2000 gram balloon from High Altitude Science

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

50" 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, $70 for 1 month of service
  • Note: Failed as a backup due to a lack of coverage in the landing zone

AccuTracking App for smart phone

Eagle Flight Computer from High Altitude Science

Go Pro Hero 3+ Black camera

  • Cost: $422.39
  • Website:
  • Note: Easily the most commonly used camera for a project like this. Used a SanDisk 64gb SD memory card ($44.35) as well as the additional BacPac battery ($48.70) and GoPro 3.5mm Mic Adapter ($12.90).

Anker Astro Mini 3000mAh External Battery Pack

  • Cost: $19
  • Website:
  • Note: I bought the extra battery pack for more recording time for the Go Pro. The Go Pro will not record while connected to a powersource via USB unless you have the extra BacPac battery for the Go Pro itself and plug the USB cable into that.

Audio-Technica ATR-3350 Lavalier Omnidirectional Condenser Microphone

Pentax K-01 w/28mm SMC manual focus lens, positioned for landscapes, ten second intervals

  • Cost: already owned
  • Purchased off eBay

Canon PowerShot SX260 HS, positioned down

  • Cost: $152.51
  • Purchased off eBay

2 x Canon PowerShot A4000 IS, one positioned for landscapes, one for portraits

  • Cost: $181.97
  • 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

1 HotHands Air Activated Handwarmers

  • Cost: $.98

2 Adhesive backed HotHands Toasti Toes

  • Cost: $1.48

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

220 cf Helium

  • Cost: $150

GRAND TOTAL: $1,693.55

Airfare, gas, hotel, and food count as extra!
Cost: $2,004.54


CUSF Trajectory Prediction:

Spot GPS Map:

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

Eagle Flight Computer 3D Map:

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

Jet Stream Map (refresh page to see animation):


  1. Never buy helium labeled "Balloon Grade". Try and find a welding shop to get helium from, they could never pass anything off on their normal customers that was less than pure helium and still stay in business.
  2. Once you have a few launches under your belt, consider relying solely on the Spot GPS device, or go for your Technician License so you can switch to APRS radio tracking, which allows for near real-time monitoring of the entire flight.
  3. Two of the four still cameras I used were accidentally turned off when I placed them in the payload box. Take extra care to make sure the restraints holding your cameras cannot impact the power buttons.
  4. Some cameras may be especially sensitive to cold, while others not at all. In Launch 5 the Pentax K-01 stopped operating normally. This time it worked throughout because I had a hand warmer set right beneath it and a smaller adhesive backed toe warmer on top.
  5. Too many of the pictures from this flight had more sky in the shots than desired. Instead of a straight horizontal aspect, remember to tilt the cameras down at a slight angle.








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