NSTAR Flight 01-E recap
- It all seems so simple. Launch a balloon, follow the GPS data, pick it up
between 90 and 180 minutes later. What could go wrong?
The launch team arrived at the high school between 7:20 and 7:45. We were
running a little behind, but no big deal. We began filling the 350g balloon
and stopped a little early to get a free lift check. However, the duct tape
I used was not quite up to the job and the balloon pulled off the filler
tube and floated away.
No real problem yet. We had a 2nd 350g balloon, and there seemed to be
enough helium left to fill it. Maybe a little short, but if I had to I'd
delete the camera/simplex repeater payload and save 5 lbs. We do a more
thorough job of taping the neck to the tube and start again. When we
emptied the helium, we tied off the neck and got a free lift estimate (wind
wasn't too bad). The balloon had 14 lbs of lift and we needed to fly 11 lbs
today, so we were in good shape.
Fired up the payloads, checked the data, and everything was running fine.
We released about 0838 CDT (1338 UTC) and away we go. However, the camera
didn't fire off the six low-altitude shots it was supposed to. Nuts. We
waited until 10,000 ft and no pictures there either. Nuts again. We pack
up and start the chase, heading east of Treynor.
We stop in Griswold to wait for the burst. Simplex repeater is working
well, data is good, batteries are holding up. Still no indication of 35mm
pix taken, but oh well. I didn't have time to debug that much anyway. We
could see the balloon in amongst some wisps of cirrus. Burst occurs at
54,380 ft about as expected. Initial descent rates are good, simplex
repeater isn't fluttering too badly, so looks like a fine descent.
Now the transmitter is firing off position packets every 5 seconds. It's
stuck in the terminal-descent loop, which was to take pictures and positions
that often until landing. Well, at least I'm getting pictures now. My
concern for the batteries comes back, as now it is transmitting about 6
times more often than it should. A few minutes later I check the telemetry
and the batteries are holding up - certainly well enough to sustain it until
We head south on US71, then east across some gravel roads. Larry N0BKB is
chasing from the east and north and appears to be in position for the
landing. We estimated we'd be a mile or two away at the time.
The descent below 10,000 ft is about as expected - slow ground speeds, a
loop back to the north. The payload exits the terminal-descent loop and
goes back to 30-sec intervals - shoot, now we can use the extra posits. As
it gets below 5000 ft, it appears the landing will be near a road which was
convenient. We approach the landing site from the east.
As I crest the hill, I can see the parachute. It's almost hovering and
appears to be off the ground a ways. At first I thought it was catching a
gust of wind on the ground, but then I see it's hung up in power lines. I
blurt out on our simplex frequency "oh, ****, it's in the wires". As we get
closer I see a puff of smoke coming from one of the payloads. We're now up
to about 1015 CDT.
We stop near the payloads and get out, taking some care not to park or stand
too close. The smoking payload is now a burning payload and a few seconds
later falls free into the grass at the side of the road, starting a grass
fire. Two of the vehicles in the chase have fire extinguishers and the fire
is put out. This was the telemetry payload.
Meanwhile, the second payload with the video camera and simplex repeater is
still caught in the wires. There are five wires on this set, three 40-kV
lines and two 6.5-kV lines (we learned all this later). The second payload
is hanging on the topmost 40-kV line and the parachute is dangling from the
load line coming from the balloon neck, which is hung up on another 40-kV
line. It appears the J-pole antenna and coax was just long enough to touch
two 40-kV lines with obvious effects. The second payload appears
undamaged - the simplex repeater is working fine.
Of all the luck. Half a bazillion acres of open fields in Iowa and I snag a
power line. Not only that, but it's of just the right size for me to short
out. ****ing A, bubba. We are about 200 yards from a farm house - she came
outside to see the commotion. Since we're out of cell phone range, we're
unable to get a reliable call in to the power company, so I walk over to ask
to use her phone. She says heard a bang and the power glitched for a few
seconds. She thought it was a raccoon with good climbing skills but poor
knowlege of power lines (again).
She graciously lets us use her phone. We call one utility company, but it
doesn't service that area. The operator forwards the information to the
proper one. We go back out and wait for the truck to arrive.
The truck arrives about 1145. Since it wasn't an emergency, they weren't in
too big of a hurry on a Saturday, and later they said they didn't know we
were waiting on them. The truck responding owns the 6.5kV lines but not the
40kV and he's not going to work their lines without their permission. So he
radios the proper company and they have a truck not far away that's doing
some tree trimming.
About 1230 or so the bigger truck arrives. They shut down the section of
line and retrieve the package and cut loose the parachute for us. We
exchange names and addresses and head our separate ways.
The telemetry package is a total write-off. Most everything is burned
beyond recognition. The battery may still work, and the KPC-3 is not
particularly melted. I may try powering it on just for giggles. The GPS-35
isn't identifiable as such - it's a lump of roughly the correct shape and
volume. The 35mm is unusable, but the film inside might just be OK. Still
haven't opened it.
The camcorder and simplex repeater, on the other hand and other payload, are
fine. Since we had plenty of time to speculate, we figured the camcorder
had enough tape to record it's interaction with the power lines. At a
minimum, that would be really really unique - I bet Paul doesn't even have a
tape like this. But, of course, as a final twist of the knife from Murphy,
the batteries appear to have run down about 15 minutes beforehand. What I
saw in the viewfinder looked decent, though, but I really wanted to see the
power lines rushing up and the smoke coming from the other package. If I'm
going to burn a $500 payload, I want some video.
The VX-1R running the simplex repeater is the same one that impacted with
the previous video camera on Flight 01-B. It has now survived a 13-mile
fall and tangling with high-voltage lines. I do not wish it any other
So, there you have it. Once again, NSTAR has managed to tick off a small
number of Iowegians, first with gravity bombs and now by targeting the power
grid. I hope they don't have any reactors in Iowa, as that's probably next.
Pictures later. Beer now.
73 de Mark N9XTN
Mark D. Conner
"Arrogance and stupidity, all in the same package.....how efficient
of you!" - Ambassador Londo Mollari, Babylon 5