JonM (turgid) wrote,

Easter Egg Hunt!

Last weekend we went out for another go at launching AHAB, our amateur high-altitude balloon.
On Friday, we made the final preparations, packed up, and drove east, over the hills and to our lodging, again the serene Banks Lake Lodge. We reserved an extra cabin, but upon our arrival just past midnight found it to be locked; poor Adam had to sleep on a trundle bed.

Boy, what a difference a month makes. If you recall, last month we had to scrub the launch because we  had white-on-white conditions, and temperatures in the thirties. This time, we had near clear-blue skies, and temperatures in the low eighties. Whereas before we were bundled up in layers, now we were in shorts, seeking out shade.

Coulee City, which resembled a ghost town, was a fair sight more active and bustling. The general store was open, and people were out working in their yards.

We awoke bright and early the next morning, and started planning our day. There was rigging to be laid out, payloads to be assembled, weather to be checked, federal agencies to be notified, and we all had to eat. After a healthy round of pancakes, thanks to yours truly, and some last minute hacking, the crew assembled and started planning launch-site tasks. With a plan firmly in place, we packed up the gear and headed out to the launch site.

The field we used previously was plown and had young wheat growing in it, so we shifted down the road a hundred yards to a turnout that would give us plenty of room to setup. Like a well-oiled machine, everyone got to work, executing all of their tasks with little in the way of confusion or conflict. We were split up into three general areas: Payload assembly, headed by 3ric, balloon inflation, headed by Aether, and communications/tracking, headed by myself. Everyone else pitched in as needed.

Shortly before 2:30pm, the balloon was nearly full, the payload was coming together, and the rigging was in place. I turned on the cut-down timer at 2:25pm, set to trigger in 2 hours and 30 minutes. About 10 minutes later (after some quick soldering with faulty wiring on the downward-pointing video camera), the payload was taped together and attached to the balloon. Everyone gathered around, we confirmed tracking data, and released the balloon.

Away it went, off into the blue skies. It was lazily headed in a northwesterly direction; our models had said it would go southeast, fast. So fast that we would have to pack up and head off immediately to meet it when it landed, 150 miles away. As we watched the tracking data, we realized that it was nowhere near that course, so we decided to stay put, break camp, and head back to the lodge to track some more.

By the time we got back to the lodge and were done offloading the helium tanks, the balloon was up to 60,000 feet, and had started to turn around and head back towards the launch site. Since we expected the balloon to burst at 80,700 feet, we decided to head back out and try to get in the area it would land. (Bre also wanted some juicy chase footage for the Make podcast. :)

So, there we were, 5 geeks in an SUV, driving around rural Washington farmland, shouting out numbers every few minutes. We made bets on maximum altitude. We all lost. At around 100k feet, we stopped to take a look at a rock outcropping off to the side of the road. Bre and I had just finished scrambling to the top of it when Adam started yelling from the truck.

"It's falling! It dropped! Get back in the truck!"

We made a hasty return to the truck, and started driving to meet it; it was about 10 miles southwest of us, and we were on 4x4 roads. As I drove, Adam monitored the progress of the balloon. 15,000 feet dropped in the first two minutes, from a height of 109,282 feet! The rate of descent was slowing down, but at about 60,000 feet, we stopped getting position data in the beacon packets. Oh no! The batteries were dying! Without position data, we'd be searching for the needle in the haystack.

We got to the last known position of the payload, and started driving around, searching. Bre called the rest of the crew on his phone, and Adam was able to hail folks on the radio; they had seen the payload drop, too, and had come out to the same area to start the search. We guessed at an area based on the last velocity readings we got, and looked around a hillside past a closed road. We didn't find Ahab, but we did find an old grain elevator, a shot-up old Ford, and a road-sign in the middle of nowhere.

The sun was setting, so we headed back to the lodge to share data and celebrate. Aether and 3ric's dad prepared an awesome meal of grilled meats and veggies, while several of us tried to sort out what tracking data we had, and correlate it to any model that would give us coordinates to narrow down the search area.

I called it a night a bit after midnight, while the other guys continued their number crunching. When I awoke in the morning, 3ric and Xander had produced a pair of search points. I pulled up the maps and plotted out a search grid while everyone else was waking up, and Bre got the crazy idea to charter a pilot that would fly on Easter Sunday. The nice thing about farmland is that they lay the roads out with pinpoint regularity. With a mile between the roads, and right-angle intersections, I could plot out the search grid based on road-lines on graph paper. We had our very own Easter egg hunt.

3ric's dad filled the role, and had ventured out early in the morning to get us kids an easter basket. At the store, he explained that he was visiting with the group of younger folks at the lodge. "You mean with the guy who has his hair done up like an easter egg?" Yep, that's me.

Search grid in hand, we packed up the lodge and headed out to the rendezvous point.  On the way out, I got a call from Beth: she had secured a pilot who would fly them over our possible landing spots! With a bright orange parachute, the payload should be pretty easy to spot from above. They took off to the meet the pilot, who apparently pulled the plane out of the garage, and took off on a dirt road.

At the meeting site, we formed groups, assigned grid squares, and started off on the search. Adam and I searched a quarter mile grid that was just off the farmland, with a ravine running through it. Adam took the ravine, and I took the highland, investigating a creepy abandoned house with a cute abandoned dog-house next to it. No payload, though. We searched another couple grids, and then got word that Xander had calculated a couple new landing points, down near Quincy, 30 miles away. We had pretty much covered the previous grid, so we headed off to Quincy, which was on the way home.

We got to Quincy at about 2:30pm. A couple of people had to be back in Seattle by 5, so we split up; I decided to head home so that I could get cleaned up and unpacked at a reasonable hour. The drive home was fairly uneventful; I pulled over at the Columbia River Gorge to take pictures of the scenery. As we rose over Snoqualmie Pass, we were greeted back into the sound by a nice driving rain. Ah, good to be home.


It was a most excellent adventure. While we all would have liked to recover the payload, we consider this round to be a stunning success, especially considering that we got nearly 30,000 feet higher than we expected. We're talking about doing it again, but waiting until after summer to do so.

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Tags: ahab
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