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    Texas unit stages successful balloon launch, retrieval

    January 21, 2011


    The Three Rivers Flight’s chase team members – (from left), Cadet Airman 1st Class Jonah Griggs, Cadet Airman Basic Calvin James, Capt. David Augustine and Cadet Airman 1st Class  A. J. Augustine – at the recovery site in a newly plowed field outside Miles, Texas.

    (From left) Capt. David Augustine, Cadet Airman 1st Class Jonah Griggs, Cadet Airman Basic Calvin James, 1st Lt. Leslie Roblin and Cadet Airman 1st Class  A. J. Augustine before launch.

    Three Rivers Flight members and spectators wait as the balloon fills with helium.

    The final countdown begins.

    A view of Grape Creek from above, as seen from the balloon.

    The balloon rises through the first layer of clouds.

    The balloon between the first and second layer of clouds.

    The balloon rises above the second layer of clouds and finds blue sky – the final photograph, as the camera’s shutter then locked up.

    First four photos by Capt. Johanna Augustine

    Capt. Johanna Augustine

    Three Rivers Flight
    Texas Wing

    TEXAS -- Gray skies and damp, chilly weather posed no real problems as Three Rivers Flight members gathered Jan. 15 at Grape Creek’s Cloud Country Airport for the inaugural flight and subsequent recovery of Explorer-1.

    The plan was simple – a weather balloon carrying a package of electronic equipment and an automatic camera would rise to an altitude of 80,000 to 100,000 feet, burst and return to Earth, and flight members would recover the equipment. After 14 months of preparations, fund-raising and hoping that the weather would cooperate, the launch date had finally arrived.

    Three Rivers Flight members arrived at the airport at 7 a.m. and cordoned off the work area. The unit’s activities officer, 1st Lt. Leslie Roblin, with the assistance of Cadet Airmen 1st Class A. J. Augustine and Jonah Griggs and Cadet Airman Basic Calvin James, placed in a small lunch cooler the needed electronic equipment: a digital camera, GPS and radio. Each item was double-checked from a checklist to ensure batteries were installed correctly and the equipment was functioning as it should.

    As the rest of the team prepared the balloon and package, Capt. David Augustine, deputy commander for cadets, checked that all tracking and communication equipment in the chase vehicle was functioning properly. The equipment included a laptop receiving GPS location via the Internet, one laptop receiving a Global File System sounding through a Bearcat scanner for San Angelo Regional Aiport – Mathis Field, and a San Antonio Sectional paper map for plotting locations should the Internet connection go down. Augustine confirmed that all equipment was in good order and receiving the necessary signals both from the electronics equipment in the package and through the Internet.

    Once the package was prepared, all assembly team members donned latex gloves to remove the balloon from its wrapper. The flight vehicle consisted of the package with the electronics, a homemade radar reflector, and a 6-foot parachute, all connected with 550 cord. A piece of the cord was then attached from the top of the parachute to the balloon.

    The team began inflating the balloon with homemade balloon filler consisting of PVC pipe, a copper flap valve and an air-tank slip connector fastened to a copper fitting in the helium tank. Slowly, the helium was released into the balloon until the latter rose off the ground tarp. At that point, Roblin and the rest of the launch team monitored the balloon’s lift by using a fish scale attached to a 5-gallon plastic bucket filled with sand.

    The team stopped from time to time to check their lift measurements to prevent over-inflation. Once the balloon was inflated to the correct pressure, the team tied 550 cord around the balloon’s neck, just above the inflating device – to stop any helium from escaping from the balloon – and removed the inflating device from the neck.

    Roblin folded the neck of the balloon over onto itself and used an 8-inch zip tie to secure it. Two 6-inch strips of duct tape placed over the tie and the end of the balloon’s neck would prevent any helium leaks.

    At this point, Roblin gave a thumbs-up, and Explorer-1 was ready for launch. Spectators and unit members began the countdown:






    The moment had arrived. At 9:03 a.m., the balloon was released, quickly rising out of sight into the low cloud cover. Immediately, team members began packing up the equipment and switched into chase team mode.

    Roblin contacted Steve Guidry of Fort Worth and Dallas area Air Traffic Control to inform him that the package was airborne. Throughout the flight, ATC contacted Roblin for location information, because the controllers could not pick up the balloon’s location with their equipment.
    Roblin then moved to his home to act as base station, while the remaining members prepared the chase vehicle.

    Members of the chase team were Capts. David and Johanna Augustine and cadets Augustine, Griggs and James. Each cadet had an assigned task: Augustine was responsible for GPS tracking via Internet connection, Griggs for coordinates received from the radio and James for plotting the coordinates on the map.

    Although the chase team tried to stay under the balloon, doing so proved impossible as the balloon, which had been expected to move southeast, headed north instead. At that point, the chase team decided to proceed on an intercept course, which took the squadron members north, then southeast and finally east, toward Miles.

    Moving to Miles, the team continued to monitor the balloon’s flight path and altitude. At 10:21 a.m., the balloon had reached an altitude of 78,000 feet and was beginning its descent. The CAP chase team tracked it to a field just outside town, where the signal from the package grew inaudible. With the landowner’s permission, the team entered the land where they believed the balloon had landed, at which point the signal again became audible, meaning the package was within the members’ line of sight.

    After a safety and search operation briefing, team members shouldered their 24-hour packs and began a line search in the recently plowed field. Within some 250 yards, the package was found intact in a furrow, 25.3 miles away from the launch point.

    All told, the chase team had driven 100 miles from launch to recovery of the package and return to base, its mission accomplished.


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