Project HALO Status Report

Sky Launch 1, Attempt 3 -- Success in Hampstead

Held on Sunday, May 11, 1997 in Hampstead, North Carolina

The following text was taken, with permission, from an article by Larry Scarborough, Balloon Gondola Lead, which was published in the May-June 1997 issue of the Southeastern Space Supporter, newsletter of HAL5.

Bucking the Wind

Dadburn it, Ronnie, I’m a doctor, not an engineer!  I cannot give you a technical report on HALO Sky Launch 1.  It was a very visceral experience for me, especially after having driven all night Friday in order to get to Hampstead, North Carolina in time for Saturday’s scheduled launch.

I arrived early Saturday morning in time to watch the dawn, little wind, no clouds.  A perfect morning to launch the balloon -- but there was no balloon to launch.  There was not even a Balloon Team!  Where was everyone?!  I found a small sign which said “Launch delayed until Sunday.  Saturday setup begins at 10 AM.”

Later that morning, the crew began to arrive.  Al Wright brought a lawn mower [borrowed from Steve Unger] that my son, Jesse, and I helped push in an effort to subdue the stubble that threatened to puncture the delicate balloon.  Mowing grass is a great way to stay awake when you’ve been driving all night!

Gone With the Wind -- Almost!

The dust and smoke the lawnmower spewed out were a graphic measure of how much the wind had picked up.  The “CAUTION” tape that Ronnie was having us stretch around the launch site was catching enough wind to snap off the wooden rods to which it was affixed.

My broad-brimmed hat blew off so often that I was inspired to find yet another use for duct tape.  Not only did it keep my hat on, but it also made shaving my chin unnecessary for the next few days when the tape and hat were removed in favor of a less aerodynamic cap, donated by a bystander.

By late afternoon on Saturday, the grass was cut and the site was mostly roped off.  Tents to protect our equipment were anchored against the wind.  I checked the braces and rigging of the gondola one more time.  The rocket was in the capable hands of Tim, Al, and Steve.  Clay and Ed were doing their thing with the electronics.  Jesse and I left and took a stroll on the beach and turned in early, hoping the wind would die down.

Inflating the Balloon

The wake-up call came before 4 AM on Sunday.  There was frost on the stubble.  Peter Ewing had already gathered most of the pieces of the Kjome balloon launcher device; but there was still a rush to find rope and attach weights as Bill Brown stretched out the balloon.  Several team members turned on their car headlights so that we could better illuminate the balloon area.  Ronnie set up a propane lamp on a stand nearby.

We fumbled briefly with cold fingers in the frosty morning to get the launcher locking mechanism in place.  By the time Bill began filling the balloon with helium, the gas was neatly contained in the top 4th of the balloon by our device.

Thanks to Tim’s new manifold, the balloon was champing at the bit of our launcher much more quickly than on the previous attempt.  Then I got nervous, as I overheard parts of concerned conversation by the tank handlers.  “Did he really say that some of our helium tanks were empty??”

Thoughts of Cerro Gordo

Remembering the pattern of our previous balloon launches, I watched the beautiful sunrise with dread rather than appreciation.  Twice before had I held onto a large balloon hovering calmly at dawn.  [Editor’s note: the first time was with the 19,000 cu.ft. balloon launched in September, 1996.]  Twice before had technical problems delayed launch.  The wind routinely picks up soon after sunrise, and the pleats of that big inverted teardrop open into a sail.  A tame workhorse becomes a bucking bronco.  And I was no longer wearing my big hat!

Back to Reality in Hampstead

Greg now had to balance his running dialog with the FAA with securing more tanks of helium.  Somehow he managed at dawn to get the local Food Lion supermarket to give up their two party balloon helium tanks.  One turned out to be just enough to give our balloon the required lift.

A Very Smooth Launch

The release went more smoothly than I could have imagined.  The pieces of the Kjome launcher flew apart exactly as prescribed (Thanks, Norm!).  The huge envelope drifted deliberately upward.  The gondola carrying the rocket was plucked gently from the hands of its handlers.  I was greatly relieved that the gondola looked so sturdy and straight -- knowing full well the frailty of the wooden strips I had planed so thin to save on weight.

The rest, as they say, is history.  The balloon rose quickly, soon finding the wind that we had somehow avoided on the ground.  It was far out over the Atlantic when a premature rupture of the balloon tested the reflexes of Bill Brown and Ed Myszka.  But they were up to the challenge.  The rocket launched!  And it was all caught on video tape.  I’m ready to do it again!

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