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The Verde Independent | Cottonwood, Arizona

home : features : people, places & past June 28, 2016

12/23/2011 11:50:00 AM
Lost in Space: Balloon reaches edge of space, then goes missing (with video)
Verde Valley Civil Air Patrol Squadron 205 launched a seven-foot-diameter weather balloon to the edge of space. But within minutes of the launch its GPS tracking system lost contact resulting in a two-day search for its payload.
Verde Valley Civil Air Patrol Squadron 205 launched a seven-foot-diameter weather balloon to the edge of space. But within minutes of the launch its GPS tracking system lost contact resulting in a two-day search for its payload.
CAP Squadron 205 members (from left) Maj. Donna Pratt, Lt. Prahus Nafissian and Capt. Dean Cathcart watch as their experimental weather balloon rises into the early morning sky.
CAP Squadron 205 members (from left) Maj. Donna Pratt, Lt. Prahus Nafissian and Capt. Dean Cathcart watch as their experimental weather balloon rises into the early morning sky.
Civil Air Patrol is open to all sky lovers
SEDONA - Name an organization that will give you rides in an airplane, more rides in a glider, let you fly an F-16 simulator, come along as an observer on a C-135 air refueling flight, launch model rockets and weather balloons while learning leadership and self respect -- for just $18 a year.

Answer: the Civil Air Patrol.

Around since World War II when the government first recruited civilian pilots to hunt U-boats along the nation's coastline, the CAP now serves as the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force.

Today it has 50 wings, one in each state. Each wing has several squadrons. Arizona has about 40. And cumulatively the CAP has the largest fleet of single engine aircraft in the country.

"We are not an Air Force recruiter. We are not their ROTC. We are an auxiliary that assumes responsibilities better suited for lighter, slower, fixed-wing aircraft," says Dr. Luis Camus, commander of Verde Valley CAP Squadron 205.

Following 9-11, CAP pilots were the first to fly over Ground Zero. They routinely fly missions in support of relief work during and after natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina.

CAP squadrons have also served as eyes on the border, helped protect against terrorist threats and even spent time watching over remote archaeological sites threatened by vandalism.

"We are the cheapest asset the Air Force has," Camus notes.

Squadron 205 has been based out of the Sedona Airport for 35 years. Like most CAP squadrons they are best known for their search-and-rescue operations.

"Since GPS units have become so popular, we don't see as many search operations as we used to," says Camus, "but we still get the call."

Their fleet of aircraft is based out of Payson, Flagstaff and Prescott, and planes are flown to Sedona as needed. There are 17 CAP airplanes in Arizona.

The Verde Valley squadron is open to all, male, female, pilots, non-pilots, adults and cadets between 12 and 18 years old.

"Some of our cadets are high achievers and some have come to us at risk for failure," says Camus, a practicing psychiatrist in Sedona. "The program doesn't discriminate. It's open to anyone who wants to better themselves and loves the sky."

Squadron 205 meets the first and third Thursday of each month at their Sedona Airport headquarters from 7 to 9 p.m.

Anyone interested in joining is asked to call Dr. Camus at (928) 301-3755.

Steve Ayers
Staff Reporter

CAMP VERDE - In the wee hours of Saturday, Nov. 12, a group of men and women dressed in military garb of differing formalities stood huddled around a folding table, laid out amongst the greasewood and grama grass on a Forest Service road north of Cottonwood.

Stretched across the length of the table was a seven-foot-long plastic bag, into one end of which a tube had been placed. At the other end the tube was connected to a hissing cylinder, feeding the bag with an ever-expanding volume of helium.

In time a makeshift insulated box, wrapped in high-visibility orange tape and containing a video camera, a handheld GPS and a GPS-enabled cell phone was secured to the base of the balloon.

The process of filling the balloon and securing the box of electronics took a couple of hours.

Then, about the time the sun broke over the horizon, the balloon and its payload were sent skyward. For several minutes the shimmering, seven-foot-diameter curiosity remained visible, its reflective skin in vivid contrast to the morning sky.

Then, somewhere on the backside of the clouds, it disappeared -- not only from the human eyes watching from the desert floor, but also from the electronic eyes, brought along to monitor its trip to the edge of space.

"We were pretty sure it was lost forever," says Dr. Luis Camus, one of the flight crew. "It altogether stopped sending longitude and latitude coordinates within minutes after it launched."

Camus is the commander of the Verde Valley Civil Air Patrol Squadron 205. That morning, along with a handful of cadets and other senior members of the squadron, he had come out to launch the squadron's first weather balloon.

Like most projects carried out by the Civil Air Patrol, the balloon launch offered an educational element as well as the sheer curiosity and joy of putting something to the edge of outer space.

"Along with teaching young people about the joy and science of flying we also teach them about aerospace, rocketry and if the weather balloon project pays off it may one day become part of the Civil Air Patrol's curriculum," Camus says.

Within an hour of launch the balloon reached its apex, a height from which the curvature of earth would have been clearly visible and the point at which the pressure in the balloon exceeds the pressure on the outside of the skin, causing the balloon to burst.

The makeshift box with the silent GPS device and the video camera began their trip back to earth, swaying beneath a parachute.

But where had it landed?

Prior to the launch, two of the group's instructors, Lt. Prahas Nafissian and Lt. William Tripp, had estimated the balloon's trajectory on a computer. With little else to go on, the team headed for the area the computer had chosen. Hours later they returned empty handed.

At 2:45 that afternoon, more than six hours after having lost contact, they shut down the tracking system and called it a day. But around 10 that evening Lt. Nafissian logged back on and discovered that the balloon's tracking system had reestablished communication at 3:15 p.m., just 30 minutes after they had shut down.

The next morning a second search crew went out and again returned empty handed.

It wasn't until after they were back in the valley that they discovered, due to all the excitement of having recovered a signal and their general lack of sleep, the team had miscalculated the payload's coordinates when translating them from one format to another.

On Nov. 14, two days after the launch, a third recovery team went out. They found the payload, intact, 130 miles from the launch site (23 miles from where the computer estimated and just a half mile from where they had searched the day before), north of Holbrook.

The camera had done what it was supposed to do, shooting over two hours of video on the ride up and back.

And, as it turned out, the GPS had functioned correctly all the time, the problem they later learned was that the GPS satellite tracking system had shut down within minutes of launch.

"We compared the images from the video to Google Earth images and determined it reached about 88,000 feet before the balloon burst," Camus says. "And from weather data we determined it withstood 100 mile an hour winds when it passed through the jet stream.

"It took a little longer than anticipated, but we finally declared it, 'mission accomplished.'"

Taylor Waste

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Reader Comments

Posted: Sunday, December 25, 2011
Article comment by: Donna Pratt

Steve, What a marvelous Christmas present for Sqd 205. Newsworthy and just the beginning of
our communication with you. Cadets and Senior Members next project: Rocketry, with intense study of propulsion, etc.(controlled explosions)
I'll be inviting you to a meeting!
A sincere thank you..
Donna Pratt, Major
SQD 205

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