The K5W-11 Balloon (BLT33.5 and BLT33.6)

Two short flights and two recoveries with this special event callsign. At Walter Holmes “Ham Splashfest” we had the opportunity to use a two letter callsign for a small balloon experiment. A single 30″ mylar balloon was equipped with a Pecan Pico 3 tracker and a single AA 1.5 V lithium battery. Unfortunately the rain hammered the balloon down after a few minutes so that we saw him landing 4 miles North West of K5WH’s home QTH. An immediate recovery attempt in pouring rain was successful though we had some trouble with picket fencing. The balloon was still full of helium and the beacon was still transmitting. Therefore we just put it for an hour in Walter’s garage until it dried up and was ready to launch again. We didn’t even have to supply new helium.

The second launch was much calmer and the little mylar climbed up to 14,118 feet. But then suddenly it dropped down like a stone and at 5000 feet we lost signal. It was already too late for another recovery attempt, so we decided to try again on Sunday morning. When we arrived at Metzler Elementary School we mounted a high gain antenna on the car roof and were disappointed that we didn’t pick up a signal from the tracker. We were driving through the neighborhood but it didn’t seem very promising. What now? Sven reviewed the flight path short after launch and it seemed that ground winds came mainly from South on that day. So our best bet was to head North. Pecan trackers have a very characteristic sound. They transmit two packets in a row with approximately 5 seconds delay. Suddenly Sven said: Stop! I believe I heard the Pecan! We stopped the car and waited another 2 minute cycle and sure enough we got a complete position packet from K5W-11. That was half the battle and we were happy as kids.

Looking up the position on the map pointed us to a location even further North. Signal became louder and we heard almost every packet. The battery was very healthy and the temperature showed temperatures above 50 deg. Celsius which means that it must lie right in the sun. However the signal was not too strong at some distance, so it was likely not hanging in a tree. We walked through the neighborhood for a while but couldn’t determine the exact location. The positions were jumping around several hundred meters and all houses were fenced. After an hour walking in the mid-day heat we decided to go to the nearby Mexican restaurant and simply collect some position datapoints and average them in a spreadsheet. The restaurant had excellent food and data was converging quite clearly to a distinct house which we have passed before without seeing a balloon. Anyways we went back to that house and looked around before attempting to ring the bell. Sven discovered the payload lying right in the middle of the sidewalk!  – without any balloon attached to it. That’s why we haven’t seen it when we passed by it in the car earlier. The beacon was still transmitting and looked in good shape. I’m sure it is good enough for the next launch 😉

BLT33.2 Recovery Attempt

A few minutes after touchdown I decided to try a recovery attempt for BLT33.2 . At this time I didn’t even have an exact landing position but I was hoping to pick up the signal when I get closer. Cell phone reception was difficult in Leesville so I had trouble to load Google maps. However I did in deed pick up the signal and position from the balloon directly on my TH-D72.

Guided by the direction feature in the TH-D72 I made my first attempt from the West. I parked my car at the end of a dirt road in some 200 ft from a house and prepared my radios and the ARDF direction finder receiver for a walk for the last 0.5 miles. Suddenly a barking dog and a lady with a shotgun rifle came out of that house and told me not to move. I laid down my ARDF receiver and explained that this was not a weapon and I am searching for a small weather balloon. The lady turned out to be very friendly and informed me that it is rather impossible to pass for 0.5 miles through the rural forest. She suggested to attempt it from the East direction and she even guided me with her car to that side. I left my car (0.4 miles SE from the balloon position) at 7:20 pm local time and followed a heavily overgrown dirt road below a power line to the North. Soon the dirt road completely disappeared and I had to go around huge mood pools and through little creeks still following the power lines. When the direction indicator turned to straight West at 0.2 miles from the balloon I had to turn into the deep forest. I had still light, so it seemed easier than I thought to pass through the shrubs below the ~30ft tall trees and soon my display showed 0.0 miles with varying directions. My ARDF receiver (a DF1FO type that can be seen in his gallery) has a neat display that estimates the distance to the transmitter. This display showed a 5 m distance and I still couldn’t see the forest covered by all the trees. The Pecan likely landed high up in the trees and I had no chance to see the little package. A beeper would certainly be helpful in this case.

Since it quickly started to become dark I gave up searching for the package and decided to go back to the car. Oh damn! From which direction did I come from? Suddenly all shrubs looked the same in the dusk. I didn’t believe that it was getting dark so fast. What is this light on the ground? A sea of million fireflies lit up all around me like blue LEDs inn the dark. The sky was pitch black.

My cell phone rang. Hey, here is Andy (W5ACM). You’re going in the wrong direction. The beacon is right behind you. – I don’t care about the beacon. I’m afraid for my life to get out of here and find the car! – You’re still going to the wrong direction! You need to go East! – I thought I was already going to the East, but I can’t get through the shrubs in the deep forest, so I followed a little creek were it was easier. – I don’t see a creek on the map? What are you talking about? – OK, Give me a few minutes and I’ll send some position beacons while I follow the creek so that I have at least something I can keep my orientation.

While I kept following the creek I got stuck in the thorny thicket. Turn back a few feet and trying to get around the obstacle. I couldn’t even see huge tree trunks, I stumbled, fell down on the ground several times. What the heck! Are there knee deep holes in the ground? I checked out the compass app in my android smartphone. How comes North points always away from me? No matter if I turn myself around my own axis. Oh damn! I never calibrated it before…

OK, time for another APRS position packet. I held up my D72 as high as I could and triggered a manual beacon. I heard a digipeated reply and the beep in my radio confirmed my position via WB5JZP-1. Immediately Andy called back: I like your direction much better now! Keep going in that direction! – Hey, can you tell me in which direction can you see the moon? – It’s South! Err… or maybe West? Let me ask the others… Mumble, mumble…. OK, we believe the moon is South West from you. Always go away from the moon! – Yes, thanks. Fortunately this is what I’ve been doing all the time already… – The power line is directly East from you. Whenever you can get to the East that’s good. – OK, I’ll try to reach the power lines and then call you back.

The pitch black forest made interesting sounds. Sometimes it was like human voices. Help! I called loudly. I wasn’t really expecting to get help, but I wanted to make sure that a hunter out there may not misunderstand me as a stupid deer and fire up a shotgun in my direction…

Finally I reached the power lines. Why doesn’t the D72 send an ID beacon? Oh, battery is depleted! I called Andy: OK, I’ve reached the power lines. Bad news is that my D72 is dead. Do not expect more beacons. I will follow the power lines to the South and hope to find my car. I will call you back if I need further help.

The walking was so much easier below the power lines. Good that the moon was shining and I finally could see where to go. I simply stepped through the mud pools, I didn’t care anymore. This creek is big! Did I come here before? Well I have to jump though I can’t see the other side. OK, all went well. I reached a point where the power line split up in two directions. Did I come from the left or from the right? I remembered going down a slight hill on the dirt road, but was it here or a bit later? I went uphill. Will I find my car here? I was already getting unsure. The dirt road looked somehow unfamiliar. I didn’t find my car, but I arrived at an asphalted road.

I had HamGPS installed on my phone and checked my position. No G3 network so that I could load Google maps… I had to memorize my locator: EM31ID59VG. I called Andy: My position is Echo Mike thirty-one India Delta five nine Victor Golf… Can you write this down? I’m standing on a solid asphalt road. How do I get to my car? – Let me type this in into APRS.fi… Ah, I can exactly see your position. Industrial Park Road. Walk down the road in South direction. There will be a dirt road to your right in about 500 ft. Follow that dirt road. There is your car. – Yes, I believe I remember this now…

I kept following the asphalt road but I couldn’t see a dirt road branching off to the right. Hmm, I think this was already 500 meters… Calling Andy again: Hey, my position is now EM31ID58QC… – Oh my God! you have been walking much too far! Go back to almost where you started! – Oh, OK, I’ll call back later…

I went back and finally I recognized the dirt road where I left my car: Andy, I’ve found my car! I’m sitting right in it. I’ll make a 5 minute break and drink something before I leave. – Make sure you can start it! – Don’t worry, it’s a Prius. It has two motors…

On the road again I realized that I was slowly running out of gas. The gas station at Burkeville was closed already, it was 11:20 pm. Good that Jasper was a bit larger. There where several stations and all of them were still open after midnight. I saved a life of a rabbit on the road and finally arrived at the lake house past 1 am. All my friends were awake. We were worried about you! – Yeah, this was a crazy day… Andy brought it to the point: You’re part of the entertainment program of Fishfest!