Tri-City Ledger -

By Jim Stanton
Guest Writer 

The balloon that evacuated a navy base


February 28, 2019

Parachute and instrument package from 1991

This week I'm going to be telling a little personal history as well as community history that very few people know about. The main event of this story happen back in the early nineties, 1991 I believe, and I will touch on another event that we did in 1995. Both events were accomplished by local ham radio operators from the southwest Alabama and northwest Florida area.

The first event was launching a weather balloon that went to attitude of approximately 120,000 feet. The balloon had a payload package that included video cameras, radios and other instruments for locating the package including a very loud backup beeper to warn anyone in case they just happen to be under where it was landing. The package weighed seven pounds and was in a one inch thick Styrofoam case, but might still hurt if it hit someone on the head. We sent the balloon up from the Brewton airport and had two airplanes on standby to help locate the package when it came down.

Due to where the packaged parachuted down to, the use of the airplanes never materialized, more about this in a little while. In front of the video camera was a mirror on servo used to change the view from straight down to a side view every few seconds. This was a learning experience for us, after getting the package back and seeing the video we learned what we should have done to get better results.

The landing and recovery is where everything got interesting. The package had the club name and phone number on it so it could be returned if found by someone not involved in the project. Well, of all places this thing could have landed it picked the navy base for some reason, and caused the evacuation of a large part of the base from what I understand.

This was not long after Operation Desert Storm and the first question ask by federal agents was "is it a bomb," we told them no, it's a instrument package with cameras and instruments in it and we want it back. When we went back to the address on the package we had all kinds of company waiting on us, most had badges or suits on including four wearing black suits. They were not able to really say anything about it, because we had followed every instruction given to us by the FAA's Jacksonville Center, including holding off on the launch because two commercial jets were passing over at the time.

It turned out that the navy had dropped the ball on this because the FAA had been sending out notices about it all morning to every airport and control tower within hundreds of miles of Brewton, and they were the only ones in the southeastern United States that didn't know about it. I was net control and I was getting reports as far east as South Carolina and as far west as Corpus Christi, Texas those hams told me that they were clearly hearing the I D signal from the balloon.

As I mentioned earlier we also did something a few years later in 1995, we arranged for the students at Brewton Elementary School to talk to the astronauts on the space shuttle Atlantis using ham radio. We arranged this through NASA and they did all the pubic relations work with local TV stations and others, we had stations from Mobile and Montgomery show up since NASA told them it was pre-arranged and would happen.

We had a meeting in Brewton last Friday night for the purpose of doing another balloon launch later this year, the time line at this time looks like August or September. With the advances in electronics and computers over the past several years we are hoping this one won't be quite as complicated. The video from the balloon experiment in 1991 was recorded on VHS tapes from the video signal being sent from the balloon, we are going to take the old video and convert it to digital from the old tape so we will be able to share it on the internet and we can maybe see the difference in the area from 1991 until now. We are working on having live video from the balloon that will be view-able with a smartphone or tablet by anyone interested in it. Along those lines for anyone that is interested and wants to take part in this new launch is welcome to join us, no ham radio license or any other kind of license is necessary, just a interest in the project.

We will be having more meetings in the future for those interested, I will have some contact information on here. We talked about several possible things we might be able to do, one was maybe getting local schools involved in some way. We are also talking to a NASA engineer in Huntsville about coming to one of our meetings and giving us some key pointers.The old payload package was pretty big, 24x12x8 inches, with the newer electronics we are hoping to be able to have a payload package less than half that size. Today's cameras are also much smaller and have better video, that should be a big plus there. We are still trying to decide what to include in the electronics package. If you are interested in this, and let me say we are open to any suggestions, contact us and we will put you on the email list and keep you updated. The main contact person is George Weaver, [email protected] or you can contact me Jim Stanton, [email protected] We are hoping that if we are successful one day in the future people will look at the videos and pictures and say, so this is what this area looked like in the ancient days.

I know this is just the end of February but time gets away from us and before you know it, it will be May 4, 2019. Why is that a date to remember, that will be when the Alger Sullivan Historical Society will be having our annual Sawmill Day and Car show. It's always a great car show and many interesting vendors at Sawmill Day. You are always welcome to join the ASHS and the Leach House Museum is open every Saturday from 10 AM until 2 PM., with many interesting items and books on the local area history on sale. The ASHS meets the third Tuesday of the month at the Leach House Museum 610 4th street in Century. We also have a Facebook group that you are invited to join if you have a interest in our local history.


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