HAB-2: Chase and Recovery

By Anthony Romaniello · April 7, 2015

Before the launch of HAB-2, we decided the team that would chase and recover the balloon. The team consisted of Josh Eiland, Ethan Goldfarb, Anthony Romaniello, Davis Rackley, and Bo Sinkler along with our beloved faculty sponsor, Mr. Karl Hwang, and a very enthusiastic and helpful parent, Mr. Gene Rackley. The chase team left the launch site shortly after launching the balloon (as well as performing two test launches for our TARC rocket) and headed on our way in the direction we knew the balloon was traveling - eastward towards the Georgia-South Carolina line. Similar to our last chase, we were primarily tracking the balloon via the onboard SPOT GPS. We also monitored HAB-2’s APRS packets, which were sent out more frequently.

A First Hand Account by Anthony Romaniello

It wasn’t long before we made our way to Athens, GA while following the balloon’s path. At this point, our GPS information told us that the balloon had at least begun its descent. However, we had not received a data packet containing GPS coordinates in over 40 minutes. We decided to try to make our way to the last point on the GPS. So we continued driving a little while longer until we reached our next turn. Along the highway between Athens and Washington, we made our turn next to Callaway Plantation. As we traveled along the dirt road, we were continuously checking the GPS data, but no new points had come through. After crossing a creek, we found a place to park the cars and continue on foot to our last GPS point.

We hiked our way along a path until we came to a clearing. In this clearing, we again checked our maps and realized we could get to this GPS point much faster if we got a little closer by car. So we hiked back to the cars, crossed the creek again, and headed back to the highway. We drove a little bit further in the direction of Washington until we made another turn onto a dirt road. This road essentially dead ended for two of the cars we had—the terrain was too rough and muddy to continue in the sedan and SUV we had traveled in. However, Bo’s four wheel drive pickup truck was more than capable of traversing the mud. We parked the cars and jumped in the back of Bo’s truck to continue on. As we reached the other side of this road, we saw a large clearing. This was a very large piece of land with a few structures built, but in the middle of it all was a very large farm area, coated in manure. It smelled awful. We made our way to one of the structures built on the property, where we saw a few vehicles. We then split our group up—some of us went into the woods to go look for the balloon using our GPS data, others stood by the field to wait and see if people were on the property at the time.

Eventually, two men did come approach us. They were a father and son who had rented the land and were four-wheeling and hunting on the property. After we explained to them what we were doing and where we were from, they were more than happy to allow us on the property. However, they warned us that the owner of the property would call the police on us for trespassing in an instant, so we should proceed at our own risk. Meanwhile in the woods, our search was unsuccessful. We made our way to the exact GPS point we had received from the SPOT on the balloon, but the payload was nowhere to be seen. Still far from giving up, we decided to head to town for lunch and regroup.

In Washington, we stopped at a local buffet restaurant to eat. We enjoyed a hearty southern meal of fried chicken, mac ‘n cheese, cornbread, and collard greens. Unfortunately, this is when our chase team decreased in numbers. After calling home to check in with parents, Ethan, Josh, and Davis all had to turn back (with Mr. Rackley). This left only Anthony, Bo, and Mr. Hwang to recover the balloon. After discussion at lunch, the remaining squad was determined to continue despite our losses. Our plan was to talk to locals and see if they could direct us to the police station. Our train of thought was that police radio scanners might be able to pick up the radio transmission of the balloon. The goal was to get a more recent and accurate GPS point.

Immediately after lunch, we talked to some people around near we ate. When we asked where we could find the police station, they replied that Washington did not have a police station. But they did have a sheriff’s office. So we got directions, thanked them, and headed on our way. After arriving at the Wilkes County Sheriff’s Office, we went inside to ask about the radio. As it turned out, the inside of this office was more of an inmate visitation center than anything else. After getting almost no help inside, we decided to wait around outside for an officer to arrive. Sure enough after only about a minute or so, we got the attention of one of the officers, Officer Jackie. We asked if his police radio could pick up the frequency we needed, and it could not. However, he knew a HAM radio enthusiast who used to be an officer.

Officer Jackie told us to follow him, and we did. After a few minutes, we arrived at another officer’s house. Officer Jackie explained our situation, and he searched through his mountains of radios, but couldn’t find the exact thing we needed - a portable scanner. Next, both officers began discussing solutions to our problem. The conclusion they reached was to go talk to yet another person who they thought had what we needed. After thanking him, we began following Officer Jackie again. After a few minutes, we arrived at another home. This time we talked to two older men who were sitting on their porch. They did have the radio we needed, and were more than happy to let us borrow it. It is worth noting that Officer Jackie was completely invested in and excited for the search for the balloon.

So we headed back to the property we searched before lunch, but this time armed with a portable HAM radio scanner. Now with Officer Jackie, we kept searching the woods for our payload. Our hope was that we would get to a range where the radio would pick up the balloon’s transmissions, and that those transmissions would contain the GPS information for the payload. This was not certain to work—first of all, we weren’t 100% sure at the time that the HAM radio in the payload was still transmitting. Then, assuming we picked up the transmissions, we had to download a smartphone app that could decode the transmission into GPS coordinates. So we wandered the woods, every minute or two receiving what sounded like really loud radio noise through our scanner. The iPhone app seemed to be somewhat working, as every time we heard the noise from the radio, text would display on the phone. However, the text that displayed was gibberish—a seemingly random combination of symbols, letters, and numbers.

After trying various methods of troubleshooting, while still walking around looking for the payload, we were ready to call it a day. In fact, we had called Mr. Wingate, who helped us set up our HAM radio. He was driving to meet up with us, and he had a real decoder that would hopefully work better than the app we were using. When we got word from Mr. Wingate that he was about 15 minutes away, we decided to make our way out of the woods, as we had walked pretty far in at this point.

I will tell the next part of this story from my perspective, to illustrate the events as accurately as I can. Using the GPS on my phone, I could easily tell which way we needed to go to get back to our truck. So I directed myself, Bo, and Mr. Hwang on a straight path. However, Bo pointed out that if we took a different path, we would have an easier walk back because we wouldn’t be hiking through thick brush, but rather walking on a clear path. So we went a bit further north than I had suggested up to a clear path which headed in the direction we needed to go. On right of this path was a large pine forest. Bo asked why the pine trees were growing in straight rows. As we each offered our theories as to why this occurs (turns out they are planted that way, of course), we kept looking over at the pine forest. Eventually, we returned our attention to making our way to the truck, but we kept glancing at the trees, just talking about the rows. It is this conversation that we now give credit for us finding the payload. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mr. Hwang break into a full sprint. He was yelling and sprinting down a row of pines. Then Bo and I saw what he had—the payload, in all its glory, sitting in the middle of a pine forest. Bo and I immediately started sprinting as well. An adrenaline rush ensued; we had found the payload!

Looking at the payload, we realized why our GPS had stopped reporting. The radar reflector had landed directly on top of the SPOT. We yelled for Officer Jackie, who was still searching the woods at the time, and he joined us in the celebration. We made a call to Mr. Wingate to tell him we had found the balloon, and then carried everything back to the truck. We thanked Officer Jackie profusely for his help, and handed him back his friend’s radio scanner. Next we got back in the cars and headed home, excited to review the GoPro footage.

All in all, the recovery of this balloon took less time than the last, mostly due to where the balloon landed (roughly ¼ of the distance geographically, even though it reached a higher altitude). Regardless, the day was both fun and rewarding. We look forward to our next balloon launch, which we will enter into the Global Space Balloon Challenge.