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January 2, 2013

Weather balloon crashes near Kokomo

Wis. man captures space photos with device

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A high-altitude weather balloon, outfitted with cameras and video equipment, traveled nearly 200 miles from Illinois and crash-landed just north of Kokomo Sunday, capturing along the way spectacular space photos after floating more than 18 miles above the Earth.

John Flaig, a 38-year-old computer programmer from Milwaukee, Wis., launched the balloon at around 6 a.m. on a frigidly cold Sunday from a public park in Mendota, Ill.

Four-and-a-half hours and 178 miles later, it parachuted from the stratosphere and landed just a few feet away from U.S. 35, about 1 mile south of Lincoln, after clipping the top of a tree and careening into power lines.

An hour after that, Flaig and his brother arrived on scene to retrieve the balloon. All morning, they had tracked its flight path from a GPS device installed in the balloon’s “payload box,” which housed the cameras and recording equipment.

As it headed southeast, the two drove into Indiana and criss-crossed the state to keep up with the balloon, watching its progression on the GPS. At 10:40 a.m., the balloon stopped moving. Flaig and his brother raced down U.S. 35 from Logansport, where they found it in tatters.

The cameras, however, were completely intact, and what they revealed were stunning near-space video footage of the full moon, smokestacks in Gary at sunrise and Lake Michigan. Flaig retrieved the equipment and the remains of the balloon, and drove back to Wisconsin.

It all begs the question: why?

“I have some nerdy interests, I guess,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday from Wisconsin.

Flaig said he first got interested in near-space photography after watching videos of similar weather-balloon launches on YouTube.

What really pushed him to try it himself, however, was watching footage of stunt-man Felix Baumgartner parachuting 24 miles from the Earth’s stratosphere in October.

“That sealed the deal,” he said.

For a month, Flaig said he researched the ins and outs of high-altitude weather balloons — how to build them, what kind of equipment to buy, weather patterns and so forth.

In early December, he took his first stab at it, launching a balloon from Calmar, Iowa, that traveled 340 miles and set down in woods near Cedar Spring, Mich. Flaig said he was able to retrieve the payload box from that landing, but only after the woman who owned the land cut down the tree it was lodged in and mailed it to him.

He decided to try the next launch in Illinois so the balloon had a good chance of landing in an empty field somewhere in northeastern Indiana, he said.

“I thought this area looked pretty good,” he said. “It’s really kind of amazing that it landed by the only road around and not in one of the giant tracks of farmland.”

Flaig said he also wanted to wait until the next full moon so he could photograph it from the stratosphere.

Although it may sound like a complicated undertaking, Flaig said launching a near-space weather balloon is really quite doable with the advent of cheaper new mobile technology.

He said radio transmitters, FCC licenses and electronics and soldering skills are no longer required to track and recover balloons.

Now amateur enthusiasts can use consumer-level tracking devices, and new high-definition video cameras have increased the quality of photos and video.

“I’m just a regular person, and I can do something like this,” he said. “It’s really kind of a growing hobby among nerdy type of people like me.”

Flaig said he was happy with how the most recent launch went. The photos looked great, and he was able to retrieve the balloon easily from U.S. 35, he said.

“It was a pretty great adventure,” he said. “It definitely adds a little excitement to your Sunday morning to chase a weather balloon across the Midwest. Then you have the ultimate payoff — capturing awesome photos from space.”

For his next launch, Flaig said he wants to wait until summer and try to snag photos of a thunderstorm from far above the clouds.

“Each time it’s like a new experience with its own surprises and problems,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Carson Gerber is a Kokomo Tribune reporter. He may be reached by phone at 765-854-6739, or by email at carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com.

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