I, too, have flown a giant balloon over North Carolina
China says it lost control of a huge, sensor-filled balloon, which then drifted across our state "by mistake." I know what that feels like. Ten years ago, the same thing happened to me.
Balloons! Say what you want about them, but by default, they are non-threatening. Sure, they’re an environmental hazard en masse, as evidenced by the great Cleveland Balloon Disaster of 1986. But nobody, anywhere, ever, is scared by a single balloon, no matter how large it is. On top of that, balloons are the dumbest form of air transportation. Unlike their slightly less unimposing cousin, the blimp, you really can’t steer them. (Calling a blimp a zeppelin makes it sound more metal, but don’t be fooled, it is still a large, stupid balloon with a big fan on it. That’s all.) A hot air balloon, whose golden era probably started with The Wizard of Oz (1939) and ended with Around The World in 80 Days (1956), can only go up and down. The wind decides where you end up. Plus, you’re carried underneath in a giant wicker basket. When you ride in any vehicle picnic-style, you’re not in control. You’re merely cargo.
Also, I’m no linguist, but words with a double-o in them are funny to me. Loon. Boo. Scoot. Yoo-Hoo. Doo doo. Look at that word. Balloon. What a dumb-looking word.
Dumb and awesome are not mutually exclusive terms, though, and a balloon can be both. I have firsthand knowledge of this. A decade ago, I was part of a team that launched a camera-filled balloon over North Carolina. That part was awesome. And then we lost it. Which was dumb.
North Carolina Balloon Scares!
If you’re wondering why I’m talking about this, it’s because we just lived through the Great China Spy Balloon Scare of 2023. Last week, some folks saw an enormous balloon drifting over Montana carrying a solar-powered payload of equipment as long as three school buses. The Biden Administration ultimately decided that shooting it down over the mainland United States might cause falling debris that could be dangerous to people on the ground, a decision that deeply angered the Yee-Haw Wing of the GOP. So, the balloon kept on floatin’. On Saturday, it drifted over North Carolina and became a brunch event in Charlotte. People there kept posting “YOU GUYS, LOOKIT MY COOL PICTURE OF THE BALLOON” next to cell phone images in which the balloon was a single pixel wide.
The thing eventually drifted off over the ocean near Myrtle Beach, where fighter jets shot it down within view of some Dudes On The Beach. Which means this summer, you’ll be able to buy a $30 airbrushed t-shirt depicting an F-22 firing a missile into a wobbly, helium-filled orb.
This is not the first time a large balloon has floated over North Carolina and become the object of hysteric fascination. Rabbit Hole reader Tim Peeler points out that in 1977, researchers from Bristol University launched a balloon from Missouri. It was carrying 3,000 pounds worth of equipment designed to measure cosmic radiation at altitudes above 10,000 feet. According to an Associated Press report at the time, the balloon was merely supposed to go… up. But the wind, as it does, caught it and the thing screamed off to the east. It was closely followed by spotter planes and scientists who had to keep filing FAA flight plans for a big dumb balloon that they had no control over.
Two days later, the balloon drifted over North Carolina, where people kept reporting UFOs to local police departments and credulous news reporters. In Burlington, a guy with a telescope called in to say that he saw a large floating orb with yellow stripes on it. Not long after, a balloon panel blew out, and the whole thing started to descend. Some 50 to 75 people chased it in their cars as it floated down into Neal Phillips’ peanut field, three miles south of Halifax. It finally came to rest underneath some power lines about 75 feet from a road. News reports stated that the balloon reached an altitude nearly 50 miles above the earth, and was 450 feet tall and 350 feet wide when it was floating across North Carolina. Even on the ground, the messy pile of balloon was about 20 feet tall. The local sheriff and a recovery crew from the National Balloon Center (!) weren’t sure how to move it at first. Later, an official report later called the flight a “success,” although a NASA report in 1979 noted that similar balloon flights were being put on pause due to “difficulties with a number of heavy-payload launches.”
Today, stratospheric balloon flights are an incredibly common thing. Meteorologists around the world launch them twice a day from some 900 locations to make precise weather observations and forecasts. Detailed information on wind patterns make it possible to know where balloons will end up. Even so, flights can easily go awry. The Chinese government’s official excuse for their balloon’s walkabout over the United States was straight out of the Diplomatic Mission to Alderaan Playbook. China stated that its “research” balloon had merely had drifted into this country’s airspace by mistake—a mistake that’s apparently occurred several times before. Even if this seems ludicrous, it is possible. I know this. Because nearly a decade ago, I too lost a stratospheric balloon over North Carolina.
The Great Larry Sprinkle Balloon Voyage of 2012
Ten years ago, I was working in the special projects department of a local television newsroom in Charlotte. My boss had become particularly enamored with a YouTube video depicting a can of Natural Light being floated into near space. He excitedly waved me into his office one day. Have you seen this video?!? he said. We have to do that. Was there any news value to this at all? No. Was it cool as hell? Yes.
Meteorologist Brad Panovich and I knew we couldn’t do this alone. So we enlisted Hackerspace Charlotte and a group called Charlotte Space Exploration to help us build and launch it. They worked out nearly all of the details. First, they built a rig inside a soft, thermal lunchbox. Inside, they placed two GoPro cameras, one facing down, the other facing toward the horizon. They installed a ham radio transmitter inside for tracking (The same FAA rules that state you can’t use your cell phone during a jet flight also state that you can't attach one to a floating balloon). Finally, they put handwarmers in the lunchbox, since the temperature outside was likely to be far below zero and the frigid cold would sap a battery’s power more quickly.
The whole thing was attached to a large weather balloon with nylon rope, along with a radar reflector and a yellow parachute. Finally, we attached a wooden stick with a 3D-printed bobblehead astronaut on the end. We glued a picture of legendary Charlotte weatherman Larry Sprinkle (Yes, it’s his real name) to the helmet. Our mission: To make it Sprinkle in space.
We checked the rules, and found that FAA regulations regarding amateur balloon launches were fairly lax. But we wanted to keep our flight out of the busy, controlled airspace near Charlotte-Douglas International, so we opted to launch from a middle school just across the state line in York, South Carolina. Hence, on a chilly day in November 2012, I watched, with cameras rolling, as the fine folks from Hackerspace Charlotte inflated the balloon with helium, turned on the GoPros and the transmitter, and released the balloon into the sky. We all celebrated by high fiving and eating cookies.
At first, the balloon gently drifted almost straight up before the high-level winds caught it and started to push it eastward. Several of us then got into chase cars and tracked the coordinates and altitude provided by ham radio stations that were picking up the signal. Our best estimates were that the balloon might—but probably wouldn’t—reach 100,000 feet. It would continue to expand in the thinning air. At some point, it would become so large and/or ice-covered that it would pop and descend to earth under the parachute. The thing would go 60 miles, we thought. We even joked that we might be able chase and track it so precisely that we’d snag the thing with our hands before it hit the ground, thus catching an enormously long forward pass.
Quickly, though, we realized that merely keeping up with the balloon was going to be impossible. Around 20,000 feet above Union County, it was moving at 65 miles per hour. I was driving, and we were 50 miles behind. “We underestimated the time it was going to be in the jet stream,” Panovich recalled to me this week. “It really was a thicker jet stream, so it spent more time in these winds than expected.”
Hence, the balloon easily blew past our estimated landing site near the Anson/Richmond County line. It drifted 46,000 feet above Rockingham. It rose another 11,000 feet as it crossed into Scotland County. Pretty soon, we had a new issue that we really hadn’t thought much about: Fort Bragg. What if the balloon popped and fell onto the base? What if the military picked it up on radar and shot it down? Someone, I was later told, at least attempted to contact the base to tell them what was up.
Finally, at 102,457 feet above earth, north of Fayetteville, the balloon popped, and started to descend fairly quickly. At this point, we did what anyone in our situation would do: We stopped at McDonald’s.
Again, we thought the balloon would travel around 60 miles. It went 172.
I knew Brad and I wouldn’t get to the site by the time the balloon hit the ground. Luckily, Hackerspace Charlotte’s chase car had caught up, and was only two miles behind what was now a lunchbox floating underneath a yellow parachute. They never saw it, though. Soon, we lost radio contact; The last recorded ping was from 2,000 feet above a hunting ground west of Goldsboro. This was expected. The transmitter was low powered, and there weren’t many ground stations nearby to track it. Based on the math, we figured the thing had landed somewhere inside a quarter-mile circle around that last point. We could find it, we thought.
We all showed up on the hunting grounds, started to search, and quickly realized that a quarter-mile radius is a very big area. The transmitter was giving off a signal, but since it was weak, we could only figure out how strong the signal was, but couldn’t decode it to figure out where it was. We looked for hours. We stared up into trees. Walked across fields. Trying to find a flash of yellow or blue. Nothing.
In all, colleagues and Hackerspace Charlotte folks made six long trips back out to Goldsboro to go find the thing, coming up empty every time. Another weatherman at our station even chartered a small plane, but didn’t see anything. Three weeks went by. We started to lose hope. “Losing the balloon meant not getting any footage, all after weeks of planning and work,” Redvers Davies of Hackerspace Charlotte told me this week. “[It was] a gut punch.”
One day, I bumped into our television station’s helicopter pilot in the break room and told him about our predicament. “Oh, I could find that thing,” he said, with quite a bit of helicopter pilot bravado. “Give me the coordinates, and give me five minutes, and I’ll spot it.”
Remember: This was 2012. You couldn’t legally fly a drone. News helicopters cost hundreds of dollars an hour to operate. We’d need to fly halfway to the coast to take a look and see if we could find this thing. Those were all cons. The single pro? No footage meant no story. My boss agreed to the flight.
I gave the pilot, Brent Gourley, the coordinates and the altitude of the last ping from the transmitter. After an hour-long trip, he hovered us in that exact spot and casually glanced out of his window. “I see something down there that’s yellow,” he said, seconds after we arrived.
“I think that’s it, man,” I said.
“Of course it is,” he said. “What else is out here?”
We landed in a field nearby. The balloon had come down in a twisted patch of briars and brush that was at least six feet tall.
It was a fairly warm November day, but I was wearing a thick Carhartt jacket. Gourley and Alex Heider, the photographer, made fun of me. But when it came time to plow our way into a thorny thicket of vegetation, I went first, plowing through the brush Godzilla-style, wildly swinging my arms and legs as I pushed forward. A few moments later, we saw the yellow parachute and lunchbox, and ripped it all out of the briars. Astronaut Larry, and his face, were still attached. The GoPros, and their memory cards, were still intact, even after three weeks outside. Brent flew us back, and Alex and I put the story together as quickly as we could:
We put excerpts from the raw video on YouTube. In them, you can hear a jet fly by in the distance, and see an airliner passing underneath the balloon. The cameras had run out of battery around 83,000 feet, so there’s no footage of the balloon popping, the descent, or the landing. It’s also hard to tell if what we’re seeing is the curvature of the earth, or just a by-product of the GoPro’s wide-angle lens. Either way, it’s high enough that the sky above is black, not blue. Just as predicted, it was cool as hell.
“Chasing the balloon cross-country was probably the most fun thing I'd done in years,” Davies told me. Both he and Panovich want to do it again, but with better technology and sharper cameras than we had ten years ago. Me too. Call me a romantic, but I’m still in awe of what a big dumb balloon can do.
This site continues to astound me. I had chosen this line as a favorite: "Some 50 to 75 people chased it in their cars as it floated down into Neal Phillips’ peanut field, three miles south of Halifax." But that was before the description of the Larry Sprinkle bobblehead astronaut, the briar patch, and the line at McDonald's. An embarrassment of riches, sure enough.
What fun!! You guys gotta do it again. I'd start a little further east so it's easier to recover. Count me in if you need to raise funds for another high tech redneck endeavor.