The Recovery of Green Cube
June 3rd, 2008
Alex, Bill, Dave, Robyn, Tim

"Green Cube" is a project in the Lynch Rocket lab in which students are developing a package of instruments for a launch. The June 3rd flight was the first launch of a a simple package. It was launched on a balloon flight from Newport, Vermont, rose to about 93,600 feet as it drifted over New Hampshire, and landed between Wilson's Mills and Rangeley in Maine. What follows below is my account of the day from my viewpoint on the recovery crew.

5:00 am We met at Wilder and loaded the remaining equipment in the cars and vans. Most of the balloon and payload equipment had been already loaded the night before, and this morning we were adding personal equipment: backpacks, boots, ropes and lunch. The new projected trajectory shows the balloon landing near Dixville Notch, a little shorter flight then yesterday's forecast. We called Robyn and told her to still rendezvous with us in Berlin.

Phil is missing. This will remain a mystery to the recovery crew most of the day. While we waited for Phil, Bill and I took his car home. After a number of phone calls and even an unsuccessful visit to Phil's apartment, it was finally decided that we needed to go. In the original plan Phil was the communications and data person with the recovery crew, and Bill served a similar role with the launch crew. It was decided that Bill would travel with the recovery crew and Parker would cover for data and communications out of Newport. So we swap radios and computers between the crews and cars, such that Bill took his own computer and the less automated radio.

5:50 am The recovery crew (Alex, Bill, Dave and myself) headed out. We traveled north on I-91 to just before St. Johnsbury. We took I-93 one exit, around St. Johnsbury and then got on US-2. The road wound east through Concord, VT and Lunenburg and crossed over the Connecticut River in Lancaster, NH. US-2 then continues past Jefferson and just to the north of the Presidential Range, past Randolph and down in the Androscoggin River Valley and Gorham. From here we followed NH-16 north to Berlin.

7:50 am Just before reach Berlin Robyn called us. She was about five minutes ahead of us. We met up in Berlin and then had Breakfast at the "Tea Bird Dinner". This is a dinner to put on the map - perhaps the brightest point of all of Berlin.

The reason we had picked Berlin is because we felt certain it would have cell-phone coverage, which would become spotty further north near Errol and Dixville Notch. Over breakfast we were in cell-phone contact with Newport. Parker is having problems setting up the radio and so Bill, reading the manual off his laptop, talked her through the setup. We also learned that a transistor on the board of the payload has been blown, and so we think that it would not be surprising if the launch is scrubbed.

There is a lot of discussion about how high the balloon would have to be before we would get a line-of-sight radio connection from where we are. If the mountains near us are five miles away and a thousand feet up, a balloon fifty miles away will need to be ten times higher up to be visible. We also estimated the effect of the Earth curvature.

~ 9:20 am We receive a call that the balloon is being filled and will be released in about ten minutes. We had expected a longer warning, but were in the middle of paying for breakfast at that moment, so we head north to the airport at Milan. We reasoned that Milan is in the direction of the landing site and it also had a good low horizon, so hopefully we could pick up the balloon's radio signal.

~ 9:50 am We arrived at the Milan Airport and discovered that in the process of swapping the computer and radio two critical cable were left behind. We can not connect the radio up and the power cord for the laptop is missing.

Milan airport has a number of single engine planes and one building with an airport manager. The manager is friendly and curious as to what we are doing, and when Bill ask to use a computer which is connected to the web, the manager promptly gives us the password to get on their wireless network. We can then see the track of the balloon on the web. By this time the balloon is over North Stratford, Vermont, near the Vermont-New Hampshire border.

Bill has a second radio which he has never used. He manages to download the manual for this radio from the web and figures out how to configure it and plug it into his computer - and all of a sudden we are seeing data directly from the balloon!

When we first realized that we had no data we anticipated calling Parker for her last GPS read-out to direct our search. Once we had the web we thought we might stay in Milan until the balloon landed and we had the last know position. We assumed that would be about a mile up when other trackers lost. But once we were talking directly to the balloon we were again mobile. So we headed north along the Androscoggin to Errol.

Bill's computer was on batteries only, and it was down to %60, so when not needed Bill would send it to sleep.

~ 11:30 am, Errol By the time we arrived at Errol and set up the computer and radio the balloon was at about 40,000 feet and dropping rapidly towards Colebrook. If it was to continue in that manner we should head up rout 26, northwest to Colebrook. That looked like an easier place for a recovery, Colebrook is a lot of farm fields. On the other hand, the winds could take it furthers to the east towards the "Second College Grant". So we waited about 15 minutes and watched it drift east, and then when it crossed the grant we got back into the cars and headed up Rt-16 to the northeast, past Wentworth location.

~ Noon The last in-flight GPS location we received was when the balloon was at about 5,000 feet and posed over the southern tip of Azicohos Lake. At that time we had just crossed into the town of Wilson's Mill, Maine. Just before the balloon disappeared Bill tells us that he is picking it up on a lot of repeaters, even some Canadian repeaters.

Azicohos Mountain was blocking our line of sight, but we hoped that at we rounded that peak we would catch the signal again, but we don't. So we pulled off on the side of the road and Bill tried out the ELT. There was a very faint signal, and we concluded that it might be behind a mountain, or sinking in the lake. There was a dirt road which accessed a boat ramp, from which we hoped to be able to have a view of the lake. Instead we could only see a small finger of water. We also drove up a cottage access road, but still could neither see the lake, or get an ELT signal. At that point Dave and Robyn went off to a general store to call in a report to Parker while Bill, Alex and I drove on east to West Richardson Pond, to start looking at the other side of the Observatory Mtn. / Deer Mtn. ridge. The balloon had been coming down fast - but it may have cleared this ridge.

We drove east on Rt-16 and as we passed Observatory Mtn we encountered a moose! Also as we approached the pond Bill started picking up the GPS signal from the payload. The highway continued up a hill a mile or two beyond the pond, so we drove up to high grounds and sat there for awhile until we had acquired a few good readings.

Since leaving Errol the good GPS readings have been jotted down on paper as well as logged in Bill's computer since we do not feeling overly confident about the computer's batteries.

We met Robyn and Dave near West Richardson Pond boat launch. Dave typed the coordinate of the balloon into his GPS and Robyn lead us onto some dirt roads. We expected to find roads which she could drive on, but my car could not. However the dirt road was very good and we were able to drive to within half a mile of the payload. Up there, on the side of the ridge, Alex found that he had cell-phone coverage, and so called in.

1:15 The ridge has been logged and is covered with logging roads, or "skid rows", where heavy machines have dragged trees out of the woods. Many of these roads are choked with slash; the twigs, branches and brush which will not be hauled to the mills. Siggy, Robyn's Labrador Retriever, and trained search and rescue dog is excited to get into the woods. Robyn straps Siggy's orange vest on, to help us see Siggy as he zips through the underbrush. We shouldered our packs and headed up one of these skids. Where it is not full of slash, it is rutted and muddy, with a stream flowing down it, but it is much faster then bushwhacking.

The logging road headed almost straight west, whereas our goal was a bit to more south, so after 200 meters we bear to the left and into a hardwood forest. Here we are also crossing logging roads, but I think this area may have been logged years earlier, and now is not so chocked. We cross a stream and climb through briers and brambles. The going has been simple until we approach a ridge. We are only 300-400 feet from the transmitter when we encounter a thick tangle, almost a wall, of young pines. These trees are ten to twelve feet tall and spaced every foot or so. Dave starts to push a path through the lower, dead branches. Siggy has little problem running under the lowest branches.

We emerge after fighting our way for 30 meters into an area that was logged maybe a decade ago. Most of the trees in this 100 acre swath are about four feet tall and between them is a tangle of slash, raspberries, briers and brambles.

Finally we reach the GPS coordinate and pause to look around. Straight in front of us are some bigger trees and thicker bush. I think they didn't log there because of a ravine. We did not bring the ELT antenna into the woods because it is mounted on a long mast and carrying it through the tangle would have been hard. But now we wished we had something to help us in the last 50 meters of our search. Bill has his hand held radio and he tuned it to the frequency of the ELT beacon. It is loud and clear. He tries to pick out a direction by changing orientation. The best guess is straight into the thick tangle. So Dave, Alex, Bill and I plunged into the tangle. Robyn is going to follow Siggy around it. She thinks he could smell the balloon. It may interest Siggy, but he wouldn't search it out.

We all meet on the far side of the thicket, about 20 meters later, and start discussing setting up a circle search pattern. Siggy and Robyn have wandered off a bit down hill. I climbed three or four feet up a stump to get a view of the logged over region, in hopes of seeing the red parachute, when Robyn calls out that they have found it! As hoped, it caught Siggy's attention and when Robyn looked into a that tangle of brush and saplings, there is was!

2:15 pm The parachute is hanging from a sapling, as is the shattered balloon. The two orange boxes which carried the payloads are laying on the ground looking completely unscathed. I take a few photos and then we untie the balloon, payloads and parachutes. Dave recorded the position on his GPS, and I took a number of photographs. I have some plastic bags for packing up the bits of balloon, and I also put one of the payloads into my backpack.

At the downhill end of this logged off area is a logging road which looks like it will go straight down to the dirt road where we are parked, just not next to our cars. But that will be simpler then going back over the ridge with the tangled pines. As we walk down we think we should call Parker. However Alex has lost his cell phone.

Just before getting back to the dirt road we see a moose scurrying through the woods (can moose scurry?), trying to avoid us. Siggy takes off and Robyn has to use her whistle to call him back.

Once on the road we realize that the radios are still transmitting. It is easy to throw the switch on the ELT, but the data radio is harder to get at. We end up clipping the wires to the battier pack to stop the GPS. The transmitter itself is glued into the cardboard box and we can not see the switch. So we cut the cardboard, and finally switch it off.

~ 3:00 pm After getting back to the cars we spend about 15 minutes looking for Alex's cell phone. We retrace our steps up the first logging/skid road, occasionally calling his phone and listening for it to ring. But we do not find it and eventually give up.

It is raining as we climbing back into the cars. We drive back to Errol and use a public phone there to call Parker. We haven't had lunch and are getting hungry and so head south to Berlin. The Tea-Bird Cafe is closed and we don't find anything we like, so continue south to Gorham. I remember Gorham as catering to White Mountain tourist. There are more restaurants here, but many are still closed for the season. Finally, at about 5:30, we find Crabby-Jack's, a Mexican restaurant.

~7:00 pm We head home to Hanover. We follow US-2 across the mountains to Lancaster and St. Johnsbury, and then I-91 south. We drop Alex off at 9:05, and then Bill and I unload the car at Wilder. Robyn and Dave are already there. I dropped off Bill and got home at 9:50, just as Kristina called to ask about the whole day.

9:59 - Bill, Working on the Radios and computers

9:58 - Robyn and Dave in Milan

9:58 - Alex at Milan Airport

12:26 - Moose near Azicohos

12:41 - Checking maps after getting the post-landing GPS signal

13:03 - Trillium mixed with the bramble and slash

13:30 - Headed up the logging/skid road

13:30 - Bill, Robyn, Dave and Siggy in the lead

14:17 - Robyn and the parachute

14:17 - Dave recording the position on his GPS

14:18 - Siggy is more interested in the tree then the payload

14:18 - Looking around the landing site

14:21 - The recovery crew, the ballon and the parachute

14:48 - Back on the dirt road

14:53 - Trying to turn of the transmiter

14:53 - Bill looking for the transmiter switch