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Monday, October 19, 2009

Hey "balloon boy", you're doing it wrong!

Like many of you, last Thursday I was glued to the TV watching this "UFO" over Colorado with what was believed to be a kid inside the lower compartment. Thousands of feet over land, thoughts were the obvious for me: Was Falcon Heene cold? Did he have adequate oxygen at whatever altitude he was located? Was the helium mixing with the lower compartment? Was he even on board?

I was relieved when he wasn't on the balloon and then began to wonder where he was. I was out of the house shopping for clothes for a funeral when I got word he was found at home.

I've dabbled with high-altitude balloons over the last 3-4 years, most notably trying to get one across the Atlantic. I have a little bit of knowledge about helium and zero-pressure balloons like what we used for the attempts. I'd like to think I, though not the expert, had a little more than the average bear about what was going on. So when I saw the balloon in the sky with only helicopter cameras and high-def zoom for reference, I couldn't judge just how large this balloon was. It could have been 30' in diameter, 50', 100' maybe? It wasn't easy to determine.

Then, when I saw it coming down to the ground, only when I saw the rescue person chasing after it did I see how big it truly was. I gathered it to be 10-15' in diameter after using the chaser for reference (see below).

When I saw the balloon's true size, it couldn't possibly lift off the ground with a 6-yr-old, much less carry him 50 miles.

I had my doubts based on what I did with launching balloons for Spirit of Knoxville back a couple years ago. I've emptied large tanks of helium into a 1500kg latex balloon and it would have maybe 15 lbs of lift.

How, then could a 50 lb boy (rough guess) reside in a roughly 20 lb "UFO" (another rough guess) with that much helium? It didn't seem possible, at least to me.

My suspicions were validated when the balloon turned up no boy inside. Only after the drama did we see the actual launch of the balloon, and even there I was stumped at how people might think a child was in there, as flimsy as it was slowly climbing into the sky.

I am on a couple of ARHAB mailing lists, and this was a hot topic for those who are more adept at calculating lift, volume, and the specs of what size balloon would be needed for lifting large payloads (like children). However, the debate was somewhat divided, several thought the balloon might be able to lift 60+ lbs of human into the great beyond, and others (like me) felt it was not possible. Of course, I weighed in more of the stability of the craft as opposed to just lift vs load.

In the image to the right, this was SNOX II, our 2nd attempt to send a payload up and out over the Atlantic. The balloon is what's called "zero-pressure". There is an opening at the bottom to vent excess helium as the balloon climbs to a higher altitude and the balloon expands. The venting of helium balances out the lift/load ratio, and once it has reached an equilibrium, will cruise at altitude for several hours. If you look carefully, the bubble at the top of the balloon is filled with about 13 lbs of "positive lift" helium. Below it is an anchor, but the payload was just under 12 lbs, the maximum legal size payload we could use for FAR 101 exemption of balloon flight rules. I'm holding the payload and ballast to the right of the balloon, by the way...

Now, compare the bubble in the SNOX balloon to the helium that filled the "UFO" in the picture above. Even with one side of the "UFO" deflated, I'm speculating that the helium in the SNOX balloon is roughly a third the capacity of the Heene balloon. 13 X 3 = 39 lbs of positive lift. Give or take 10 lbs, is it possible the "UFO" balloon could haul a 6-year-old boy?

I am certainly not an expert mathematician. I did well in math until we started subtraction in Kindergarten, and it was downhill from there. However, even looking at my past experience I certainly think there's no way that the Heene balloon could have ever gotten off the ground.

Now, it looks more like the whole incident was an elaborate hoax by Richard Heene and his wife and kids, who were also in on it. You have to ask what kind of deranged mind would concoct such an elaborate hoax as this, but then again, I've never watched Wife Swap to see just how insane he is.

I'm not one who would do some of the things he's done, such as taking my kids tornado chasing or hurricane chasing. The closest I've come is taking my oldest (Lauren) with me to Foothills Parkway to watch an approaching thunderstorm system, and that frightened her to where I decided not to do that again anytime soon.

Who knows what Heene was thinking when he came up with this scheme. I'm just glad he's not a ham operator. Who knows what kind of trouble he would cause then...

I do think, though, a "reality show" about a balloon autonomously crossing the Atlantic would sell much better to TV execs than whatever he had going on.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Congrats to George's daughter

TWIAR's producer George Bowen, W2XBS left the following on TWIAR's web site:
My apologies for not having TWIAR edition #860 available on the web site. This weekend, my daughter and Bill Barans son Zachary successfully passed their technician exams and should have their call signs this week. This endeavor to have yet another ham in my family has taken up considerable time, which resulted in edition 860 not being available. Please look for a brand new This Week in Amateur Radio and TWIARhn (Edition #861) this coming weekend October 10th. This weeks Edition #245 of TWIARi International is now up and available.
73 George - Executive Producer

This Week in Amateur Radio
Looks like George has a decent excuse this week.

I've been trying to get my daughter Lauren (age 9) motivated into getting her ticket before next June, when the question pool will change. We got started late in the summer, and she was very motivated. But, as time went on, she started to get distracted with her friends, TV, etc. My quagmire is that I will not push her because I don't want her to get licensed because I want her to, but because she wants to get her license.

It's tough to keep her motivated and not seem pushy. She hasn't looked at the book for a couple of weeks now. But, my other daughter Amber (who turned 8 last Sunday) has now expressed an interest in ham radio as well. Perhaps a little competition is good for motivating them. They tend to be competitive in many things (as sisters tend to be) so maybe I need to light a fire under Lauren by teaching Amber.

I also can try to find an all-day class where they spend about 8 hours learning the question pool, and then they take the exam the following day. Problem is, where to find one around here?

I took my sister-in-law to one of these classes when she was 13 and very much interested in getting a license. Unfortunately she didn't pass the exam (missed by 3 questions) but she kept at it and got her license about a month later. She ended up letting her license expire, but she spoke to me recently about wanting to get it again.

Maybe I ought to conduct my own session with all three of them. Although my patience threshold would be equivalent to that of Lewis Black.

Thanks but no. I'd better find someone else to lead the classes.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Autopatch...who uses THAT anymore?

Back when I got my license in 1993, cell phones were nowhere near the "state of the art" they are these days. In fact, 7.6 million had them in 1991. Now, 203 million of us in the U.S. alone have them.

They were large, bulky, and heavy (look at the monstrosity to the right), they lasted for all of a few hours on a charge (without talk time), and if you did use them, you were either charged a ridiculous amount of money per minute, or you had limited talk times per month. And don't even get me started on roaming charges...

Because only doctors and celebrities could afford these miracles of modern technology, the "poor man's cell phone" was the autopatch, or a phone patch hooked up to a repeater. Back in 1993, we had 3 repeaters in Knoxville with autopatch capability, and all were open for use. I was fascinated to listen on a scanner to hams using the patch to call home, find out what they needed to pick up from the grocery store or the fast-food joint, or just to see if little Johnny got home from school okay. Every so often a 911 call would roll in and usually it was a car wreck where people were banged up but okay.

There were those who used it daily for the same thing over and over. One in particular would call his mom and ask her what she needed, and every time he called, she said the same thing: "Pick me up some 'see-grets'," or "cigarettes" as we would say.

Some hams would never have a QSO with anyone other than the autopatch. I can recall many hams who would make their patch call then leave, never to be heard from again until the next time an autopatch was needed.

My first autopatch call was to my mom, if I remember correct. She wasn't too thrilled. She didn't like the "one-way" aspect of it where I couldn't hear her unless I un-keyed the mic. Still, it was great to have the ability of calling home while on the from work to see if I needed to stop and get something along the way, or call my then-girlfriend (now the wife) to check on things.

Knoxville must be the exception to the rule, because just about any other city I've been to, from Des Moines to Destin, not one phone patch outside of Knoxville was "open". They were off the air, toned with an unpublished tone, or a code was needed to be entered that the repeater owner needed to provide (and who were they to do such a thing?). I can recall one repeater trustee in Florida who said flat out he wouldn't give out the patch code to "foreigners" like myself. That ended the otherwise pleasant QSO immediately and swearing off of "his" machine.

One repeater here in Knoxville had its user base centered around the autopatch, and it was not unusual to see 50-60 patch calls made per day. Along with funny IDs, weather info, and an occasional TWIAR or Newsline airing, it was a happening repeater.

Then came the modern era of telecommunications. Phones got smaller, smarter, and most importantly, cheaper. My first cell phone was circa 1996. I got a whopping 60 minutes per month to use, at $49.99/month. My first cell phone was the popular Nokia phones with that "Snake" cell phone game that was so addictive. Text messaging? Wasn't that what beepers were for?

Over the years, as cell phones gained popularity, autopatch use was inversely proportional, and nowadays one autopatch call a day is above average. I myself have not used an autopatch for several years. Until today.

Today is my younger daughter's birthday. So one of her requests was to have a sleepover with her friends. And my other daughter's friends. And their sisters. 9 kids (including my two) camped out in the living room overnight last night. All girls. Then there's my wife, and our two dogs and a cat, all girls. I was drowning in an Ocean of estrogen.

This morning I get (rudely) awakened to the sounds of kids hollering about how hungry they were (similar to birds when the mom brings a worm to the nest) and my wife dispatched me on a mission to get doughnuts from the nearby Krispy Kreme. The task was simple: One dozen plain glazed and one dozen with rainbow sprinkles. I arrive at the doughnut shop and discover the rainbow sprinkles have been substituted with brown and orange Halloween Sprinkles since it's October. To make sure I don't scar my daughter for life I decide to call my wife to ensure I can get these sprinkles. Alas, I discover I have left my cell phone back at home, because I was still in a stupor heading out the door and forgot to take it with me.

So I go back to the Trailblazer and get on my ham radio, trying to remember how to use the autopatch. Back "in the day" one repeater had the simple "* up, # down" method, where you keyed the mic, announced your call, punched in the * key followed by the 7-digit number, then listened for the repeater to acknowledge the connection and read back the phone number. Another repeater (Tim Berry's WB4GBI on 147.075) was slightly different. You had to key the mic and push *, listen for the dial tone, then key up again and punch in the phone number. An extra step, but nothing like the one used by the local radio club. I can't even remember the sequence, but it was like a 3-digit code to get the patch up, then the 7 digits.

It had been so long since I needed the autopatch, things changed a bit. One repeater's autopatch I couldn't access, so it may be offline (the repeater trustee sold the machine when the club running the repeater dissolved) and the other machine (147.075) changed its format to *up, # down without the need for listening for the dialtone.

Attempt #1 succeeded, but no one answered the phone and I left a message begging for someone, anyone to pick up. Strange, since there's 9 kids and my wife, someone SHOULD have heard it. I call again, and again, I get the answering machine. Since the machine is working, I know my house hasn't burned to the ground, so I try my wife's cell phone. For some reason, it didn't want to connect all 7 digits on that attempt. I try again and this time it connects, but I get her voicemail.

I then decide to make the executive decision to get the doughnuts with sprinkles. In the end, I made the right choice. My wife claims she was not near the phone and it was in the bedroom out of earshot (apparently the 100 decibel level of kids drowns out a phone/answering machine) and the cell phone was on vibrate and she didn't have it on her.

It never ceases to amaze me how the best technology built into a cell phone is useless when you don't take it with you. But it's nice to know that the autopatch is still there "when all else fails".