Thursday, July 24, 2008

It's a long way down...

With the clock running down we finally got the break we had been looking for.

As always happens, last week we thought that Thursday would be the day and guess what? It was.

Truth be told, tomorrow would have been better but the flight is in the bag and there was no option to wait another day.

Assessment of the met on Tuesday night had us decide that the 25,000 foot flight was going to end in tears with a fast landing in a potentially remote area. Not being able to retrieve the balloon or damaging it would put paid to the main flight to 39,000 feet so a Cessna 207 was booked for Wednesday so Glen, Heather and Greg could jump their buns off all day.

I had a great day flying around them in the R44 chopper shooting video and even got to have a play on the controls. At the end of the day I hitched a ride in the 207 jump plane from Curtain Springs to Ayers Rock and with in minutes of take off had the controls and flew all the way in to the circuit.

The guys got some amazing shots over Mount Connor but unfortunately Australian Geographic have first bid on them so we can't publish anything until it is all released.

All in all a great day of aviation.

After a late group get together Wednesday night, it was into bed before the alarms started going off at 0250 when the alarms started going off.

While not totally calm on the surface, it was enough to give us a shot. The upper winds were still not strong enough and the direction also was not great but again, it was within our minimums for a flight attempt. A chilly -53 deg. C and 80 knots was on order for the top end of the flight.

Glenn, Heather, John and myself sat in chairs pre-breathing O2 for an hour while the crew inflated the balloon. It was soon obvious that the ground wind was picking up at the nearly empty 400 bounced around on the launch rope.

Once our hour was up it was into the basket and soon away for the flight. It was a good hour before sunrise as we slipped into the dark sky with hardly a line of light on the horizon.

I was flying the balloon while John chatted to ATC for out clearances. I kept the climb rate at a pretty solid 800 to 1000 feet per minute and in no time the temperature was dropping as we cruised past 24,000 feet.

Around this time the only normally aspirated pilot light failed but the two on O2 feed burned quite nicely.

At just under 31,000 feet we had a total flame out and some quick and practiced hits with the striker had the main burner re-light and the pilot lights running again and we were on our way.

By 34,000 feet I was tweaking everything on the burners to keep the happy and one tweak too much had another total flame out. Again, re-light was not too much of a problem.

In the end we aborted the climb at over 37,000 feet indicated. A really rough adjustment from the logged data indicates that it might have been as high as 38,800 feet but none of that can be confirmed until the record is actually ratified.

The landing was as wild as expected with around 32knots down to about 500 feet before easing off to 16-17 knots on the surface. Not a lot of fun in a lightly loaded 400 I can tell you.

The good news is that it was filmed from two helicopters and from what I have seen it looked every bit as exciting from outside as it looked from my end on the burner and vent. Expect some Youtube video as soon as we are allowed to play with it.

As for the Jumpers, well that is their part of the story and is owned by 60 minutes so I can't really say much else at this time. Look out for it and some spectacular vision of the whole project on Sunday night in a weeks time (3rd of August I think).

The total flight time was 2 hours, 18 minutes, for a distance of 76.9Nm. Peak speed was about 92 Knots. Altitude is still to be confirmed but is probably in excess of 38,000 feet. Maximum climb rate was 1161 ft/min and a the fastest descent rate was 1575 ft/min. All in all great stuff.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Groundhog day...

The weather is still kicking out butt out here at Uluru/Curtian Springs.

Every morning we get up at 3am, kick around in the freezing cold for a bit then go back to bed because it is either too windy, too cloudy or both. It is getting a little depressing to say the least.

Thursday is our cut off day as we loose our chopper pilot that afternoon and other members of the team all have commitments to get back to civilisation for as well.

Despite bad surface conditions, the jetstream has also prevented a successful flight from Glenn and Heathers perspective so it is not all the balloons fault.

The good news is that despite being down to the last two days, conditions are improving and Thursday is looking the best from all angles. Depending on what we get in the morning we may just go straight for the high flight.

Yesterday we had a run in with the park rangers while trying to scam our way into Uluru National Park with a pass donated by a departing tourist. They want $25 per head to look at a bit of rock!!! The passes are not transferable but you have to buy a three day pass despite most people only going for the one day.

At the gate we got the third degree over where the pass was purchased, which car we were in a few days back, how many people were in the car, where was our receipt, was it sold by a man or a woman etc, etc.

As a group of six likely looking suspects we failed the lie detector test by fumbling and pointing at each other while making up the worst possible story that made no sense what so ever and had us ejected on our ear.

We could have paid the money but with two professional photographers in the truck, poor light and only an hour to do a walk we decided that $150 was a bit over the top.

In no time at all we were back at the resort with our tails between our legs to buy some beer. We then headed out to the closest sand dune look out we could find and took in the view for free while laughing about the gate keeper and her little inquisition.

Right now we are trying to organise a plane or chopper for the guys to jump out of so they can get more vision over the desert.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Fist flight - 12,000 feet.

After last nights excitement, it was all too early at 0345 when the alarm went off.

John, myself and the crew started weather checks at 0430 and had the team assembled and vehicles rolling out of the shed at 0530. Once on the launch site there was all the useual preparations for a balloon flight with the added fun of layers of gear, wires, parachutes, bail out bottles and oxygen masks.

With the ski goggles on and radio ear piece in place, the world faded into the background a little with every noise, breath and even vision filtered more than normal.

After a few awkward moments clambering into the basket, the five of us were on board. Two pilots and three wing suit jumpers.

ATC at Alice were working John hard on the radios and I was playing burner monkey and got the fun of flying a lightly loaded and massive balloon.

The initial climb was pretty easy although it did not feel as light as I thought it would. In no time at all we were sitting on 800 to 1000 feet per minute so it was actually performing very well.

Passing through 5500 feet we started the exit procedure for the jumpers and by 8000 feet all three were outside on the jump platform. Still climbing at around 1000 feet per minute we had four minutes to the jump altitude of 12,000 feet.

Practice runs in the shed had shown we needed just over a minute for switch over to the bail out O2 bottles for the jumpers then they would be ready to go.

Jump clearance was obtained by John and the disconnection process started. We rounded out at 12,500 feet and initiated the descent. Disconnection was completed and at 800 feet/min decent speed I gave Glenn, Heather and Greg the thumbs up while hanging on the vent line.

The guys disappeared from view in moments and after directing the crew in the general direction we focused on our next challenge - flying this beast back down with only two people on board.

The good news was that it did it easily and was actually a real pleasure to fly. We maintained a solid 800 feet per minute for most of the descent with one burn at about 5000 feet to fill out the very soft envelope. A slightly longer burn at about 1000 feet slowed us up to 200 feet/minute and had me back on the vent again.

We rounded out 50 feet of the ground and flew into a nice open piece of dirt for a text book landing, dragging about 10 meters.

All in all the flight was successful with lots learned and tested by both the Jumpers and the balloon crew. Unfortunately the weather is messing with us a little bit and we have put all flights on hold for a few days as surface conditions are a little too windy for safe balloon flights.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A day of preparations

After arrival in Alice on Wednesday lunchtime, it was straight into checking gear, assembling the balloon basket and a team meeting to cover the plan for the following days.

Despite original plans to do the first 10,000ft flight the following morning, it became apparent that more work was needed to ensure that the first dress rehearsal had every bit of gear in place and all flight crew were rested. As such the flight was postponed until Friday morning giving us all of today to go over every last, nut bolt and connection.

Just to get everyone in the mood, Glenn, Heather and Greg went for a ride in Cessna 210 to 11,000 feet for a quick wing suit jump into a small airstrip just north of Alice Springs called Bond Springs.

For the jumpers this was a full gear jump while the rest of us watched from the ground.

A full twelve hours latter and we left the balloon gear at the shed and headed home for dinner.

One of the funniest parts in all this so far is that Glenn's repeated patter with the media is that some people are genetically pre-disposed to adventure or risk taking activities. In short, it has become a team joke that we all have a medical excuse for being trouble makers.

There was no better example of this than tonight. On arrival back at the apartments we were chastised by the complex manager because one of the team drove the landcruiser out the in diveway at some point during the day - seriously reckless behavior. It was not helped by the fact that he could probably hear us all snickering as he walked off after breaking this seriously important bit of news.

Not more that 40 minutes later, upon opening the oven to extract some tasty garlic bread, a cloud of smoke set off the fire alarm in our room. As you do, we stood on chairs, waved tea towels and generally laughed at the noise and interruption to the team dinner.

After a few moments it became apparent that the alarm was not going to turn off. While opening the front door to the apartment to let the smoke out, I noticed that the alarm was also sounding in the hallway. A quick look left and right revealed a number of confused faces peering down the corridor looking to see who was causing all the commotion.

In a flash, the commandant of the complex appeared and instantly demanded "What have you done now?" Again he was met with grinning faces, most of which were still sitting at the table eating dinner to relaxing sound of the fire klaxon.

He was not impressed and informed us that the fire brigade were on their way and that there was no way of shutting it off until they responded to the call. Bugger. He then asked us to evacuate the building!!! We opted to retire to the balcony and giggled like kids while eating dinner and listening to the approaching sirens.

On arrival the axe wielding fireman paused briefly for a photo before realising that we had not followed proper evacuation procedure and then scolded us for not assembling at the proper fire point.

The poor guy was not more than two steps out the door before someone suggested that it was all the result of genetics resulting in peels of laugher.

Anyhow, it is time for bed. Everything looks good for the morning so with some luck we will have achieved the first jump and be on our way towards Ayers Rock tomorrow afternoon for the 25,000 foot flight.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Furthest Flight

Well, finally something worthy of a blog post.

As of tomorrow morning (Wednesday 16th July) I am on my way to Alice Springs to participate in a record attempt.

The project is part of the Base Climb series of records for Glenn Singleman and Heather Swan. The goal is to set a distance record using wing suites. For my part, I will be one of the two pilots flying them to 39,000 feet so they can start their flight in the jet stream.

The high altitude winds will give them tailwind in excess of 200km/h and when combined with the forward speed of their suits should give them speeds over the ground in excess of 400 km/h for a good portion of the jump.

For my part in this, it will also be an Australian altitude record for balloons. While not quite up there for world records, it is still an excessively high flight with plenty of technical challenges and risks.

The plan is for three flights. The first to 10,000 feet for media and basic non oxygen exit practice and systems tests. The second flight is to 24,000 feet to avoid class A airspace but allow oxygen system tests and fuel burn calculations with the flight load as well as more vision recording for the media.

The final flight will see us push to 39,000 feet and right into the stratosphere. Temperatures should be around -56 degrees celsius and our speed should be around 130 miles per hour if the jet stream is working as expected for us. Vision from this jump will be limited as the jumpers will be maximising their performance and helmet cameras etc. will mess up their aerodynamics.

Suspended cameras and basket mounted gear should get the exit provided we can keep the working at that altitude and temperature.

After Glenn and Heather exit the basket we will commense our descent and despite the low loading of the 400,000 cubic foot balloon, we should reach vertical speeds in excess of 2000 feet/minute due to the thin air.

As we reach lower altitudes this descent will slow down and we will be fighting solar heating to get the balloon back to the ground. This balloon would normally carry 20-22 people so will be a bit different to fly with only two of us left on board.

Landing such a large balloon while lightly loaded will present it's own set of challenges but where we are flying will have lots of open space.

Glen and Heather have a blog and various websites that you can follow. With some luck I will get photos and things up here as well if time and connections to the net are available.

60 Minutes will be covering the jump so look out for all the action soon after on a TV near you. Here is the lead in story that 60 minutes ran a while back.

Up, up and Away
Up, up and Away

Furthest Flight
Glenn and Heather dot com
Base Climb
Glenn and Heathers Blog