A (Brief) History of Flight

Posted On February 28, 2008

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It is 11:00 PM here, and -34C, and I just saw the Northern Lights out at the field site. They were faint, and looked like green gauze curtains gently waving in the night air. Tomorrow’s wind chill is predicted to be -44C and the next three days will be equally frigid. http://www.weatheroffice.gc.ca/city/pages/qc-105_metric_e.html When it is this cold, ice crystals, called diamond dust, form in the clear air. I may drive the snowmobile up to the top of the hill tomorrow night to look for the aurorae. No pictures yet of the northern lights, but here is the moon during the lunar eclipse last week.


We flew the balloon three days ago and the wind came up during the flight and caused the sondes to swing around wildly. So badly, in fact, that the RS232 connector (aka ‘a sharp thing’) between the met sonde and ozone sonde beat a neat array of cuts and scratches around the balloon’s perimeter equidistant from its connection point. Having done what damage it could, the whole sonde assembly went AWOL and is now somewhere in the sparse forest and deep snowdrifts north of the field site. Because it fell from 377 m (or 1225 feet), we can assume it plunged to the bottom of a drift (or knocked some poor caribou senseless). I went on a sonde-hunt in the woods with the snowmobile and searched the parts I could reach, but without success. No sign of the sondes in the trees, on the exposed rocky hillside, or in the snow I could reach. The drifts amongst the trees are waist deep.

We are now down to one met sonde and one ozone sonde. By the time the balloon limped back to earth, it  was quite floppy from all the helium lost.

Back at the ranch… I spent that evening mending the approximately 40 tears in the balloon with this fabulous mending tape I bought for the purpose. I’m not being sarcastic, this stuff really is amazing, and great for repairing all kinds of nylon things. However, -33C proved too much for it. We returned to the site the next morning with the mended and partially inflated balloon, and the minute we removed it from its large canvas bag, the patches started to fall off! We had brought two older balloons as backup, so we set the new one aside and unfolded one of the old ones. Mistake! Unfolding the plastic at these temperatures caused it to crack. We then had two balloons with great rents. We carefully returned the remaining one to the research center, where we inflated it after it had warmed up.

Today, with temperatures about the same as yesterday, we took the remaining balloon out to the field site and VOILA! it too developed cracks from just being bent when unpacked from the bag. Its previous patches also slipped off. I guess -33C is just too cold to use these balloons.

Thus we have decided to use the kites more. Yesterday we flew stacked kites (more lift with two) from the hill above the research station.


By the time we got the sondes working, there wasn’t quite enough wind for the stacked kites to lift two sondes, but they at least looked impressive. Our colleagues reported later that they could see them from the river and the field site. Up on the hill we drew a steady stream of what I call ‘lookee seers’ on snowmobiles and in trucks. They would stop, or slow down to look, and then wave and drive off.



for the sondes!



5 Responses to “A (Brief) History of Flight”

  1. Mama Bear

    We sightseers down here are enjoying these reports.

    When the Spring thaw arrives, maybe a local inhabitant will find your sondes. They will make a cute pair of lamps.

    It’s a good thing Wilbur and Orville picked balmy North Carolina for their fantastic feat. Your illustrious ancestor ‘Balloon’ Tytler would be proud. Those wind-chills are fierce. British radio just reported this as the coldest winter since l966 — the phrase “global cooling” was employed. I’m not making this up. Hope somebody tells The Goracle.

    Love Anita’s cool (!) backpack, and wonder whose logo it bears. Where is her snowboard?? I hope you’re all using sun block.

  2. Henry Palmer

    I am pleased that you are sharing your adventures. Your reports and photos almost make me feel that I am participating, albeit vicariously, in your activities without having to leave the comfort of my centrally-heated house! Many thanks.

  3. Jack Thomson

    Rachel, I am very impressed with your excellent descriptions, outstanding writing and terrific sense of humor. You make the whole experience a great adventure for me and, except for the cold, wish I could experience it also. Keep it up—I am enjoying every word you write.

  4. Aunt Diana

    I am simply amazed at how the cold affects everything you do – nothing is simple up there at all. Every accomplishment is even more impressive. Thanks for taking the time to do the show and tell for us. I can’t wait to drop this (“sondes”, etc.) into some sort of cocktail party chatter:-)
    Sending love.

  5. Sis

    You can’t fool me – I know you were just biding your time, waiting for your opportunity to fly kites over the taiga!

    Great pictures of the lunar eclipse, thank you! I couldn’t see it in PA, due to cloud cover.

    Glad to see Anita’s making herself useful. 😉

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