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Ft. McHenry reaches the stratosphere

Satellite photo of the Chesapeake Bay
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The Chesapeake Bay, the Delmarva Peninsula and Atlantic Ocean can be clearly seen from this unedited photo taken by the camera aboard the payload. This was part of Fort McHenry Composite Squadron's recent weather balloon launching.

Squadron launches high altitude weather balloon

12/20/2011––For 70 years Civil Air Patrol has been performing missions of many kinds, but never to the heights achieved by a recent mission by the Fort McHenry Composite Squadron, based in Catonsville, Md. As a part of their aerospace education program the squadron launched a weather balloon with the goal of reaching the stratosphere. The project even had a NASA-style project name – CHASE-1 (CAP High Altitude Stratospheric Experiment, mission one). But what they achieved was more than just a high-altitude flight.


The balloon launch was part of a long-term program led by the squadron’s aerospace education officer 1st Lt. Josh Neel, at the end of which the squadron plans to launch its own satellite.

“This project proved to have many great opportunities for aerospace education,” said Neel. “Leading up to launch the squadron learned about the stratosphere, the global positioning system, microcontrollers, amateur radio, buoyancy and lift using helium and several other very interesting topics. Best of all, it was a lot of fun!”

To assist with the recovery of the balloon, a technology called Automated Packet Reporting System (APRS) was used. The squadron recruited technical advice from local APRS inventor Bob Bruninga and NASA satellite expert Pat Kilroy, both of whom attended one of the weekly meetings to teach the cadets about APRS, direction-finding techniques and satellite simulation using balloons.

Since the flight was expected to reach very high altitudes, special permission was required from the FAA. The location of the launch site had to be planned carefully given the prevailing winds at altitude. Once the balloon reached approximately 95,000 feet, it was designed to burst, and parachute the payload to the ground. The team used sophisticated simulation software to predict the landing location of the payload. Neel requested volunteers for the mission and five cadets and five senior members answered the call. The team would also function as an official ground team, using direction-finding in potentially remote terrain.


Before sunrise on the morning of the launch, the CHASE team gathered at the MG William J. Witte Armory in Catonsville, Md., the location of the squadron’s weekly meetings. They began the long drive to the launch site, about 90 minutes away in the town of Clear Spring, Md. The Clear Spring Volunteer Fire Department offered the use of their station to prepare and fill the balloon, and Michael Main met the CHASE-1 team that morning.

The balloon and payload were assembled and tested, and just enough helium was carefully added to ensure that the payload would reach the target altitude. After an enthusiastic “three, two, one … launch!” the payload lifted off at 08:22. The balloon soon disappeared from sight, and the team piled into the van. The chase was on!


The tracking equipment was transmitting the GPS data using APRS over amateur radio and monitored by the ground team in the van as they headed in the direction of the predicted flight path. The APRS data was also automatically captured by the APRS network throughout Maryland and Pennsylvania and linked to a website so the progress of the flight could be tracked by anyone in the world.

The excitement grew as the team began to get altitude reports from the payload. At about 9:05, the balloon was reported to be at 45,000 feet. But then the radio fell silent—contact with the payload was lost. An entire hour passed, and the hopes of the team began to fade. Without the GPS coordinates of the landing area, the weak amateur radio transmission would not be strong enough for the team to pick up the signal and close in on the landing site. Hoping to get another position report, the team continued to the estimated touchdown point, when they finally received confirmation that the payload was at 54,000 feet and descending. The mission was proceeding just as they expected.

As the team was nearing Lewisberry, Pa., they once again lost contact. The last position indicated 14,000 feet, still too high to identify the touchdown point. They were running out of time. But fortunately the CHASE-1 team applied something they learned from NASA’s experience: the importance of redundant systems. In case of the failure of the tracking equipment, they had a backup tracker—an android phone.


At 10:33 the android reported the final landing coordinates, in the nearby town of Pinetown, Pa. After travelling over 17 miles into the stratosphere and over 65 miles laterally from the launch position, the final location was only an amazing 2.5 miles from the location predicted by the simulation software! But knowing the coordinates only got the team close to the landing site. The team would then have to rely on their training in direction-finding.

Once at the site, the team was joined by both Kilroy and Bruninga, who assisted the team with the search. Ground team leader 1st Lt. Andy Wortman briefed the team before entering the woods, and the payload was found on the ground in good condition shortly thereafter. The team was filled with pride and a sense of great accomplishment with the realization that their mission was successful.


After all the data was analyzed and confirmed by several other sources tracking the flight, it was determined that the balloon had reached an altitude in excess of 90,000 feet. The CHASE-1 team achieved their goal of reaching the stratosphere, and in the process also learned about teamwork, planning and perseverance.

Bruninga, impressed with the standard of excellence exhibited by the team said, “One of the best executed balloon missions I have seen. Great hardware, perfect landing and full recovery.”

The mission was the next step toward the lofty goal of launching their own satellite. Given the dedication of the cadets and senior members of the Ft. McHenry Composite Squadron, it will not be surprising when they achieve even greater heights.

The squadron is currently trying to raise funds for their aerospace education program. If interested in helping to sponsor the satellite project, please contact 1st Lt. Neel at

Civil Air Patrol, the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, is a nonprofit organization with more than 61,000 members nationwide. CAP, in its Air Force auxiliary role, performs 90 percent of continental U.S. inland search and rescue missions as tasked by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center and was credited by the AFRCC with saving 113 lives in fiscal year 2010. Its volunteers also perform homeland security, disaster relief and drug interdiction missions at the request of federal, state and local agencies. The members play a leading role in aerospace education and serve as mentors to the more than 26,000 young people currently participating in CAP cadet programs. CAP has been performing missions for America for nearly 70 years. It is a major partner of Wreaths Across America, an initiative to remember, honor and teach about the sacrifices of U.S. military veterans. For more information on Civil Air Patrol, visit or

More than 1,500 members of CAP serve in Maryland. Last fiscal year wing members flew 42 search and rescue missions and were credited with 31 finds. For more information, visit

The Ft. McHenry Composite Squadron meets weekly on Tuesday evening at 7:00 P.M. at the MG William J. Witte Armory located at 130 Mellor Avenue in Catonsville. For more information contact 1st Lt. Anthony Moe at

Editor’s Note: Ft. McHenry Composite Squadron Aerospace Education Officer 1st Lt. Josh Neel and Bob Bruninga contributed to this story.