Remember, safety first! It is incredibly important as you chase your balloon that you remember to stay safe – tracking a HAB can be incredibly exciting, especially after the thrill of the launch. Follow your checklists, follow local rules and regulations, and always think through the plan to ensure you are being safe. See below for some of our suggestions for achieving a successful chase! And see here for a tutorial on recovering the payload once it has landed.
“The chase” is what the team does while the balloon is in the air to try and be as close to the landing site as possible so that they can recover the balloon quickly and efficiently once it lands (see recovery tutorial here). For teams using GPS systems that will only transmit at the beginning and end of a flight, but not while the balloon is at altitude (like a SPOT GPS), the best plan is to head to an area close to the landing site predicted in your flight predictions (see the flight predictions tutorial here). Then when the balloon begins sending signals as it is landing, you can work with the team to figure out the optimal route to the final site. Remember to follow the suggestions below while doing this!
For those with a tracking system that provides consistent position updates throughout the flight, there is an art to properly chasing a high altitude balloon. We like to follow the mantra “chase the landing, not the balloon,” which means two important things:
- The flight path prediction program that you run before your flight (see the flight predictions tutorial here) gives you an initial guess at the landing site – this is a good place to start for chasing your balloon. But remember that weather and wind can be unpredictable – so if you take the GPS location data that your balloon is transmitting as it flies and rerun the flight path predictions with that information to calculate the new landing site, you can often come up with a final position that is much more accurate and adjust your plans on the fly to head to the new site.
- Remember that where your balloon currently is when at altitude, is not necessarily close to where it will land because the wind can push it quite far as it flies – so you shouldn’t automatically try to drive to where the balloon is when it is at 80,000 ft because you might do a lot of unnecessary driving that does not get you closer to the landing site.
General Balloon Chasing Rules
1. Pre-plan driving routes.
Most prediction programs (see prediction tutorial here) will output how long the balloon is expected to be in the air along with the potential landing site. With this, you can time your trip to the landing site by figuring out how long it will take to get there and therefore when you need to leave. The goal is to beat the HAB to the landing site. Seeing the landing is not only awesome but can help you find the balloon if something went wrong in the tracking or if the balloon lands in a tree or something! If you cannot get to the landing site before the HAB based on the drive time and expected flight time and you have a second chase vehicle, send them away to the launch site before you let the balloon go!
2. Have at least one driver and one separate navigator.
The driver should only drive. The chase will be overwhelming with excitement so the drivers only responsibility should be to follow the laws of the road and to get everyone to the landing site safely. It is the navigators responsibility to read incoming HAB telemetry or pre-determined locations and give directions on where to go.
3. If you have multiple chase cars, have a 3rd person whose job is to communicate between cars.
The driver is going to be busy driving and the navigator is going to be busy tracking and chasing. The 3rd person (the communicator) should be listening to the navigator and keeping the other cars updated with where to go. The communicator is key in multiple chase vehicle operations because they can position the second car to zero in on the HAB if the first car is behind because of the launch and help with any confusion there may be. With multiple chase cars, it is important that each car know where to go if it loses contact with the other cars since HAB chases can often lead to remote areas without internet or cellphone signal access.
4. Have a hard copy document of all operations in all cars – do not rely on memory (you can forget in the excitement) or electronics (they can die)
This includes driving directions, callsigns, account login/passwords, telephone numbers for everyone on the team, secondary protocol operations if the HAB is lost or the cars lose contact with each other, and anything else you think you might need to do while chasing the HAB. Plan everything out as much as possible ahead of time to try and ensure you do not forget anything! Create checklist for each chase car.
5. Test all technology before leaving for the launch site – both what will fly and what you need for chase and recovery
There is nothing more depressing than traveling to a launch site to find out your HAB GPS or camera doesn’t work or to release your HAB and then discover that the ground station or laptop you were going to use to track it has died. There are lots of little things that can go wrong, so check everything you will need before you leave and ensure you have a backup for anything you will need on the ground to chase the balloon.
6. Bring safety equipment
This includes a first aid kit, safety vests, flashlights, pocket knives, limb cutters, etc. Safety vests should be worn at all times, especially if you land in the woods! The latter are used in case of a tree landing.
7. Never enter someone else’s property without asking
HABs often land on large tracts of land owned by someone not on the HAB team. It is important to ask the owner of any not public areas before venturing on to their land to recover a HAB. Often owners will be very happy to let you recover your HAB from their land and will often help you do so!