1977-10-00: Alice Springs, Australia

After leaving UNH, I still had one outstanding obligation to Prof. Chupp, to support his part in the expedition to Australia to test his gamma-ray telescope. I left Susan in Maryland and flew from Dulles to San Francisco, where Gary met me in the airport for a brief visit between flights. I flew on a Qantas 747 via Honolulu (in the middle of the night) to Sydney, then changed planes to Alice Springs via Adelaide, on Ansett Air. In those days, airliners had smoking sections. Apparently the Australian sense of egalitarianism dictated that the division between smoking and non-smoking was the aisle; as I recall, the non-smoking section was the right side of the plane.

The rest of the team (I’ve lost track of their names, but I recall three other physicists from Prof. Chupp’s lab, besides myself) arrived about the same time; we stayed in the Oasis Motel.

Chupp and his team had participated in previous ballon flights in Palestine, Texas. They knew the procedures and equipment involved. This expedition was in the southern hemisphere, and involved (if I recall correctly) about ten groups planning to fly various instruments to observe the southern skies. The launch truck and related equipment had been brought from the US, and was to be left for future Australian use.

Each group’s instrumentation and related equipment was delivered to a hangar at the Alice Springs airport, and had to be assembled, tested and readied for flight. On the first day, the Australian manager of the expedition gave a safety lecture, emphasizing the hazards of reaching under pallets, etc., where snakes might shelter. He said the local snake’s poison could kill a person in 20 minutes, but not to worry too much, because it was only 18 minutes to the hospital.

As each team declared its readiness for flight, it was put on the preference list. When the launch director determined a day was suitable for launch, the teams were given the opportunity to launch or decline in order of their readiness.

During this time, Carl was working in Tehran. When he got some time off, rather than going home to Maryland, he flew to Alice via Hong Kong and hung out with us for a couple of weeks. There was little time for sightseeing, but I did get a chance to go to a local glider club and had a flight in one of their two-place planes, a staggered-seat Australian design called the Kookaburra. The back seat person’s legs were beside the front seat. One day when we were at the glider port, someone was attempting to set a world record for altitude in a Piper Supercub; I think he appeared to have succeeded, but these things require review of instruments and documentation to be official. The day I flew, there was a brush fire approaching the glider port, and the club members dragged all of their planes out of the hangar onto bare ground where they couldn’t be burned. When I flew, the pilot took advantage of the rising hot air from the fire to gain altitude in the Kookaburra. It was a little smoky, but fun anyway.

Carl rented a Mini Moke (like a jeep), and we drove around some of the surrounding countryside. It seemed a lot like Arizona to me: desert with dry grass everywhere. The rock formations looked interesting, though we didn’t get to the famous Ayre’s Rock. I think the Moke had “roo bars” on the front, to protect the grill and lights in the event of hitting a kangaroo.

The winds in the stratosphere blow at high speed from east to west for half the year, then reverse direction for the next half year. While the direction is reversing, the winds are slow enough to allow a balloon to remain in the vicinity of its launch site for many hours or even some days. The ability to track the balloon and to receive data sent by radio from instruments to their ground stations limit the duration of a flight.

I think four or five teams were ready before us, but even so, Chupp declined some opportunities hoping for better wind forecasts. We finally launched after about seven weeks of preparation and waiting. The balloon drifted to the northwest, and eventually we could no longer receive data. I was chosen to board a twin-engine Piper to go to terminate the flight. We flew out and landed at a muddy airstrip at a station (ranch), known as “Beasley International”. The balloon was still drifting northwest, so we took off again, with some concern about being able to break free of the mud. We landed once more at another station, where a woman and her two children lived. The father was away from house, tending cattle. These people get very few visitors. The woman served us tea, and we chatted for a while. They had a radiotelephone that served to connect the kids to their school. They had their books at home, and the teacher gave instruction to widely distributed students by radio.

We used their radiotelephone to verify that it was safe to terminate the flight. It is not a good idea to have an empty balloon fall into the path of an airliner. Given the OK, I flipped a switch on a little box we were carrying. This sent a signal to the balloon that separated the parachute and instrument package from balloon, and ripped a hole in the envelope. Then we got back in the plane and flew out to find where it landed so it could be recovered. The pilots were skilled at this task, and quickly spotted the white and orange parachute on the ground, marking its location on a map. They asked me if I could find it again from the ground. I had my doubts, but it turned out that wasn’t going to be my job anyway.

The next day, I made arrangements to go home, spending one day in Sydney. An observer from NASA, who sponsored some of the teams, was also leaving that day, and we went to the Sydney zoo, crossing the harbor on a ferry right next to the famous opera house, and with a good view of the famous bridge.

My flight home was on a 747-SP (Special Performance). This version has a shorter fuselage but holds the same amount of fuel as a standard 747, so it can fly fewer passengers over a longer distance. We flew directly from Sydney to Los Angeles. This flight wasn’t possible in the other direction with normal winds. The departure was delayed after we boarded, and the captain said one of the restrooms needed a repair: “This is an eleven hour flight, and we aren’t leaving until all the restrooms are working.”

I was glad to get home. Alice was nice enough, but it was a long time to be away. When Susan met me at Dulles, she said she had forgotten I had a beard.


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