Up, up and away
by Marie Nesmith
Feb 13, 2011 | 1807 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Evan Wilkins watches a capsule of recording devices, which he and Justin Strickland released, take flight Jan. 29. The video recording of their third balloon launch currently is posted at www.youtube.com/user/nrw1pjs.
SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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Since May, Justin Strickland and his brothers-in-law, Evan Wilkins and Patrick Hayes, have been flexing their ingenuity, producing sweeping bird's-eye views of the state's countryside.

Carried by latex balloons into the stratosphere, cameras and video equipment are contained in foam-padded capsules that have captured nearly three-hour flights from Bartow County to north of Dahlonega, Villa Rica or Loganville in three separate launches. Joined by Wilkins, Strickland released their last balloon contraption from his Cassville residence Jan. 29. Unlike the previous launches, the 4-pound capsule's retrieval was seamless, with the men receiving a phone call from its destination point when they were already en route.

"The first time it landed in the middle of the Chattahoochee National Forest," Strickland said, describing the May release. "That was probably the most adventurous pickup because we actually had to hike in several miles. It wasn't so much the distance -- it was straight up, where we had to go. ... It missed all the 100-foot trees. It made it though and landed in a 20-foot tree, and we had to cut it down. So we always have a hatchet. We take hatchets, waders, life vests. We never know what we're going to get into.

"The second one [in] Villa Rica [landed] in the back of some lady's yard. We have a picture of that and that one was in about a 70-foot pine tree. So we had to hire somebody with a deer stand. A neighbor -- we had to pay him to go out there, and he had to cut it down with a pole saw. When we got there, we couldn't find it. We heard it. Then finally we looked up, and there it was. So [while] that was in a lady's backyard, this one landed in the front yard of a couple in Loganville. There's a lot of pasture and flat land, so it was the easiest [retrieval]. Matter of fact, this time we got a phone call," he said, adding their phone numbers are posted on the outside of each package. "[The couple said], 'It landed in our yard. Do you want to come get it?' It's never been that easy. We were almost there. We were within three miles by the time we got the phone call."

Inside their latest foam-padded capsule were two high definition video cameras -- one oriented toward the horizon and the other pointed straight down -- a prepaid cell phone used as a tracking device and a smoke detector fashioned into a beacon. Climbing into the air at 1,400 feet per minute, the package's voyage was halted when its balloon expanded from 7 to nearly 30 feet in diameter. Once the helium balloon ruptured at its peak height of about 120,000 feet, a 6-foot nylon parachute soon was deployed, carrying the contraption toward the ground at 2,000 feet per minute.

Initially, Strickland and his brothers-in-law were inspired in April to launch a balloon into the stratosphere and capture photographs of its rise and descent after learning about a similar release by a British man. Afterward, Strickland and Wilkins were challenged to put their skills to work by their coworker at Bradford Drugs in Cedartown.

"He was on the news and he had some really good photos," Strickland said, referring to Englishman Robert Harrison. "To me, it looked like, 'You can't get that. How do you get that?' Then he sort of showed what he'd done. He just said he had a balloon and he took a camera up there and that's about the end of it. So [our coworker] said, 'Hey, y'all should do that.' And I said, 'No, that's too [involved]. I don't think it's that simple,' but my other brother-in-law kept pushing. And in a way, it is simple. You just let it go. But if you want to get it back and if you want to get anything out of it, you have to have all of your ducks in a row."

While it is thrilling to release the balloons and track their locations, Wilkins agreed with his brother-in-law that planning is a vital part of the process.

"The most exciting part is after you let it go and you're just waiting to see where it lands. It's so exciting when if finally pops up on the map and we know right where to go," Wilkins said, referring to the online program called InstaMapper, which monitors their GPS-enabled cell phone. "Then, it's always thrilling to ... view the photos. There's [been] some really neat photos of Plant Bowen -- the further away you get, the smaller the smokestacks are -- Lake Allatoona and I was actually able to find my neighborhood in one of them, although you wouldn't know what it was. I live in Dallas so it's amazing to be that far away from the launch and that high up and be able to find my neighborhood. Of course [we have photographed] the airports. We've found the Paulding County Airport and McCollum and the Dobbins Air [Reserve] Base in Marietta.

"You can plan for a launch [but] if the weather's bad or it's cloudy, you're not going to be able to see any good pictures of the Earth, so you have to have a good day. ... [It is important to keep] watching weather patterns, and there's a program online that determines where the package will land. We just check that frequently to see what the weather is doing and see where it's going. [Justin is] pretty much the benefactor behind it. He puts most of the money into it. So we try to work it around him. ... It's just really neat to be able to do it. We love doing it. We've done it three times and get something new each time."

Available online at www.youtube.com/user/nrw1pjs, the videos of each balloon's voyage has garnered worldwide attention, featuring posts from every continent except Antarctica.

"It just sort of hooks you and you want to see if you can get better and better pictures," Strickland said, adding they notify the Federal Aviation Administration 24 hours prior to each launch. "The biggest thing is now trying to figure out if you can get higher. If you can get clearer, can get more interesting or more highly populated areas. We'd also like to try to do something on the coastal areas, to see if we can get something different, because we've [already gone] north, west and east of this area. ... I just find it interesting to put something together from nothing basically and come up with something that's pretty unique."