My High Altitude Balloon Project

February 20, 2023

When hearing the hullabaloo about the high-altitude balloons being detected in our atmosphere (and then shot down) I was reminded of the personal high-altitude balloon project that I had created when I was a teenager, many years ago.

It was the Summer of 1959, when I was seventeen and living with my family in Detroit, on Roselawn Street, I made balloons out of the dry-cleaner’s thin clear plastic garment protection bags. First, I would iron the open edges shut and then fill the bag full of natural gas. I used a thin ten-foot-long plastic hose attached to the gas-feed on our kitchen stove, with the other end put through the window so the balloons could be inflated outside. The hose would be inserted into a lower corner of the bag, and when the bag was sufficiently full, the gas would be turned off, and then that corner would be sealed up. Finally, attached to the balloon, was a stamped self-addressed post- card that asked the person who found it for information on where and when the balloon was discovered.

At first my parents worried that I might cause a fire, but the simplicity of the inflation process, and its initial success won them over. They trusted me. After the first month, I bought my own roll of garment protection bags, and then was able to make double-long balloons, which were two of the cleaner’s bags still joined together and giving twice as much lift force. I hoped that they might travel farther.

During that summer I launched around thirty balloons. I recorded the date, time, the weather conditions, and what was attached to the balloon, in a journal. I couldn’t launch balloons on a day with wind, as there were too many houses, big trees and poles with wires to snag the plastic. Whatever the direction was at launch time, the balloons usually ended up travelling in an easterly direction, some northeast, some east, and some southeast. The balloon that travelled the farthest southeast landed in Kentucky where a young girl wrote that she had witnessed “as your balloon lit in our apple tree,” and wanted to know, “Why are you doin’ this?” This was the typical question when someone wrote back to me. I responded to all the replies with “This is my summer experiment-project to see what will happen with the balloons, and what I can learn.” Balloons that travelled northerly landed in Canada. The furthest reply that I received was from a conservation warden who found a balloon on the side of a lake near Portland, Maine. He sent me a reply on official stationery. Most of the replies came from New York or Pennsylvania. If the person told me when the balloon landed, I was able to compute an average speed at which it travelled in miles per hour, which was typically about 30 miles per hour.

For me, my brothers, and my parents, it was exciting to see if any postcards arrived in the mail each day. Even our neighbors, who got ‘wind’ of the project, wanted to be kept informed. Often my family would come outside to watch the launches. My favorites were the ones when the balloons went straight up into the blue sky and disappeared high overhead. I'd have no inkling as to which way it was headed.

On several of the balloons, I had attached six-foot strips of aluminum foil, and imagined these being picked up by radar, and wondered what might happen if that occurred. However, the Air Force never came knocking at my door. Several times, on a calm night, as a daring amusement for an audience of the neighborhood kids, and unbeknownst to my parents, I launched balloons with a lit-and-timed fuse attached, instead of a postcard. We watched as the spark below the balloon rose into the air and disappeared. Then soon after we got to see the flames of a silent ball of burning gases high overhead.

All this was the delightful experimentation of a curious seventeen-year-old student who was majoring in Aeronautics at Cass Technical High School. When school started that September, I had some interesting stories to share with my friends and teachers!

-Sydney Cash

The following letters are from people that found the balloons: