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Kevin Schmidt: High Hopes

It is very cold in Edmonton on February 11, the day Kevin Schmidt plans to launch a weather balloon carrying a homemade 4-by-5 camera that will take one photograph from the stratosphere and fall to earth. In the cab of his truck, the heater is going full blast, but our breath is hanging in the air. At 8:30 a.m., we are headed for Sherwood Park, 20 minutes away, and the home of Barry Sloan, whose bungalow stands out on the residential street for the large tower holding several radio antennas on its roof. The question is, will it work?

The number of variables in Schmidt’s project is staggering. Will the weather remain stable? Will the balloon launch without a hitch? Will the camera shutter release? And if it does, will the camera be pointed in the right direction to get the picture? Will the GPS work? When the balloon reaches maximum altitude and bursts, will the payload be recoverable wherever it lands? Will the APRS (Automatic Position Reporting System) tracking devices transmit its location? Last night, Schmidt had tested how the camera would react to the cold by putting it outside into the -23°C weather for 15 minutes. When he brought it back inside, the shutter would not release. The plastic gears on the motorized arm designed to trigger it jammed.

This is in many ways a one-shot deal, and a lot of time, energy and ingenuity are riding on it. But in the true spirit of “if at first you don’t succeed,” the camera—which is made of Styrofoam and duct tape and fitted with a 150-mm Linhof lens and a 4-inch-by-5-inch film holder—and all the gadgets attached to it will be sent up again if they are not damaged during the ascent, or destroyed or lost on the descent and landing.

Barry Sloan, his son Garrett Sloan and his friend James Ewan are amateur radio operators who have considerable expertise. During the past 12 years, they have launched 21 balloon flights. This flight is named BEAR-9, an acronym for Balloon Experiments with Amateur Radio, one in a series of named flights they have undertaken with different people for a variety of reasons. Schmidt, who found Barry Sloan on the Internet, is their first artist. If he is anxious about today’s outcome, he is not showing it.

Even before the photograph is taken, the 39-year-old Vancouver artist knows roughly what it will look like. It will show the curvature of the earth, the thin, vivid blue, curve-hugging layer of its atmosphere, the blackness of space beyond, and the surface of the clouds or the earth and water below (or a mixture of the two, if there is broken cloud cover). It will look something like the spectacular photograph on Barry Sloan’s BEAR website homepage at The Internet is where most people encounter such images, and they are often digital, thin in detail, have shallow depth of field and are limited to the size of a screen.

Schmidt intends to project his 4-by-5 transparency and enlarge it to floor-to-ceiling height. A viewer standing between the projector and the image will become part of the aerial scene as a silhouette, evoking Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), in the Kunsthalle Hamburg. Friedrich’s lone, frock-coated figure stands as if on a mountaintop, looking down into a cloud-like fog from which other rocky peaks emerge. Schmidt’s viewers will look from a far greater height into an image that can offer the illusion of entry into the rarefied world of the picture, which 19th-century photographs of the American West, by photographers like Carleton Watkins, do in pictures made from mammoth plates or large-format glass negatives. Schmidt’s work often contains images of fog or mist and vast expanses of white, and it frequently requires a complicated, even arduous, behind-the-scenes setup to realize.

The hustle and bustle in Barry Sloan’s gear-packed basement on Saturday defines the word “busy”—the tinkering, adjusting, loading, packing and rigging. In fact, the whole process behind getting the one shot—the resident experts, Sloan and team, and even this report—are all part and parcel of the new work, which Schmidt tentatively calls Final Frontier. Five adults crowd the basement workshop’s narrow aisles, but each respects the other’s space. The Sloans and Ewan talk constantly, conferring, kidding with each other, kibitzing about other flights. Every so often, we line up three deep to take a photograph of some aspect of the process.

Schmidt has presented Barry, who reminds me of a shaggy version of the actor Barry Fitzgerald, with the problem of the malfunctioning shutter release. He gets to it immediately, head bent over tiny electronic parts, big fingers bringing the pieces up close to his eyeglasses. It might be the grease on the gears in the motor that gets thicker in the cold and clogs them. No? He attaches a different motor. To test it, he and Schmidt put the camera in the deep freeze among loaves of frozen bread, cream puffs and Mr. Freeze ice pops. It works on the second try.

Hand a problem to Barry Sloan and he is a happy man. But everyone in the basement is happy. They all love this. Schmidt has given them a new challenge and they joke that he is their guinea pig. For BEAR-9, they are trying out a new kind of weather balloon made in China, a Howee, which they have heard good things about. This is the way they play. Schmidt loads the camera with film, Barry works on the Styrofoam box that holds the camera, Garrett rigs it up to test its balance. Then the entire payload—box, camera, parachute, cutaway, batteries, GoPro video camera, tracking device, and stabilizer sticks (to minimize swinging aloft)—are piled onto a scale to weigh the total. The payload plus the balloon will weigh 2.2 kilograms.

The balloon will burst when it reaches a certain altitude. Now they can calculate the burst point of the balloon and decide on a rate of ascent. Using tables, they predict that the balloon will burst at 35,000 metres. If the shutter is released at 31,000 metres, this should give the balloon another 20 minutes of flight after the photograph is taken. “We want to be on the safe side because he needs a picture,” James says. Schmidt feeds numbers into the computer program for the chip in the camera; the shutter will release when the camera achieves certain conditions. It will be 31,000 metres in the air, level and pointing away from the sun towards the horizon.

“I don’t think I’ve ever done a project where there hasn’t been this last minute scramble,” says Schmidt. But at 2 p.m., when everything is ready to go, it is too late to launch. The window was between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. The airport has to be notified of a flight one hour before launch, the balloon will be in the air for two or three hours, depending on wind currents, and by the time the payload comes down, it will be dark. No one has stopped for lunch. The day has been exhilarating; with the air of the excitement that attends an experiment, but intense and exhausting. The launch is postponed until the following morning.

If Saturday was frigid, sunny and clear, Sunday is warmer and overcast. We arrive at Barry Sloan’s house at 9 a.m. and everyone gets to work. Schmidt reloads the camera and seals it with black duct tape to prevent any light seepage. Barry loads the camera into the box and affixes the GoPro and tracking devices to the outside. The sticks are added just before launch. Garrett tests the tracker to make sure it is communicating with the computer. Tracking for BEAR-9 goes online at 10:10 a.m. This means that, once it is airborne, anyone with the flight’s call letters can follow its progress, and the vehicles chasing it, on an online map.

In fact, as the Sloans make the final preparations on their own payload, they use a laptop to track a flight already underway, launched by the physics department at the University of Alberta. BEAR-9 will be flying approximately the same path as the U of A balloon, and James and Garrett begin to predict where it is most likely to come down. The launch is made outside the house in front of the garage. The balloon and the parachute and their fragile-looking strings are laid out along the driveway and the balloon is partially filled with hydrogen, a dangerous gas but less expensive than increasingly rare helium. When it goes up, the latex balloon is flaccid but it will continue to inflate until it is about eight metres in diameter. Then it will burst.

James holds on to the tugging balloon and lets it and the string of attachments rise slowly a few feet at a time. When he finally lets go, the last item in the string, a second tracking device encased in Styrofoam, hits the eavestrough on the neighbour’s house as the balloon soars upward and away. It is aloft, with no other mishaps, at 11:03 a.m. We all gaze up at the sky to see it disappear into the low-lying clouds. As Schmidt watches, the smile on his face spreads from ear to ear. Then everyone starts moving towards the vehicles in the driveway. “The chase is on!” Garrett says. “This is my favourite part.” Barry and I ride in his car, which is a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot, he says, equipped with “every kind of power there is.” Schmidt rides in James’ truck. Two friends, who stopped by this morning, jump in their car.

We head east and south of Sherwood Park and drive alongside snowy fields and woodlots, tracking the balloon via a laptop mounted to the right of the steering wheel. All the vehicles communicate by radio. When we get ahead of the balloon, we pull off the highway near the hamlet of New Sarepta, and get out of the vehicles to stretch our legs and wait. While we wait, the U of A balloon reaches burst point. We start the chase again after the tracking website shows that the BEAR-9 balloon has burst at higher than 35,660 metres, breaking a local record and causing Barry great glee. He bobs up and down on the balls of his feet. As a radio operator, he likes to talk to the people who are furthest away; as a balloonist, he strives to reach the highest altitude.

The payload is coming down now. If it were not so cloudy, we would be able to see the green and orange parachute. As we chase it, Barry is staring intently out of the right side of the car, searching the sky. “I see it,” he says excitedly as it breaks through the clouds. Invisible to me, it disappears behind a row of trees. Our caravan turns around on the highway and drives through an open gate onto someone’s property.

The rancher is not at home to give us permission to be on his land to recover the balloon, so we walk down to the barn and find him with his yellow lab, not far away. Sure, he says. The recovery is not difficult. The payload has landed in a pasture. Schmidt and Barry climb over a barbed-wire fence, walk about 35 metres across the snow, and pick up the parachute and camera box. They open the box and lift out its precious cargo on the hood of James’ truck. Schmidt’s face screws into a frown when he sees condensation on the lens, but the shutter has released. He has a photograph.

In a flight that lasted 2 hours and 44 minutes, BEAR-9 covered a distance of 50.2 kilometres and reached a maximum altitude of 36,010 metres. In the post-mortem, a still image from the GoPro taken at 31,000 metres shows what the camera got on film: a lot of cloud cover. Schmidt sends the film to a lab in Vancouver to be developed, and he and the Sloans launch BEAR-10 the next day. This time, the GPS fails and they can’t locate the payload. Someone finds the box and calls Barry Sloan, who always puts his phone number on a label that reads “Harmless amateur radio equipment from a high-altitude balloon experiment,” in case the payload looks threatening. The shutter did not release. But Schmidt and the Sloans are not done yet. BEAR-11 will go up sometime before the end of this year.

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