Strat The Bat’s Big Adventure

I’ve been a high altitude balloonist for about 6 years, but a fan of Jim Steinman’s music since Bat Out Of Hell hit the world in 1977.  The latter has had something of a renaissance lately with the musical version previewing in Manchester, and soon to open at The Coliseum in London.  I saw the show on opening night and it blew me away about as much as Meat and Karla did on The Old Grey Whistle Test back when I was barely 17!

Those who know me know that I like puns, and I found an obvious one in the name of the musical’s lead character – Strat.  So I figured that somehow I should send Strat into the Stratosphere – a joke that I’ve been milking since I thought of it a few weeks ago.  The actual Strat would need a very large balloon to enter the stratosphere, and would probably die more permanently than he does in the show, so I decided instead to send a little foam bat:

that I bought in Paris at another musical with Jim Steinman’s music – Tanz der Vampire.

So, how to send the little critter (now renamed as Strat) up into the stratosphere?  Well, the sending-up part is really easy – get a weather balloon, fill with hydrogen, attach bat to balloon and let go – the balloon goes up, getting gradually larger in the rarified air as it rises, and eventually gets as large as it can before bursting, at which point everything heads Earthward very very quickly.  A parachute is needed to slow the flight down as the air gets thicker at lower altitudes, with the payload (bat) hopefully landing safely in a field somewhere.  I wanted to have a video of Strat’s flight, so I glued him on to a short rod for positioning in front of the camera:

That “somewhere” is planned in advance using wind prediction software, but the actual flight could land a few miles from the target so it needs to be tracked.  For that, the payload carries a GPS device so it knows where it is, a radio transmitter to relay that position down to the ground, and a small computer board that glues those components together and adds various functions such as providing a live prediction of where the landing might be, and adding photographs from a tiny camera.  I added a video camera to take a continuous video of the entire flight, and some extra trackers I was testing.  This is the entire payload including batteries and foam boxes to protect the contents and whatever it all lands on.

And here I’m testing the view on the camera:
The total weight was 550g, which is about average, and I chose a 500g balloon which was calculated to send the flight up to about 30km which is plenty high enough to get good pictures.  I have no photographs of the launch (I didn’t have any help) but it was easy enough.

The flight was expected to take about 2.5 hours, with a landing near Glastonbury about 2 hours away, so I set off in the chase car (fully equipped with radio tracking kit and other items – more on those later).  Here’s the entire flight path that it actually took (and was very close to the prediction):

You may be used to the view from 30,000 feet or so, where commercial jets fly, but that’s just the top of the Troposphere.  Above that is the Stratosphere, where the sky becomes increasingly black (because there’s almost no atmosphere above).  Weather balloons can, depending on payload weight and balloon size, get well above 100,000 feet, well above any jet commercial or military, and to get any higher requires a large rocket.  This photo is from early in the flight, still with a blue sky:

and this is later, where the sky has gone black:

and you can see the thin blue line of the atmosphere on the horizon.

Meanwhile, the video camera was recording Strat’s flight.  Here’s the launch (from the field behind my house):

Strat Bat in the Stratosphere:

and Strat Bat about to leave the Stratosphere …

Initial descent is typically up to about 200mph in the very thin air (about 1% as dense as it is at ground level), then the parachute automatically opens and slows the flight down, so it lands at a nice gentle 10mph.

Well, I say “land”, and that’s always the aim, but unfortunately for us high-altitude balloonists, the UK has a rather high population of trees.  So this is what actually happened:

One of the extra things I had programmed for this flight was for the tracker to live stream video once it was low enough to get a 3G signal, which it did.  When I saw the video come up on my phone in the chase car, it was pretty obvious that the payload was swinging around in a tree!  I was about half a mile away at the time, thanks to the live telemetry telling me where the payload was throughout the flight, so I soon arrived at the “landing” site.  This was next to a building site, so I checked with the site foreman and got permission to walk over to where the payload was hanging:

If you look at the very top of the tree, you’ll see a lime green and orange parachute.  That’s quite high up – about 17 metres – but fortunately I used about 10 metres of line down from the parachute to the payload:

Also fortunately, I’d packed some long telescopic poles in the car.  One of those has a hook taped to the end, and once I’d hooked that round the payload line it was pretty easy to pull the lot out of the tree:

Here’s Strat looking none the worse for his journey:

So, payload including Strat The Bat all recovered intact, despite the attentions of a fairly tall tree.  I waited till I got home before I checked the video, but as you can see that worked too :-).

I went up to Manchester for the final 2 shows, with a seat near the front of the stalls for the final performance.  Here’s Strat The Bat at the interval, covered in blood group A4 from the motorcycle crash at the end of Act 1:

and then, at stage door after that final show, came the chance to hand the much-travelled Strat to Andrew Polec (who plays Strat in the musical):

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One Response to Strat The Bat’s Big Adventure

  1. Micah Beck says:

    Hey Dave,
    I’m a high school student planning to do a HAB launch. I can’t necessarily afford a radio system to communicate with my balloon, but I already do have a Raspberry Pi B+ and a Midland two-way radio, and I’ll be using an old android phone for GPS. I wrote an android program that logs GPS coordinates every few minutes to a text file. I thought the Raspberry Pi could take the GPS data, along with data from sensors, and transmit it through the mic port of the two-way radio, through audio signals (maybe using These would be received back at home base and translated back into text. Since the radios have around a 20-mile range, I figure it’d be able to transmit for a pretty good portion of the flight; we would then just have to drive to the predicted landing point in hopes of keeping a signal and being within 20 miles. Does this seem practical?

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