Aviation Puts the Awesome in Sixth Grade Science


Sixth grade was rough for me.  I was 5’4” and clumsy, I read a lot of Heinlein, and I was much more comfortable around adults than my age peers.  I remember spending a lot of time wishing that there was some way that I could really impress the other kids with the deep thoughts that I was thinking.  But, alas, I never managed to do that.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago.  My son is now in sixth grade.  Thankfully, he’s much better adjusted than I was and at least as smart.  But he also longs for ways to demonstrate to his peers the awesomeness of the thoughts he thinks.  He arrived home one day and announced that he was to be “scientist of the week” in his science class.  He was supposed to do a science experiment and report on it in class.  He and I thought for awhile and hatched a plan.

On that Tuesday, the skies were clear and visibility was unlimited.  I met him at the doors of his school as classes let out in the afternoon.  I wore my flight suit.  (Because, of course, it’s always good for your classmates to hear that your dad met you at the door wearing a flight suit.)  We drove to the airport, preflighted a TG-7A motorglider, loaded our scientific instruments and implements of destruction into the aircraft, and launched for a piece of airspace out between Detroit City Airport (KDET) and Selfridge ANGB (KMTC).

FOD Experiment Posing

The idea was to take two balloons to 10,000 ft. MSL.  One out in the unpressurized cockpit and one sealed in a mason jar as a control.  We’d observe the experimental balloon every 1,000 feet or so and then measure it 10,000 feet.  We could also visually compare it to the control balloon in the jar.

I’m working on my CFI in gliders and,  if I have someone else in the aircraft (other than when I’m flying formation), I take the instructor seat on the left and the other person takes the primary pilot seat on the right.  (Air Force doctrine calls for the stick to be in the right hand and the power in the left and, because there’s only one throttle and it’s in the center, the PIC sits on the right side in the TG-7A.)  This means that I can let my son do most of the flying from right after takeoff until just before landing.  I get practice flying from the left seat while also honing my instructor skills while he flies.

I gave him the controls just after rotation and we flew north of the field and began to climb.  He circled up and I held up the balloon(s) for the camera, along with note cards with the altitudes on them.  At 10,000 MSL, I did the measurement, and then we pulled the throttle and circled back down and landed.

FOD Experiment Measurements

The experimental balloon didn’t grow as much as we thought it would.  We actually worried about that.  There was no apparent difference between the experimental and control balloons if you just eyeballed them.  But, when we measured, we found that the circumference did expand from 25.5 cm to 29 cm.  Assuming that the balloon is spherical (close enough), that’s a 41% growth in volume.  After (not before!) doing the calculations, we compared our results to the actual difference in atmospheric pressure for a standard atmosphere and found that the balloon’s expansion was within 2% of the 43% drop in atmospheric pressure in a standard atmosphere.


We did a PowerPoint presentation summarizing the experiment and he delivered it for the class on Friday.  It went over extremely well.  The teacher even called in the other science teacher to watch once the first slide with an aircraft on it popped up and made it apparent that the presentation was going to be special.

Lessons learned (among many others):

(a) It’s okay to have preconceptions about what will happen, but be objective about your data-taking and accept the data.  The best scientists know that it would be even cooler if the experiment had yielded results different from what you expected.  Isaac Asimov put it well:  “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny . . .’”

(b)  Aviation captures imaginations.  The presentation made a huge impression in the class.  It held the class’s attention and even drew in the other teacher.  Every kid in the room understood the results.

(c)  You can become a legend at your school if you present photographic evidence that, at the age of 11, you flew a TG-7A nearly two miles high and back.

FOD and I will surely come up with additional excuses to incorporate aviation into his homework.  And, in the meantime, we’re spending lots of time flying for flying’s sake.  It’s nice having 100 lbs of willing student in the right seat so that I can sit left seat and practice my instructor thing for my CFI certificate.


Balloon Flight with Dale Wilson in Seventh Heaven

I didn’t expect to get up in a balloon today. Or this year, for that matter (or at least not during this particular year’s iteration of the Battle Creek Field of Flight Airshow and Balloon Festival). After all, I had a spectacular experience with Dave Emmert four years ago or so. But, then, again, the show was audio-only at that point and now I travel around with something like five HD video cameras and am getting a little better every day at editing video and making video episodes.

So I showed up this morning bleary-eyed with about two hours of sleep under my belt, intending to say hello at the media center, shoot a few pictures to back an arrival blog post, and then go sleep in the parking lot of a Starbucks for a few hours.

But, through a happy twist of chance, Dale Williams had an open slot for a flight in his balloon, Seventh Heaven (N7252W, a Firefly AX7 with about 76,000 cubic feet of envelope volume). Might I be interested? Do bears dookie in the woods? Heck, yeah!

I met Dale and his happy band of balloon chasers just outside the gate and we headed off to Emmett Township, south and east of the airport. This was a three-point target exercise where we’d launch wherever we wanted at least 2,500 meters away from the first target and then try to drop streamers on each of the three targets.

It turns out that Dale and Dave Emmert are friends and, the more I think about it, I seem to recall Dave talking about Dale during the recording of the prior episode. In any case, Dave was there on hand as we tried to figure out where would be best to launch Seventh Heaven. As before, this involves some science, some magic, some consent by landowners, some hemming, some hawing, and some BS. Various groups released small helium balloons (called “pieballs”) to try to obtain a near-realtime guess about the winds. Our group was no different and we released one and then watched it intensely.

There seemed to be consensus about where the ideal launch point would be, given the winds aloft. Many of the teams ended up along the same stretch of road where we were.

Then came the process of attempting to obtain permission from the landowners to launch from their fields and/or yards. Imagine someone knocking on your door at 0700 on a Friday and a asking permission to grow a 76,000 cubic-foot multicolored bubble on your lawn. We actually knocked on the door of the house in front of which we stopped. No answer.

I’m still surprised at the spaces in which balloon pilots will launch. The yard looked small to me, but these guys were talking about whether they could get two balloons up from the space.

I got a kick out of one team that launched before we did. They set up in someone’s front yard and the balloon actually required a lane of the road to fully inflate.

We obtained permission to launch from a recently-mown field and we were in the second wave of balloons to do so. It begins with a gasoline-powered fan to inflate the envelope (the bag that most of us think of as the “balloon”), Then you begin blasting away with a 2 million (yeah, that’s million) BTU burner and the envelope stands up pretty rapidly and is ready to fly.

I climbed in and off we went.

We spent a lot of time around 1,400 feet AGL, which is where the winds that we wanted seemed to be. Balloonists “steer” by changing altitude. As nearly as I can tell, the ideal situation for a balloonist is two wind currents at roughly 90 degrees to one another. You let the higher one push you along and then you descent into the lower transverse one (at the right moment, by the way) to hook around to the target before ascending into the higher one again to set up for the next target.

Dale prefers to be closer to the treetops. I agree with him. It’s really amazing just cruising along less than 100 feet off the canopy of trees. As I alluded earlier, this is going to be primarily a video episode and you’ll definitely get a sense of the drift from the video. Maybe mot Will Hawkins quality, but it should be pretty good.

We essentially missed the first target, but scored on the second. The third proved to be out of reach, so we began looking for a place to land.

We found it in the form of a residence off to our left. If the places in which balloonists launch surprise me, the places at which they land amaze me. But, then again, I suppose that someone brand new to airplane flight might be surprised that I can put an airplane down reliably on a runway that’s 75 feet wide. It’s all in the experience.

Dale deftly maneuvered the balloon onto the back yard of the residence. We missed the power lines, the ornamental shrubs, and everything else. A couple of bounces and we were on the ground.

You leave the balloon standing up until the crew gets there. There are several reasons for this. First, your footprint is pretty small. Second, your crew can wrangle the balloon to the ground relieving you of most of the worry about dropping the balloon onto something like the ornamental shrubs. (Or the dog. Yes, there was a dog. Or, rather, a horse shaped like a German Shepherd. Named Ozzie.) And, if there are obstructions between where the balloon is and the chase vehicle, you can just lay on the burner until the balloon is neutrally-buoyant and you can have the crew walk the balloon over fences and other stuff to reach a more suitable place to deflate it.

It turns out that we weren’t even the first balloon to set down in this yard. I guess it’s just something that comes with owning a house near Battle Creek. Ballooning is more intensive here than in most other similarly-situated geographies and the balloon festival and airshow brings in competitors and fun fliers from all other the region. Not the worst thing to have come out of the sky every once in awhile.

And, in fact, the people to whom we talked from the balloon (yeah, you can do that) seemed un-fazed by the balloon floating less than 100 feet above their heads. I even had a casual conversation with a lady in her driveway about how she could e-mail me and I’d send her the picture that I had just shot of her and her house. I got her e-mail a couple of hours later and I e-mailed her a couple of pictures in the middle of writing this post.

I have some video editing and production to do, but this ought to make for a good episode. I’m looking forward to putting it out.