Bon Voyage

Checking in with the Spirit of Knoxville IV's travels

On March 10, at 10:45 p.m., the UT Amateur Radio Club (UTARC) launched their fourth trans-Atlantic weather balloon from Downtown Island Airport. UTARC's third attempt, which took flight back in January, flew within 500 miles of Newfoundland before splashdown. [See our Feb. 7 cover story, "Cross the Atlantic!"]

A successful trans-Atlantic flight has never been pulled off by amateur balloonists. This latest attempt, dubbed "Spirit of Knoxville (SNOX) IV," was in the air for nearly 40 hours and traveled 3,300 miles, before it settled into the Atlantic a few hundred miles off the coast of Ireland. UTARC smashed all existing distance records, according to Ralph Wallio of the Iowa-based WØRPK, the official record keeper for amateur ballooning.

"Aggravating," says Dan Bowen, the project's coordinator. "On the first night of the flight, the balloon was losing too much helium…. We spent all night fighting altitude."

About 30 hours into the flight, the balloon had descended to about 2,000 feet above the ocean. Luck, it seemed, was on their side—when the sun came out the next day, the balloon's remaining helium was heated, and there was just enough lift left to get SNOX IV into the high-speed winds of the jet stream. It flew a few hundred more miles before descending, as Bowen explains, into "its watery grave."

Construction has already begun on SNOX V. "We need to build this one extremely quickly," Bowen goes on, "because the season is coming to an end."

The jet stream consists of high-altitude, narrow paths of wind that typically run at 100 to 200 mph. For amateur balloonists, the jet stream's only good for crossing the ocean during wintertime, from December through March.

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