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Why these siblings are launching balloons during Fourth of July festivities
Ham Radio Balloon 1 070319 web
Audrey McElroy, left, and her brother, Jack, are leading the launch of a pair of balloons with radio equipment from the Cumming Fairgrounds on Thursday, July 4, 2019, during the city of Cumming's July Fourth festivities. (Photo courtesy McElroy family)

Before Independence Day fireworks at the Cumming Fairgrounds, the McElroy family and the Sawnee Amateur Radio Association are planning their own launch as part of the city of Cumming’s Fourth of July festivities.

Once Thursday’s parade through downtown has concluded, siblings Audrey, a rising sophomore at Forsyth Central High School, and Jack, a rising sixth-grader at Otwell Middle School, are leading the launch of a pair of balloons with radio equipment from the fairgrounds.

Know more

Those looking for more information on ham radios can go to SawneeRadio.com or can contact Sawnee Amateur Radio Association President Jim Farmer at president@sawneeradio.com.

The McElroys have already passed the required training and testing to earn an amateur – or ham – radio operator’s license from the Federal Communications Commission and have experience helping their dad, Tom, launch balloons, but this will be the first time the kids are running the show.

“It was intimidating at first thinking, ‘How are we going to get this together? How is this going to work?’’’ Audrey said of the planning process. “Once we got down to it, it wasn’t as much as we thought it would be. We just had to get a few things ironed out, especially with one of the radios we’re using.”

Going up first will be the larger of the two balloons, which measures about 10 feet in diameter. That balloon will be outfitted with a GoPro camera and a solar-powered transmitter to send out information such as GPS coordinates, altitude and temperature.

“The balloon eventually pops. Gas expands so much and it has to give,” Audrey said. “It’s going to fall. We expect it burst about 100,000 feet if nothing goes wrong. It’s going to fall, there will be a parachute, but wherever it falls, it falls. Wherever the wind takes it, it takes it.”

Once the balloon bursts, a team of “balloon chasers” with radio equipment in their cars will track the balloon and help with recovery.

Followers can also type in Jack’s ham radio call sign – KM4ZIA-11 – at www.APRS.fi, and track the balloon on its journey.

“They will see the balloon traveling over the Earth in real time,” Tom said.

After the larger balloon, a smaller one about 3 feet in diameter will launch transmitting Audrey’s call sign, KM4BUN-11. Unlike the larger balloon, the smaller one will only rise to about 60,000 feet but is planned to stay afloat much longer.

“It’s just going to be going up into orbit and hopefully stay up there for two weeks, we’re hoping,” Audrey said. “What it’s going to do – obviously it has solar panels – is transmit a signal every couple of minutes hopefully, if it has the power of the sun.”

Tom said if the balloon catches a jet stream, it “may stay in Georgia, it may go over the Atlantic, it may go to Europe, it may go over Africa.”

For Audrey, the balloon launches provide a hands-on way of using what she has learned during school.

“It’s more fun,” she said. “In school, we’re learning about physics and everything and how things fall and how free body falls, but there’s nothing like launching a balloon and actually being involved in it.

“There’s only so much you can do with a book: you can read about it, you can do the equations, you can read the passages, you can answer the questions, but there is nothing like being truly involved with friends and having a group doing it. It’s very fun.”

She said she hopes launching during the Fourth of July and in such a public place gets youngsters interested in the hobby both she and her father said tends to have an older demographic.

“At this point, it’s kind of dying out, unfortunately,” Audrey said. “Getting youth involved is something that’s vital. High-altitude balloons are fun, and who doesn’t like to launch a huge balloon into the sky? We’re hoping with this we can get kids involved.”

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