Stratoballoon – Contacting the FAA

I’ll admit it.  The task of calling the FAA to get the official clearance for the stratoballoon launch was one of the most daunting for me.  In the end, though, everyone I talked to did their best to figure out what I needed to do, or who I needed to talk to next – even when I probably wasn’t asking the right questions.

One of the sites we studied – Dave Mullenix’s "Ham Ballooning FAQ or ‘What little I know about ham ballooning’" recommended calling the FAA a month out if this was our first flight.  We needed to start by calling the FAA "Center".  Dave mentioned that if that number wasn’t in the phone book, call the local air traffic control tower, and get it from them.

Well, there wasn’t anything called a "center" in my phone book, so I guess the Kalamazoo Tower would have to do.  I called the number, and expected to talk to someone in the office.

Nope – I got The Tower.  As in, there was a controller in the background talking to a pilot in the air.  Oh jeez, what a way to begin.  I asked for the FAA Center that covered the greater Kalamazoo area.  I knew that our launch site, Mendon, was just on the outskirts of Kalamazoo airspace (according to ), so I figured this was at least a safe starting question.  He gave me three numbers for the Chicago Center (two managers, and a non-manager).

I called there, and eventually spoke with Barbara.  After I explained what we were doing, and where we were launching from, she said that because I was right on the edge of the Chicago Center’s airspace, and that the balloon would probably drift east, I would be better off calling the Cleveland center.  She gave me the name (Lisa) and number of someone in the Airspace and Procedures office.

I called Lisa, and gave her the 30-second rundown of what we were doing.  She asked that I email her the details of the launch, including the flight predictions.  When she got back to me, she said that none of the predictions I included put the balloon into Cleveland airspace – they would all remain within Chicago – and I would have to get their permission for the launch.

So, back to Chicago I went.  When I first spoke with Barbara, the topic of flight predictions never came up.  This time, I explicitly mentioned where the predictions were saying the balloon would land.  She advised that I contact Thomas at Kalamazoo Underlying Approach Control, and gave me the number.

I called Thomas.  I didn’t get him.  The gentleman I spoke with, Mike, said I actually just missed him, and that he would be gone for the next two weeks on vacation.  Oh great.  Mike asked if there was something he could help me with.  I explained to him what I was doing, and that I was referred to Thomas by the Chicago Center.  Mike said that I would need to contact the Lansing Flight Service Station (FSS) to file a "notice to airman", or "NOTAM".  He explained that that is how the Kalamazoo tower would find out about the launch.  Mike also mentioned that I may have to contact the Grand Rapids Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), to verify the procedures.

I started with Lansing FSS.  The briefer I spoke with there gave me the number where I could file the actual NOTAM – something I would have to do 24-48 hours before the launch – but recommended that I contact the Grand Rapids FSDO to confirm the procedures. 

I called Grand Rapids, and eventually spoke with Marc.  Marc confirmed that all I would need as far as permission for the launch was to file the NOTAM.  I’d have to contact the Kalamazoo tower and Landing FSS when we took off, and again when we land.  If I had to cancel the launch, I would need to cancel (and refile) the NOTAM.

Awesome.  We were originally scheduled to launch on a Tuesday, so I called that Monday to file the NOTAM.  Here is the information I had ready.  This list was culled from a couple of different sources, and in my conversations with everyone at the FAA to this point:

  • What are we doing?  We’re launching an unmanned free balloon.
  • When are we launching?  I gave the intended date of the launch.  The time, needed to be in UTC, and in 24-hour format.  We expected to launch at 10am Eastern, which was 2pm – or 1400 – UTC.  Touchdown was predicted for 2.5 hours later, which would be 1630 UTC.
  • Where are we launching from?  I had read a couple of different sources that explained that the FAA doesn’t need the street address of the launch site – they are interested in direction and distance from the VOR (a radio navigation aid for aircraft).  In my case, that was Kalamazoo, and Mendon is roughly southeast of it.  When I went to file my first NOTAM, and the briefer asked me where we were launching from, I said Mendon, roughly 25 miles southeast of Kalamazoo.  When he asked me to confirm the launch site, I thought he said "launching from the 135 RADIO off the Kalamazoo VOR".  I had to ask him to confirm what he just said, because I had no idea what "135 radio" meant.  He said the 135 was the angle from the Kalamazoo Tower, 135 degrees from north, if you were to head clockwise (east was 90 degrees, south was 180 degrees, and west was 270 degrees).  Then it clicked – he said "radial" not "radio".  Yes – we’re launching off of the 135 RADIAL from the Kalamazoo VOR.
  • How high do we expect to go?  We expected to go to 90,000 feet.  Another source I found said that the FAA deals in "flight levels".  10,000 feet was flight level 100.  20,000 feet was flight level 200, and so on.  I said we expected to get to flight level 900.
  • Where did we expect to land?  As it turns out, running predictions on put the balloon further along the 135 radial, so that made that question easy.
  • How large is our payload? I knew the FAA procedures required that my payload be less than 4 pounds, otherwise additional requirements would kick in.  Katherine and I had worked hard to make sure our payload – the capsule, the parachute, the radar reflector, and all of the electronics – fit under this requirement.  This piece of information became crucial in settling a minor debate I had with the guy I was filing the NOTAM with.  He asked if I had already filed a waiver with Kalamazoo.  I explained that I spoke with several people at the FAA, including the Kalamazoo Tower, and no one had mentioned needing a waiver until now.  He was pretty sure I would need a waiver, but put me on hold to look something up.  I waited, anxious to hear what I needed to do to file the waiver, and was beginning to worry that we would have to push the launch back because I didn’t have it.  He came back on and asked how heavy my payload was.  I said "under 4 pounds", figuring he was looking at the FAA regulations for unmanned free balloons.  He replied that I would not need a waiver after all – if my payload was heavier, I would.  Phew!
  • What was our estimated rate of ascent.  Since this our first flight, and this was a one-of-a-kind payload, I had no way to estimate this myself, so I relied on Kaymont (where we got the balloon from).  Their "Near Space Photography” page said that we could expect 270 – 300 meters/min based on the weight and the amount of helium used.

After a few bumps and bruises, then, I got my NOTAM filed.  It came with its own reference number, which I figured I would need to give when I called back (and I did).

Then Tuesday came, and thunderstorms with it.  So I called the Lansing FSS and the Kalamazoo tower to cancel the NOTAM.  I re-filed it (much more quickly this time) for Wednesday.

Wednesday came, and other than some fog that was predicted to burn off by 9am, things looked good.  We headed out, got everything set up, and ended launching about 10:15 that morning.  I called the Lansing FSS and Kalamazoo tower to let them know that we just lifted off, then again when we were sure it had landed (and that was based on extrapolation of how fast it was falling, and our last confirmed radio contact). 

Lots of phone tag and trading voicemails, and a couple of wrong turns, but other than that talking with the FAA proved to be a lot less daunting than I thought it would be.