Monday, November 03, 2014

Settle's Stratosphere Balloon Broadcasts

I rarely get to describe anyone as an "experienced balloonist."  But Colonel Thomas G.W. Settle was certainly a experienced balloonist, and in 1933 he set a world record for altitude.  This was back in an era when that kind of accomplishment won you trophies. He won the won the Litchfield Trophy, the International Gordon Bennett Race, the Harmon Aeronaut Trophy, and the FAI Henri de la Vaulx medal to name a few.  Balloon races are few these days. But Settle can also claim a radio first that is easily ignored among his intrepid ballooning. More here.

In 1933 NBC relayed broadcasts direct from then Lieutenant Settle's stratosphere balloon during its ascent. This was the first radio broadcast from the stratosphere. The story began in 1932. The board of the Century of Progress International Exposition invited a renowned balloonist, Auguste Piccard to perform a high-altitude flight. He declined and tried to get his brother Jean to substitute. But Jean didn't have a license. They invited Settle to pilot the balloon to get around the problem. Third choice is the charm. It was only after the maiden flight failed that a second man was added to the crew. More here.

Dangling 60 feet below the gondola was the re­ceiver antenna. Suspended above the gondola in the rigging below the zeppelin (aka gas bag) was the aerial for the 3-watt radio transmitter. It's call letters were W9XZ. All the hardware was comped: Dow Chemical donated the gondola, the Zeppelin from Goodyear, and  the hydrogen was donated by Union Carbide. They made a first attempt and failed. The Marine Corps recommended Major Chester Fordney, to join Settle as instrument operator. Professor Arthur Holly Compton,  the scientific director of the flight, was to remain on the ground.the book The Eagle Aloft by Tom Crouch covers this in detail.

On November 20th they took off. The lift-off only had a few hundred spectators but the network radio coverage provided a lot more publicity. They remained in the stratosphere for about 2 hours then started their descent. Initially they lost altitude too quickly and dumped ballast... including the radio batteries. That was a bit of a problem when they needed to call for help. They landed in a swamp in Bridgeton, NJ.  Fordney and Settle landed in the dark and spent the night in the gondola cold and damp. In the morning Fordney waded five miles to dry land. The NJ State Police had to rescue them; a minor indignity for an accomplished balloonist.