A balloon, a weather report and a broken foot

Funny ballons
Funny ballons

This is another adventure I experienced because of the International Air Traffic Control Net!

It was September 1984. In the aviation world an interesting and exciting project was under way.
Joe W. Kittinger, the guy who had broken the record of the highest free fall from a balloon raising into the stratosphere (the Excelsior III, at altitude 102,800 feet/31,300 m on August 16,1960) was on its way again. This time he wanted to cross the Atlantic Ocean as the first solo aviator in a balloon.

Those aviation adventures usually were discussed or even covered in the I-ATC Net. Ernie, W1BFA, had good connections and kept all of the net-gang well informed. On many of those adventures even the participants were ham-radio operators and would eventually join in to the net.

On September 18 I came home from early-shift, and as often before lunch I switched on my radio to see or rather hear what was happening on the I-ATC Net frequency. Ernie was on, off course, and I heard him talk to N4HDP, which was Joe Kittinger in his balloon! Wow!! But – I could not hear Joe. He had already crossed the Atlantic Ocean and was still flying his balloon somewhere south of the Alps in northern Italy. Apparently he was trying to set a new record!

It is very common on the picky lady shortwave that you can hear someone from far away, Ernie in Maine in this case, but you cannot hear someone nearby. From my location to Joe’s balloon it was only 300 miles or so, too short a distance for the radio-waves to be bounced back to earth. What a pity, how exciting if I could have talked directly to him!

But then – Ernie called around telling everyone on the net that Joe had wanted a current weather report and forecast of the area ahead of him. The weather seemed critical, and he wondered whether he should finally land his balloon. The closest aviation facility for him seemed to be Genoa airport.

There seemed nobody to be able to fetch that weather report. But – at my work it would be possible to get that report within a blink of the eye! The Söllingen Sector only needed to call the Zurich guys and ask them about a current report! Gosh – I got on the phone and called my work.

A telephone call into the control room always is answered by the active watch-supervisor, which happened to be Paule. Paule was well known and dreaded for his light temper, which he lost regularly when things out of the ordinary happened. When I identified myself and asked him to tell the colleagues on the Söllingen Sector to get a Genoa weather, for sure he lost his temper: “What the hell you need that weather for, you are off duty!!” I patiently tried to explain to him, and luckly he didn’t say nothing further, but did as I asked him to. A few minutes later he spelled the weather report to me on the phone. These reports are written in an international abbreviated code called METAR, which every aviator can read and understand, we had to learn this code amongst other things during our theoretical training at the ATC school. So it was not difficult to copy it down.

After thanking Paule for his “tremendous help” I got on the shortwave and spelled the report over to Ernie in Maine. Ernie then repeated the report back on the air, so Joe in his balloon could copy it. Since I couldn’t hear Joe, he also couldn’t hear me! The report said that there were numerous thunderstorms reported and forecasted in the Genoa area. So Joe didn’t think about it for a long time, but decided to end his record flight and put the balloon down, since a continuation of the flight into a thunderstorm was too dangerous. Eventually Ernie lost contact with him, with the balloon being too low during the final phase before landing, and also because Joe was too busy with the landing to continue blabbering on our net!

Later on I learned from the News that the balloon had landed successfully, but it was a hard landing in rough terrain! Joe had broken a foot during landing! I surely felt bad about it, was my weather report the cause of the broken foot???

But in the long run I suppose it was good that he put her down. Thunderstorms, you just don’t mess with them. And – after a while, I got a nice QSL-card from Joe confirming our contact we had via Ernie!

QSL card N4HDP
Danke für den Wetterbericht

A-A-S, the three Musketeers

Aviation serverance
Aviation serverance

The title of this story must seem like a puzzle. It will be solved as the story progresses.

It was the early 80’s. I was working as a radar-controller at Karlsruhe UAC, better known to the aviation world as Rhein Control. In my free time, besides caring for my wife and home, I had several hobbies, one of them was amateur radio.

I was licensed since 1979, known to the radio world as DF6OM. It was fun to sit in front of the radio being able to talk to people all over the world. This was a long time before cell phones, computers, internet, chat-rooms, email, facebook and all of those gimmicks. Especially fun was joining a daily meeting called “International Air Traffic Control Net”. This was a group of people either involved with ATC or other parts of aviation, like pilots, aviation technicians, any individual with some connection or interest to the aviation world. This group had been started by Ernie, W1BFA, a retired watch supervisor of an ATC unit in Maine. Ernie got up very early every morning and started calling on 14.277 Mhz, and eventually a group of 5, 6 or 7 people joined in and chatted about all kinds of matters, mostly connected with aviation. Of those people one might sit in Maastricht, another one at Algiers airport, another one in the center of England and so forth. I joined the group as often as I could, it was much fun. Ernie has passed away by now, but the I-ATC Net is still active, meeting every day at 12:00 UTC, now on 14.279 Mhz.

One day, after early-shift, I got home, and since lunch was not ready yet, I switched on my radio which I had left sitting on the I-ATC Net frequency. I immediately noticed that there was turmoil on that frequency. Ernie was there, so was Kamel, 7X2BK, the friend from Algiers, and a few others. They were constantly shouting “cq Japan, cq Japan”, which meant they wanted to have contact with some station from Japan. But – no Japanese amateur station seemed to hear them. Now – the shortwave is a very picky lady, sometimes she is in a good mood, other times she is not. That means, sometimes you can talk to the whole world with a wet thumb as your antenna, and sometimes it is very difficult to reach some areas. That is because of the laws of propagation, which depends mostly on the sun’s activity, the time of day and year, the weather and other factors. These factors create the reflection layers in the atmosphere which will bounce your radio-waves back to earth a long distance away from your location.

But what in the world was going on there now? I listened in for a while, finally by catching some of the conversation in between cq calls. They wanted to have contact to a Japanese station because they were searching for a very special medicine, which seemed to be produced only in Japan. Apparently there had been an accident to a young girl in Yugoslavia, she must have badly hurt her spinal bone and must have fallen short of disrupting her spinal chord. This medicine was a stimulant for growth and regrowth of nerve tissue, so they badly needed it there. A friend of this girls family was an amateur radio operator, or ham, as we say, and he knew about the I-ATC Net and asked them to help. So they had found out the name of the medicine, and also that it was manufactured and available only in Japan.

The shortwave kept on being picky at that time, no one in Japan heard the desperate calls. Once or twice the name of the medicine was stated (which I have forgotten in the meantime). It sounded like a familiar name of a medicine you hear every now and then. So I got curious. We have an international drugstore in Karlsruhe, so I got on the telephone and called them. I got a nice lady on the phone, I explained to her who I was, what I was doing and what I heard on shortwave. I gave her the name of the medicine and asked whether she knew anything about it. She took a while and then came back and said “Sir, we happen to have one package of this stuff right here in our store. It has been ordered by a medical professor for studies, but has not been picked up yet!”

I got very excited when I heard this. I asked her if this would be available for a good purpose, and she said yes, if I would be able to provide an official confirmation that this medicine was needed for an international emergency.

So here I was. What should I do now? Well – first I had to break in to the I-ATC Net to let them know that I located that medicine right here in the center of Europe. The fellows were still shouting and griping out their “cq Japan”. In a transmission pause I keyed my mike, stated “Break break”, thereafter identified myself. When Kamel, who seemed to handle the communication this day since Ernie was so weak, handed me back the mike, I informed them about what I had found out. Immediately everyone got very excited too, they urged me to get the medicine as soon as possible. I assured them I would try everything I could and I would call back.

So here I was again. Now what? There were two problems: Getting an official confirmation, and figuring out a way to get the medicine to Yugoslavia as quickly as possible. How to approach that problem? First – I got on the phone again and called the lady at the drugstore in Karlsruhe. She promised to hold the medicine, she said that it had been sitting waiting for that professor for a while anyway, and she could order another pack from Japan and it wouldn’t make a difference if that professor had to wait a bit longer. I promised I would provide the confirmation needed.

By that time I had forgotten lunch! My wife Maria was in the room with me, all excited too and listening and watching how things progressed. I now had to think – what will be next? I decided to call the fire department respectively their rescue squad. So I did.

What then happened was very frustrating. Their first question: “Who are you anyway?” The next statement: “Well, this could be anyone pretending a story like that!” After long and exhausting explanations – amateur radio, I-ATC Net, international medical emergency, need for a medicine, confirmation and information about transportation possibilities, their reaction was: “This is not within our responsibility, call the police!” So I did.

What then happened was very frustrating. Their first question: “Who are you anyway?” The next statement: “Well, this could be anyone …” – I think I just have written that! But it was exactly like the previous paragraph, their last statement: “… not responsible, call the Red Cross!” So I did.

What then happened was very frustrating. Their first question: “Who are you …?” … … “not responsible, call the fire department!” I was ready to pull my hair out.

In the meantime my radio was blaring since the others on the air kept calling for me wanting to know how things were coming along. I felt this whole thing was slowly slipping out of my hands! So I got on the local vhf frequency and called, wanting to know if anyone of my local amateur radio club, which is called A36, was on the air. Fortunately it was the case. I asked them whether they could help me with this case and take care of the shortwave traffic for me, while I would continue trying to get anything going on the telephone. So they did, and it took some load off my back.

Next try on the telephone was Lufthansa Airlines. After the original question “… who are you anyway …” they at least listened to the story, but then were of not much help either. They told me I could ship that package as VIC (very important cargo), but that would be connected with costs of at least DM500 at that time, about $250! I would have to bring the package to the airport in Frankfurt myself and deliver it personally with address of the recipient at the cargo terminal. So this was not very encouraging either. Now what???

Finally, I got the idea to call my work. There I got Hans on the phone, who happened to be the active watch-supervisor at that time, and who also was the boss of my own shift team. He patiently listened to my story and then told me: “Now sit down and watch the phone, but don’t do anything else. I will see what I can do to help. I will call you back as soon as possible.” So I did.

It took about half an hour, during that time I joined in on shortwave and told the group that something might be going on, but we needed to be patient. Finally the phone rang again and Hans was on. He told me: “Now you get in your car and go to the drugstore in Karlsruhe and get the package. The lady is informed. You take it home. You are off duty tomorrow, but you get up early and drive to Frankfurt airport. Be there at 6:30 am. Get to Lufthansa crew dispatch. Have them take the package and deliver it to Captain soandso. Be sure to get a receipt for this. Have the Captain, who will be on a flight to Belgrade in the morning, take the package with him and deliver it to an individual you will have to coordinate yet with your shortwave friends. Have him get a receipt too. Go home then and rest, and tell me how things went during your next shift!” I was stunned!

So I did as he told me. I called on shortwave and informed the group about this. They gave me a name of a person who would be at the airport in Belgrade. Then I went to Karlsruhe, the Lady in fact gave me the package. I had to pay for it, I don’t remember what it was, but it might have been $50 or so. Next morning I was in Frankfurt and delivered the package as told. And it eventually reached Belgrade and the girl.

What had happened? Well Hans, being the active watch-supervisor of Rhein Control that day, had called SAR Center and told them about that story. SAR in turn had then called Lufthansa Airlines and ORDERED them to follow along with the described procedure. When SAR calls, apparently everyone says “Yes Sir!!”. SAR also called the drugstore and later provided the confirmation. So all over sudden everything went like greased.

Our local amateur radio club sponsored the costs for the medicine. And some time later we received a thank you letter from that girl with a picture, who eventually recovered from her injuries.

And now the puzzle is solved, who the three musketeers were: A A S = ATC, Amateur Radio and SAR!