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Up, Up and Away! NASA’s Super Pressure Balloon is Hoping to Break Records

Residents in the Southern Hemisphere’s mid-latitudes, such as Argentina and South Africa, may catch a glimpse of a large NASA heavy-lift scientific balloon as it travels around the globe on a potentially record-breaking flight.

NASA is scheduled to launch a heavy-lift super pressure balloon (SPB) as early as March 15 from Wanaka, New Zealand, with the goal of exceeding the current SPB record of 54 days. SPBs have the potential to stay afloat for up to 100 days under the right conditions.

NASA balloons are one of the best-kept secrets in the science community. They provide invaluable science at relatively low cost, and they offer scientists an opportunity to test groundbreaking instruments before they’re considered for free flying spacecraft.

Standard NASA balloons are very large structures, comprised of 10 to 50 acres or more of film that can carry several-ton payloads above 99.5 % of Earth’s atmosphere, above 130,000 feet. Balloon film resembles sandwich bags, but it is of higher quality. Filled with helium and vented to the Atmosphere, these large zero-pressure balloons rise and fall with atmospheric pressure, which changes drastically with the day-night cycle.

The pumpkin-shaped SPB to be tested is made from some 22 acres of material reinforced with load-carrying tendons, and it completely sealed and not vented to the Atmosphere. When fully inflated the balloon’s volume is 92 times greater than that of a typical blimp. Put another way, an entire football stadium could fit inside the balloon.

“The super pressure balloon is a game changer,” said Debbie Fairbrother, chief of NASA’s Balloon Program Office at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and principal investigator for the SPB. “Long duration, mid-latitude balloon flights at stable altitudes will expand the envelope for science and research, spark new technologies, and enable new discoveries.”

While long duration is an important objective for this mission, engineers are more keenly focused on the challenge of maintaining a constant altitude during the flight. Most standard heavy-lift zero pressure balloons can vary in altitudes as great as 45,000 feet due to the alternating warming and cooling of the day and night cycle. In response, flight operators typically release excess weight in the

form of ballast to maintain altitude. However, the SPB is designed to maintain a positive internal pressure in relationship to its environment, which keeps the balloon at a constant float altitude. In much the same way a car tire maintains its pressure despite changes in the environment around it, so does the SPB.

The science and engineering communities have previously identified long duration balloon flights at stable altitudes as playing an important role in providing inexpensive access to the near-space environment for science and technology. This March test is set to validate the SPB technology, which has been under development by NASA for 15 years, according to Fairbrother.

Drifting eastward at a stable float altitude of 110,000 feet carrying a 5,000 pound payload consisting of tracking and communication instruments, NASA expects the SPB to circumnavigate the globe once every one to three weeks, depending on wind speeds in the stratosphere. As the balloon travels around the Earth, it may be visible from the ground, particularly at sunrise and sunset, to those who live in the southern hemisphere’s mid-latitudes. Anyone may track the progress of the flight, which includes a map showing the balloon’s real-time location, at:

NASA’s scientific balloons offer low-cost, near-space access for scientific payloads weighing up to 8,000 pounds for conducting scientific investigations in fields such as astrophysics, heliophysics and atmospheric research.

NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility manages the agency’s scientific balloon program with 10 to 15 flights each year from launch sites worldwide. For more information on the Balloon Program, see:

WOW Tickets on Sale:

A new luxury one day ticket plus a price freeze on pre-purchased General Admission tickets are two features of the ticket offerings for the 2016 Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow.  

Tickets for the world-renowned event go on sale next week (Monday, February 16th) via the WOW website or through TicketDirect

“We are very pleased to be able to announce that the price of pre-purchased General Admission tickets will remain unchanged in 2016. This includes the three-day GA pass and Family GA pass,” said WOW General Manager, Ed Taylor.

“Unfortunately we have been unable to hold all prices and there have been some slight increases in other tickets including Gate Sales. So the message to people who want to come to the airshow is to pre-book their tickets to ensure they get the best price.”

“We are also very excited about our new ticket offering, the Titanium Pass. For a while now we have had people enquiring about having a luxury ticket but just for one day, rather than the three day Gold Pass,” said Mr Taylor.

The Titanium Pass is available for the Saturday and/or the Sunday. These tickets will be limited to 100 per day. Ticket holders will have their own enclosure in the middle of the action with full catering all day and a number of other exclusive offerings.

Mr Taylor said they were expecting the usual rush from Warbirds Over Wanaka enthusiasts to be the first to buy their airshow tickets when they go on sale next week. “Despite the fact that the event is still just over a year away we always get a rush in the first month of ticket sales. There are those people who just have to get their tickets straight away.”

This reflects on the high standing with which Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow is held in aviation circles, said Mr Taylor.

The Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow is being held at Wanaka Airport on March 25th, 26th and 27th next year with the popular Rides Day on March 28th.

New Volunteer Manager

Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow has announced the appointment of a new person to fill one of the most important jobs in the organisation.  

Gill Loughnan volunteered at the 2012 and 2014 Airshows but is now stepping up to the role of Volunteer Manager. She replaces Mo Schofield who tragically died after falling during a tramp near Wanaka late last year.

“The job of Volunteer Manager is crucial to the overall success of the biennial event” Warbirds Over Wanaka General Manager, Ed Taylor, says. “We say it every Airshow but without our 300+ volunteers WOW simply wouldn’t happen. Gill has some big shoes to fill but we are more than confident she will do a fabulous job of making sure we have enough volunteers onboard to make the airshow happen, that they all know what their roles are and she will also ensure that the volunteers have a great experience as well.”

“WOW is a fantastic community event and I am thrilled to be given this opportunity to be involved with, and meet so many people from different walks of life” says Gill.  

There are numerous volunteer roles available at Warbirds Over Wanaka leading up to, during and after the event. Anyone interested in putting their names forward should register on from April 2015.

NASA Balloon launch

Already famous as the home of the Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow, Wanaka Airport is about to experience airborne activity of a new kind.  

The first equipment has started arriving at Wanaka Airport for the March launch of a massive NASA scientific balloon.  Three trailer units carrying nine large helium tanks each are now parked up at the airport (see photo).

Two staff from the NASA Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility are also in Wanaka doing preparation work. Leading up to the launch date that number will have swelled to more than 20 people on the ground.

The March launch will be a test flight for the balloon which once fully inflated is as big as a rugby field and will weigh around 4000kg. It will circumnavigate the earth several times before being brought down by parachute somewhere in South America.

If the test flight is successful then it’s hoped the team will return next year to launch a full scientific mission and then possibly every second year after that. The balloons are capable of carrying four tonnes of scientific equipment to the edge of space and holding it there for more than three months.

The balloon will be used to collect data to help scientists investigate the origins of the universe, what was happening around the time of the big bang as well as the effects of cosmic rays on the atmosphere and finding planets.

The balloon launches are seen as an inexpensive way of getting scientific equipment into space, the cost being up to $2 million each.  March 15th is the launch date. Wind will be the biggest determining factor as to whether the launch goes ahead on that date. 

When the launch happens there will be a 3 kilometre exclusion zone around Wanaka Airport but airport management will be working out a number of good viewing places for the public to witness the event.

Wanaka Airport Manager, Ralph Fegan says the launch will take place early morning so it’s hoped that everything will be back to normal by just after 8am.

Alpine Helilift

Wanaka:  Three Wanaka children had a special treat today (January 30) thanks to the generosity of Alpine Helicopters, the Warbirds and Wheels cafe and funds raised at last year’s Gathering of Geezers dinner.

The Gathering of Geezers is a dinner which honours legends of New Zealand motorsport and funds raised from the event went to the Warbirds Over Wanaka Community Trust and the Upper Clutha Children’s Medical Trust.

One of the items up for auction on the night was a flight for three children and their parents. The flights were donated by Alpine Helicopters – a part of the Alpine Group of companies which was started by Warbirds Over Wanaka founder Sir Tim Wallis. 

Two others at the auction, Andy Wilton from Wanaka and P.G. Knight from Christchurch, also donated money to help make the flights a reality.

Alpine Helicopters took the group up today in two helicopters giving them a fantastic view of the area and made a special landing on Mt Burke where they were able to get out of the machines and enjoy the breath taking views.

They were then treated to morning tea courtesy of the Warbirds and Wheels café.

Catalina at WOW 2016:

Wanaka:  New Zealand’s only airworthy Catalina Flying Boat is set to make a triumphant return from major refurbishment work at next year’s Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow.

ZK-PBY has been a favourite at Wanaka for a number of years, especially when she lands on the lake, but was missing in 2014 because of extensive work to repair the wings and fuselage of the 70-year-old aircraft.

The work has been carried out in Brett Emeny’s hangar in New Plymouth by members of the New Zealand Catalina Preservation Society at a cost of around $250,000. Brett says it’s great to see an end to what has been a major undertaking and the plan is to have the Catalina airborne later in the year.

“We’ve done all the structural work on the wings and fuselage and all that remains are some fabric repairs on these two sections. We’re also taking advantage of some fine weather to work on the tail which is poking out the hangar doors.”

“Then there’s a fair bit of re-assembling work to do and we’ll need to get it weighed and re-certified before we can take her out for a test flight.”

Brett says the plan is to have the Catalina make her first Airshow appearance since the refurbishment began, at Wanaka 2016. It will be the first time the aircraft has displayed at Wanaka since the 2010 event.

Warbirds Over Wanaka Event Manager, Mandy Deans says they’re excited about having ZK-PBY display next Easter and being available for the public to book rides.

“We get regular calls from people asking if the Catalina is going to be at WOW and it’s great to be able to tell people now that yes, subject to final availability, she will be here,” said Mandy.

It’s expected the Catalina will be taking the public on flights during the airshow but also on the Rides Day which will be Monday, March 28th.

“Rides Day gives people the opportunity to enjoy the airshow and then stay on for another day to take a flight in the Catalina and other aircraft,” said Mandy.

Meanwhile, if you would like to help The New Zealand Catalina Preservation Society they are always very grateful for any donations. The Society is a registered Charitable entity allowing donations to be tax deductible. Donations can be made on their website or by post to: The New Zealand Catalina Preservation Society, P. O. Box 72-527, Papakura,  Auckland 2244.