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Want an offbeat winter sport? Launch a weather balloon

Shorewood man captures images from 'near space'

A  jet soars past John Flaig's high-altitude weather balloon over Wisconsin. Flaig estimates a balloon can be launched for about $700.

A jet soars past John Flaig's high-altitude weather balloon over Wisconsin. Flaig estimates a balloon can be launched for about $700. Photo By John Flaig

Dec. 26, 2012

Many of us have seen Lake Michigan blaze up orange and red and gold each morning as the sun crests the eastern horizon.

Indeed, the beauty of those sunrises may be one of the best parts of living in the North Shore.

But have you seen it from 100,000 feet?

John Flaig of Shorewood has.

A programmer by day and a tinkerer by night, Flaig's curiosity in "near space" weather ballooning grew with every new amateur video he watched on YouTube.

Finally, when "Fearless" Felix Baumgartner leapt from a helium balloon 24 miles from the surface of the earth and shattered the world sky diving record - and sound barrier - in October, Flaig new it was time.

So, from the small town of Cresco, Iowa, Flaig launched his own weather balloon Dec. 2, outfitted with all the gadgetry needed to capture a stratospheric sunrise.

He chose Cresco because a flight path prediction tool told him the balloon would come down northeast of Milwaukee near Slinger.

"Which turned out to be irrelevant," Flaig said, laughing.

Not only did Flaig's balloon clear Slinger, it floated east over all of Lake Michigan - narrowly escaping an aircraft on the way - before landing just east of Cedar Springs, Mich. Coincidentally, the balloon came down 13 miles from the home of an old college roommate, who helped retrieve it with the person on whose property the balloon landed.

"She turned out to be very nice and agreed to help get the payload out of the tree and FedEx everything back to me," Flaig said. "I promised to pay the expenses and send her some Wisconsin cheese."

With the spread of low-cost mobile technology like hand-held GPS transmitters and smartphones, it doesn't take a HAM license or skills with electronics and a soldering iron to track a balloon, Flaig said. With the right time and determination, anyone can do it.

Like a good program, Flaig's balloon had a number of fail-safes, including redundancies in GPS tracking and video capture. Without the backups, Flaig estimates a thrifty person could get a balloon in the sky for between $500 and $700.

"You can make it as complicated or as simple as you want," he said.

Just about any public space works to send a balloon up, he said, so there's no shortage of launch sites in the North Shore.

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