At SentIntoSpace we pride ourselves on our 100% recovery rate. We’ve never conducted a launch and not gotten our payload back one way or another. Of course, not every landing is a simple process, and over the years we’ve had to develop our detective skills quite a bit after some of our more complicated launches. However, we’ve never had to put those skills to use finding a person… until now.
A few days ago we were contacted by Richard Ward, manager at The Barton Farms in the Cotswolds, who had found something unusual inside one of his hay bales. Richard’s email said he’d split open a round bale and right in the centre were two cameras and a tracker, wrapped in one of our parachutes. According to Richard, the chances of the equipment surviving after landing in the field were very slim. The payload must’ve settled just below the height where the combine cuts the crop, then been picked up by a baler in the exact centre of a line of straw, avoiding all the spikes and tines which shift and carry the hay.
We knew we weren’t missing any payloads and the cameras weren’t the kind we usually use, but their discovery meant that one of our customers lost a flight. We knew we had to find out who they were. Our first clues were the pictures on the camera: a man sat at a laptop, a car park, a coastline. Not the most revealing clues, until we came across a picture with a Welsh flag in the background. We opened up our maps and putting the puzzle pieces together, we worked out from the coast and the river that the nearby town had to be Newport.
Next, we connected a large greyish-white building in a photo to the football stadium, worked our way backwards from a roundabout on the outskirts of town and used the pattern of woodland and farm fields to navigate to the launch site: Castell Y Bwch Pub in Cwmbran.
Now as every digital photographer knows, a modern camera doesn’t just record an image when the shutter snaps. It also records a wealth of metadata about the origins of that image – the camera it was shot on, the date and time of its shooting, the settings used to take it and so on. From this we identified that the photos had been taken on 30 July 2016. We rang the pub, asking if they remembered a person launching a balloon from their car park on that date. The manager I spoke to was happy to help and did recall someone calling up to ask for permission, but didn’t have any further contact details.
Fortunately, our friends at the Civil Aviation Authority have comprehensive records of every application for permission to launch a balloon. When I got in touch and explained the details it took only a few minutes before we got an email response with the contact details for one Oliver Stevens. When I spoke to Oliver on the phone, he had been contacted by the CAA moments before to give permission to release his details to us and was ecstatic to hear that his equipment had survived the long journey back to Earth.
Oliver and crew had struggled to track the balloon on its way back down. He said “we were just sat in the pub with this horrible feeling… it could’ve been forty feet away and we’d have no way of knowing”. Even though we’ve yet to lose a payload for good, every launch has an element of risk and the quiet relief that comes with a successful recovery stays no matter how experienced you are. But then, that’s the thrill of the job, isn’t it?
Oliver hasn’t ruled out conducting more launches in future, despite the long delay in getting this payload back. We wish him the best of luck. In the meantime, we’re just glad we could play a part in returning his cameras so he and his friends can finally enjoy the lovely photos they captured on their first HAB flight.