Retiree helps launch balloons daily from airport

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 17, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; It may not be time for the balloon races yet, but there&8217;s at least one show at the airport daily.

Walter Hammack is one of two people who launch the hydrogen-filled balloons from the Natchez-Adams County Airport every eight hours for a communications company.

The latex balloons, similar to weather balloons, are part of a wireless communication system run by Space Data Corporation based in Chandler, Ariz. A cluster of balloons constantly in the sky means companies can communicate wirelessly in areas that don&8217;t get cell phone reception, Hammack said.

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Jim Poole, head of the local launch program, said Space Data pays the airport $175 each month for the opportunity to launch balloons. The company wanted to launch from the airport because it fit in well with wind patterns, he said.

All the winds at the right flying altitude blow from east to west from April through October, Poole said. The goal is to have the balloons over parts of south-central United States, so when the winds change directions in the fall, the balloons are launched farther west.

Because the winds only blow the right way for half the year, they only launch from the Natchez-Adams County Airport in the summer.

Launch sites like this are set up across the central and southern United States, he said.

Once the balloons drop, somewhere over Texas or New Mexico during the summer, the communications devices are recovered and reused, Poole said.

&8220;They&8217;re equipped with GPS tracking, so recoups are 100 percent,&8221; Poole said.

Because the balloons are so large, it takes a full tank of hydrogen to fill one.

&8220;When we launch this, it will float up until it gets 90,000 to 100,000 feet in the air,&8221; Hammack said.

Hammack retired from BFGoodrich about 10 years ago, so when he was asked to launch balloons back in June, he had the time.

The company pays Hammack and Nathan Calhoun to launch a balloon at 4 a.m., at noon and at 8 p.m. every day. The frequency means their launches feed a cluster of balloons that keep communication flowing.

Hammack tests the balloon&8217;s payload &8212; a small communication device &8212; to make sure it works before he connects it to the balloon.

&8220;This is really the hardest part,&8221; he said as he struggled to join the two. &8220;But when you&8217;ve got it, you&8217;re home.&8221;

The crew launches the balloons rain or shine, unless the weather turns dangerous.

&8220;It goes up, unless it&8217;s just storming,&8221; he said. &8220;I don&8217;t want to be out there in lightning, holding a balloon that can catch fire.&8221;

Once he let go, the balloon rose quickly, about 15 feet per second, according to his instruments.

&8220;Pretty soon, it&8217;ll be out of sight,&8221; he said.