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Kite Balloons . . .

. . . are aerodynamically shaped balloons that are tethered to the surface. RCA and General Electric Aerostat Systems were innovators and operators of such systems. I worked for them on two programs: TARS, The Tethered Aerostat Radar System and the Sea Based Aerostat System, SBAS, from 1985 until 1989. By Rob Crimmins

In 1985 the project I was on, a hybrid airship called the “Cyclocrane” came to an end for me. It was my father’s invention and in the final months of 1984 we finally flew it and thought that it would be a great success leading to the creation of a huge, new industry. We were wrong. So I left Tillamook, Oregon where I had lived with my wife Judi and two small sons to take a job as a production manager with Robinson Helicopter in Torrance, California which is in Los Angeles County and very different than Tillamook. I’m not sure what Frank Robinson had in mind when he hired me but I didn’t meet his expectations because after being there for just seven weeks he let me go. The little money we had was all spent to move to Los Angeles and get set up in a 750 square foot home in San Pedro so the lay off was pretty bad news. Living hand to mouth as we were meant that I had to get something in my hands right away. I had skills that I’d hoped never to fall back on. In high school and college I worked part time

© Rob Crimmins

and summers as a high rise window cleaner. It was something that was needed in any big city so I went downtown where I found, as I knew I would, a scaffold with two men on it hanging from the side of a very tall

© RCA building. When it got down I asked the one who spoke English if he would tell me where his office was and who I should talk too. The company was owned by an Iranian and it turned out that they were about to start a job in Marina Del Rey and he needed an American citizen as the foreman. The main tenant, who was a US Government agency, required citizenship and none of his crew were Americans. They were all Mexican. I went to work a few days later with two guys from Mexico City who were the hardest working people I’d known until then and about the happiest. They had actually lived in boxes in Mexico but as window cleaners in LA they were able to buy houses in the valleys, eat and drink well and even have leisure time on the weekends. They really appreciated what they had. I didn’t. Los Angeles was expensive, crowded


and dry and the more our kids got to know the neighbors in San Pedro the less we liked it so while I worked each night dangling over the side of a glass building (the direct and reflected sunlight made working in the mornings and afternoons unbearable) I spent each day looking for a new job. I found one with RCA Aerostat Systems on Patrick Air Force Base on Florida’s east coast. They were about to enter a competition for a US Coast Guard contract for something called The Sea Based Aerostat System, SBAS. My time as an airship rigger and Project Manager on the Cyclocrane gave me experience that was directly applicable to the project that RCA had committed to so they hired me and told me to report when they got the contract, which would be in a month. The money from window cleaning was enough to hold us over so I quit a few weeks before moving day to spend time at the beach. The summer of 1985 began with moving to Los Angeles, before we had a house. I then started a new job, lost it, resumed work in the trades, became extremely anxious about the future and then landed a great job in Florida. The end of the summer was about working out, riding my motor cycle, swimming in the ocean and looking forward to a job that I was sure I would love. In September I started with RCA as a © Rob Crimmins

© Rob Crimmins

Quality Control Engineer. My boss, Bill Weist was the Quality Control Manager for the new project and for the program that they were already running for the Air Defense Command which in the early 1980s became the TARS (Tethered Aerostat Radar System) program. At that time RCA was operating two sites for the Air Force. The one on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was out on the tip of the cape where the original Mercury launch site was and the other was on Cudjoe Key, twenty-six miles east of Key West. Both of these systems had 250,000 cubic foot balloons with radar. They were for air defense and keeping an eye on the Russians as they sailed in and out of Cuba but by the time I worked on them they were used for that and drug interdiction. One of the balloons on the site carried the TV Marti transmitter which was the system that attempted to transmit American television into Cuba. What fired my imagination about the tethered balloons when I first heard of them was the altitude. A


normal mission, which can last a week, has the balloon at 12,000 feet and the record was 18,000 feet. When I fly on commercial jets and go through 18,000 feet I think of a string that long with a balloon tied to it and it amazes me. Sometimes the string breaks. It’s a rare event but it has happened a few times. One story I heard said that one day in the early 1980s a tornado hit the Cudjoe Key site and the tether broke so it did what any balloon will do when it’s released, it rose to its pressure altitude. That’s the altitude at which the air is the same density as the helium in the balloon and above which the balloon will not stay. For the balloons they operated in the TARS program that was about thirty © RCA thousand feet. That night, or maybe the next night, when the temperature dropped the balloon went back down, all the way to the surface of the ocean. A fisherman found it and thought that if he could bring it back he might be rewarded so he secured the tether to his boat and started to tow it. At some point, either because the sun rose and heated the balloon or because the wind picked up, the balloon rose with enough speed that when it reached the end of the line it capsized the boat. The Coast Guard came out to rescue the poor fisherman and they tried to save the balloon too but eventually they gave up and let it go. The balloon rose again, this time all the way to the commercial airways. Airline pilots spotted it and told the controllers who called the Navy. They scrambled jets out of the Naval Air Station on Boca Chica who fired a missile into the balloon. Boca Chica isn’t far so the pilot came to the balloon site with a picture of his jet with a little kite balloon painted on it. He

thought it was funny but the guys at the site didn’t laugh about it. I helped with one inflation at the site at Cudjoe Key, a process that had to be done just right. Quality control meant verifying the crew was prepared and that they executed each step properly. With the crew at that site I didn’t even have to be there but the customer, the Air Force, doesn’t assume that, so Bill and I were there and checked each step. I had to be on the site on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station the day after the Shuttle Challenger went down. By then I was working almost exclusively on the other program, the Sea Based Aerostat System. In fact we had returned, aboard the boat that carried the system, from Mobile, Alabama the day before, January 28th, the day of the crash. We had been at sea for several days and working without a break for weeks so when we got to Port Canaveral most of us on the crew were to have a couple days off. Judi, my wife, picked me up at the dock to take me home shortly before the Shuttle was to be launched. By then we had seen several launches and even though the deck of the Atlantic Sentry (the Mobile Aerostat Platform vessel) there in Port Canaveral would have been a good vantage point we didn’t stay. On the way home we stopped at the supermarket. It was common practice for supermarkets and other retailers to play the NASA radio feed during launches and while we were in the checkout line the volume increased as the controllers were telling the world what had happened. Everyone left the store, including the staff, to watch as the debris was still falling. It was a terrible sight. The balloon was always recovered and on the tower during launches and at first the Air Force kept


it on the ground but as the search aircraft went out they decided to launch it and use the radar to help keep track of all the traffic, not just the aircraft but the surface vessels too. (In the first hours and days after the accident sabotage was thought to be a possibility so all those vessels that were nearby were scrutinized as if they may have had something to do with it.) That afternoon, just hours after the balloon was launched, the tether broke, thousands of feet up and the balloon was lost. I was ordered to go to the site to represent Quality Control but there was nothing to evaluate. The weather was fine and nothing unusual was observed or reported with any of the equipment. I examined the tether but couldn’t say why it had parted. No one could. The only explanation that was ever offered by anyone was that an aircraft had struck the tether but the only planes in the air were operated by NASA and the military and none of them sustained any damage or reported an accident. It’s still a mystery. Air Force SWAT teams were on the site when I drove on and they were very serious when they stopped me. If it was sabotage the saboteurs were probably swimmers so Special Forces were there on the beach and the facilities adjacent to the beach like ours and they were intent on making the Station secure. People were solemn on the Space Coast for weeks after the Challenger accident and for the first few days when debris and remains were being gathered almost everyone was in mourning as if they’d lost family. Our work on the Sea Based System continued and it was affected by the Shuttle recovery operation. We were in a competition with the other big name in kite balloons, TCOM, a division of Westinghouse. TCOM had been awarded the contract that RCA wanted without competing for it. RCA sued the government, claiming that they were qualified to do the work and they won the suit so the Coast Guard was forced to delay deployment of TCOM’s system until we had a chance to build one and prove that it was better. They gave us six months to design and

© Rob Crimmins

build a “Mobile Aerostat Platform”, MAP, and show up for a contest with Westinghouse off of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The shipyard where the boat was modified and the mooring platform was built was in Bayou La Batre, Alabama. From there we went to Port Canaveral where we inflated the balloon and completed the rest of the work we had to do to get fully ready for the “fly-off. The effect that the Shuttle recovery had on us wasn’t measurable but it was lasting. Our boat was docked just inside the inlet to the Port and the recovery vessels went by us every day. The Harbor Branch Foundation recovered the Solid Rocket Boosters and their vessel, the RV Seward Johnson was docked next to us. The Navy recovered the Orbiter and passed within a hundred feet of us with parts of the Shuttle on the decks of their boats. The first time they came in with astronaut’s remains they did so with the crew standing

© Rob Crimmins


at attention and flags over caskets but after that they were more discreet. The press caused too much of a scene. We made the deadline and rendezvoused with the Coast Guard task force off the coast of North Carolina as required. Waiting for us there were three Coast Guard vessels and an aircraft which would serve the same role the Coast Guard would play in the drug interdiction missions the system was built for. Each vessel was given communications equipment that allowed them to use the data produced by the radar on the balloon and the equipment in the Mobile Aerostat Platform Center, the MAPCEN, on the Atlantic Sentry. Our vessel and balloon system was at least as good as TCOM’s but our radar was much better. Actually it was amazing. One calm day after tuning things just right RCA’s chief technical advisor, Floyd Hannaford, located a target sixty miles away that he identified as a twelve ounce can. The Captain wasn’t a radar technician so he wanted to see if it was possible to locate and identify such a thing from so far away (and so did I) so he steered a course to Floyd’s target. Floyd kept it © Rob Crimmins on the screen until we got there and scooped up a Budweiser can with a crab net. During the six months when we were building the system I was still officially a Quality Control Engineer and I did inspections every day. At the shipyard Don Burge, Ron Sparks, Phil Hensley, Dick Mahoney, and the other engineers who designed the system worked alongside the welders and ship fitters. My mechanical skills were as good as anyone’s and there were too many parts to make and assemble not to help so I started drilling holes and turning nuts like everyone else. When we left the dock for the trip to Port Canaveral I was on board to participate in and document the equipment shakedown. I had to write the maintenance program on the ship’s equipment and the Aerostat System so getting acquainted with the equipment and the

engineer’s duties while underway helped me greatly in that task. The retrofit at the shipyard converted the Atlantic Sentry from an oil patch work boat to a Mobile Aerostat Platform. In addition to attaching the balloon’s mooring platform and tower the boat was converted to a tanker for fuel and fresh water which could be supplied to other vessels in the task force while out on missions. It had two sixteen cylinder diesel locomotive engines and a twelve cylinder bow thruster. The two main engines powered a 90 inch prop, or as the ships engineer referred to it, “wheel”, and they made the engine room a space guaranteed to cause hearing loss if you were in there for any length of time without protection. I did spend time there of course and one of the engines didn’t sound right to me. The engineer sensed it too but both engines were working fine. One morning when I was down there alone I found that by lying on my back I could make my way between the bottom of the engine and the hull to all the engine mounts. One of the huge nuts that secured the engine to one of the mount was loose. Justifiably proud of my discovery I told the George Fisher, the ships engineer, who said, “How do you know?” I said, “I saw it. I crawled under the engine to the mounts and one of the nuts isn’t bottomed out.” With a very memorable expression on his face, he asked, “While we’re underway?” He fixed it after we got to the dock. While I was writing the maintenance program another item held my interest. It was the way the tether terminated at the balloon. The tether was one of the most technical features of the system. The one for the big balloons for the TARS program was pretty simple because its only purpose was to hold to balloon down. Power to the system was provided by an airborne generator and all the data to and from the payloads was done with


radio gear. The tether for the Sea Based System was the other kind. The power for the balloon in that system was generated on the boat and carried to the balloon on three conductors in the tether and the communication back and forth was through an optical fiber and there were three such fibers in the tether too. The strength member was multiple layers of counter helically wound Kevlar® and all that was coated with a Hytrel® jacket. The problem that I concerned myself with was how the tether was terminated at the top. What we had was a fitting that consisted of a cylinder into which tapered plugs were inserted that pinched the tether. It was very inefficient in that it only held until the load was forty per cent of the tether break strength and that’s pretty bad. Knots don’t reduce the line strength that much. A better termination would mean a lighter

© Rob Crimmins

© Rob Crimmins

tether and a much better termination would allow for a much lighter tether. I was confident I could devise an eye splice that would be nearly one hundred percent efficient so I took a piece of tether home one night to make a prototype. When I finished it I showed it to our Project Manager, Gary Biavaschi, and asked if I could take the time to make it part of the system. He said yes. I did most of the work at the rigging shop in the Vertical Assembly Building on Kennedy Space Center where they had a tensile test machine. It took about forty tries and considerable wear and tear on my hands but finally I had a technique that was stronger than the tether and could be consistently produced. It’s still how tethers are terminated. We beat TCOM and won the contract to operate the system on real missions but before we could do that we had to complete sea trials to prove that our system had been built in accordance with the specifications. The Coast Guard turned out to be a tough customer. Their specification was very demanding and they expected us to comply with almost everything. One requirement that we didn’t think we’d have to live up to was the one about being able to operate in latitudes up to forty-five degrees. After all, drugs are smuggled into Florida and Louisiana, not Nova Scotia, right? So when they told us we had to take the system to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in the winter, we were taken by surprise but in December of 1986 we left Port Canaveral for the North Atlantic. It was quite pleasant at first but by the time we reached the Carolinas it was cold and the seas had risen. By then I had been on the boat, off and on, for


a few weeks and learned that I wasn’t prone to sea sickness but I wasn’t immune to it either. Somewhere off the coast between North Carolina and New Jersey it hit me hard and I was miserable. I was on duty which meant I just had to suffer through it and by the end of my shift I was very, very glad to get in my bunk, at least I would have been if another condition didn’t exist. Freezing temperatures outside made the steel hull and decks very cold. My berth during that trip was all the way forward and my bunk was against the hull, which was uninsulated, so if I touched it I’d get chilled. Avoiding that side of the bed and an extra blanket was all that was needed to isolate me from that but it didn’t help with the condensation that was dripping off of every steel surface and there was so much of it I had to put my rain gear on top of the covers. Seasickness, the pitching boat, the cold air and cold water © Rob Crimmins made me very sorry for asking to make the trip. I eventually did fall asleep and slept very soundly for a long time. When I awoke I sensed that something was wrong in a very right sort of way. What was wrong was that the boat wasn’t rocking or pitching even though we were still underway. I could hear the engines and the sea on the bow just three-eights of an inch outside the wet surface next to me. And that was what made it right. I wouldn’t get sea sick if we were on calm water but it was too calm to be the ocean. We had changed course for some reason. The reason was the condition that had increased my discomfort the night before. All that condensation made the boat nearly uninhabitable and dangerous to operate. Water was dripping off the hull and decks and running everywhere including onto electronics and appliances. Nothing had failed and it was a bad situation in that respect but the reason why the Captain had decided to find a harbor was because of what was going on in the wheelhouse. All the glass surfaces were covered in ice. For a while the previous night an additional crew member was assigned to the bridge to wipe the glass but it was impossible to keep up and eventually there was a quarter-inch of ice on all the glass. Visual navigation was

completely impaired and so was the ability to avoid a collision. They couldn’t even chip the ice off a small area for fear of breaking the glass so someone had to stay outside on the upper deck as a lookout. Hadley, the Captain, ordered a change of course to Governor’s Island off the southern tip of

Manhattan. When I got up on deck we were just a couple of miles south of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. It was cold, the Sun was shining but best of all the boat wasn’t rocking and I wasn’t sick so despite the problem meeting the Coast Guard’s requirements I was relieved and happy. We made it to the dock at Governor’s Island and spent the next few weeks there while arrangements were made to fix the problem, which wasn’t going to be easy. When it started to snow we discovered another reason why we couldn’t operate in cold weather. The RCA people on the crew were “Technical Advisors”. According to the contract we were there to provide technical advice to the Coast Guard crew who were the operators of the system. We had four at that time. They were Floyd Hannaford, who was the chief Tech Advisor, Bob Murphy, Danny Taylor and Bill Shirvey. All of them had expertise with some or most of the system’s aspects with the exception of the aerostat envelope and rigging so I was there as the fifth RCA employee on the crew to support them on those matters. And I knew enough about everything else to assist with other things too. One night shortly after we got to New York


it started to snow. It was wet and heavy and it stuck to the balloon. It wasn’t long before the weight of the snow exceeded the lift of the helium and the balloon began to settle down on the platform. That was another condition we weren’t prepared for and one that was going to create a severe problem if we didn’t correct it quickly. I was on duty with Bill and he went below to our shop to look at the monitor that displayed the system’s “State of Health”. Although it was good to know, nothing could be done to fix it from down there so I stayed up on deck and tried to figure out how to get the snow off the balloon before the radar dish came to bear on the deck. We had an aerial lift on the boat but it wouldn’t reach nearly enough of the surface of the balloon to be of any use and there were no lifts or cranes on the dock but as I was looking for a useful piece of equipment on shore I noticed that there were water cannons for fire fighting on the dock. I told the dock chief about our problem and he told me how to operate the cannon, which was simple, so I turned the pump on and fired a stream of sea water that washed the snow off the balloon. For the rest of the night Bill and I took turns checking the balloon and washing off the snow. The Coast Guard insisted that we meet the specification but they didn’t cancel the contract when we didn’t. Rather they gave us the chance to fix what was wrong, at RCA’s expense of course.

© Rob Crimmins

© Rob Crimmins

They were kinder to RCA than RCA was to the shipbuilder. The boat went back to Steiner Marine in Alabama after we left New York and they installed insulation to make it a cold climate vessel but when we got the contract to build more systems Ron Steiner didn’t build them. The snow and icing problem was solved too by spraying on Velox® hydrophobic coating after the balloon was inflated. It’s amazing stuff. Water will not stick to anything coated with it and neither will ice or snow. When we finally did get to the northern latitudes, where there was plenty of ice and snow, we managed to keep the balloon up and operating, through almost all the conditions we encountered. That qualifier, “almost”, is what makes engineering so hard and engineers crazy. With the boat made right and the balloon capable of shedding ice we headed north again. For the first week or so all was well even though the weather was bad. There were days at a time when the tether disappeared into the cloud base and we couldn’t see the balloon but the radar worked fine. It was probably because of the radar that the Coast Guard let us fix all of our problems. It was incredibly good and far better than the competition. One night, just when everything seemed to be working and we started to relax lightning struck, literally. Alarms sounded, informing us that power through the tether had been lost and the airborne batteries had taken the load. Floyd knew immediately we’d been hit by lightning. We were in a storm so we couldn’t recov-


er the balloon and we were a hundred miles off shore which made it unlikely the batteries would hold up before we could get to a sheltered harbor where we could bring the balloon to the deck. The only hope was that the damaged component was in the mooring platform and not in the air, so we looked for it. The burned out part was the rotary joint in the winch drum so it was something at the bottom of the tether that we could get a hold of. The bad news was that there was still lightning in the storm and if it hit the balloon again while we were working in the winch drum we could be killed. It wasn’t an easy decision and we didn’t rush to make it. We waited a while to see how often we could see flashes and we told the Captain to change course to the nearest spot that might be out of the wind. Eventually Floyd decided he’d do it and I helped him. We replace the damaged rotary joint with the spare, saved the system, and went back to the routine for a couple days. The routine never seemed to last very long but life aboard ship, when everything was running was nice. Enjoying my first cup of coffee of the day on deck or watching dolphins surf the bow wake were among the many gratifying moments that made up for every-

thing else. Most of the people were a pleasure to be with too. They had great stories and figure in a few of mine. My favorite story about Floyd, after the one about the lightning strike, is about when we were out on the sea trials off Cape Hatteras. Floyd and Danny and I had just finished working eighteen hours in a week when we were on the job for well over one-hundred. We had finally gone to bed after launching the balloon and leaving the harbor when another problem came up that the guys on duty couldn’t fix. One of them came into our cabin to wake Floyd. I know he hated to do it but he had to. Floyd wiped his eyes, swung his legs to the deck and listened as the failure was explained. He had to go see but he was nearly defeated. With his face in his hands he cried, “When is it going to end”, because at that moment it really felt like we were in purgatory, but he got up and fixed whatever it was. Not long after the lightning strike, while we were operating about ten miles east-north-east of Barnstable, Massachusetts in a snowy, overcast sky that had swallowed the balloon, the OIC (Officer In Command) was called to the bridge for an urgent and

Rob is standing on Floyd’s shoulders to repair lightning damage. (Bill is spotting for us.)


extremely rare message from the admiral. It instructed him to cease operation immediately and move out of the area. The admiral had been contacted because aircraft, with passengers, while at low level, on instrument approach to Barnstable Municipal Field were taking evasive action to avoid collision with an unidentified floating object. The balloon was directly in line with the active runway and the airport had to be shut down. The pilots, controllers and municipal authorities were pretty upset. The federal authorities didn’t like it either, so although we never knew how the admiral came to learn of the event we knew the news hadn’t been delivered in a politely worded letter. The Coast Guard had been very particular and technically adept in most aspects of the specification but avoiding air traffic and staying out of controlled airspace wasn’t part of it or an operational requirement. They’d also neglected tether marking entirely, another FAA requirement that the engineers and managers at RCA didn’t know about it either. Within days Ron Sparks put together a crude but effective solution. We simply lashed 110 volt, AC strobe lights to the tether with nylon cable ties. Power was provided through a standard, two-conductor “lamp cord” lashed to the tether every ten feet with

© Rob Crimmins

cable ties. Two-foot square pennants were attached in the same way. It added a lot of weight and was awkward to install as the tether played out and hard to remove when the tether was reeled in, but it worked and allowed us to resume sea trials pretty quickly. And from then on we avoided putting the balloon in the controlled air space around airports. When we won the contract for five more systems I was made Project Engineer. Most of my duties had to do with procurement, design oversight and coordination and scheduling but I gave myself a few design tasks. One of those was the pennants and strobes and like the tether termination the pennants and strobes that I designed are still used. I left the program in 1989 shortly before any of the new systems were deployed to take a job as Production Manager with American Blimp Corporation in Seattle. By 2007 I had been out of any lighter-than-air projects for eighteen years when I went back into the field to work for Lockheed Martin on a US Army program, the Persistent Threat Detection System, PTDS. That system is also a payload on a kite balloon, or as others insist on calling them, “tethered aerostats”. While I was still on the Sea Based Aerostat Sys-


© Rob Crimmins

tem, RCA was sold to General Electric. RCA Aerostat Systems became General Electric Aerostat Systems and that entity was acquired in the nineties by Lockheed Martin. Some of the people and all of the technology that started in the late 1960s with strange monikers born of acronyms like TELTA, GRAND VIEW, POCKET VETO and SEEK SKYHOOK are still a part of the current organization. There is continuity. When I went back to work on kite balloons in February of 2007 the mooring platform that would go to Baghdad for our team to use was being built in a production facility at Port Canaveral. Until the rest of my team got there and the training started they had me help fabricate the platform and I had the pleasure of seeing Floyd again. He’s still there. When I got to Baghdad I was assigned to “Site 1”, the first PTDS site in Iraq. It was installed in 2004 on Camp Slayer on the Victory Base Complex. The platform there had been taken out of operation to be replaced by the one that I had worked on in the shop in Cape Canaveral. The platform that had been set aside, off in the corner of a dusty yard in Bagh© Rob Crimmins dad, was the one that I helped build

in Alabama that survived the Straits of Florida, New York Harbor, and the North Atlantic. I climbed in it one day to see what I would recall and feel. It was quite a while before I remembered I was in Baghdad.

RCA and GE aerostat systems  

Kite Balloons are aerodynamically shaped balloons that are tethered to the surface. RCA and General Electric Aerostat Systems were innovator...

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