Hawai'i State News

2 high-altitude balloons launched from Big Island crash into Pacific Ocean, not recovered

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The World Vision balloon system launched from the Big Island in late March. Left: Diagram of the system (StratoCat.com.ar). Right: Flight 1 was flying over Honoka‘a on the Big Island on March 27, 2023. (Darde Gamayo)

Two high-altitude stratospheric balloons — on a test mission for the U.K. Ministry of Defense’s “Project Aether” — were launched four days apart in late March from Waimea-Kohala Airport on the Big Island.

They were supposed to make a transpacific crossing, part of a 4,000-nautical mile journey, and “safely land within the United States.”

But approximately 14 to 15 hours after being launched, both balloon systems crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Neither system was recovered.

They both “encountered an issue with the ballast balloon” and could not sustain flight, international defense contractor Sierra Nevada Corporation told Big Island Now on Wednesday in an email.

The nearly 60-year-old company, which recently was awarded a $717 million contract by the U.S. Navy for its Multi-Intelligence Sensor Development suite for manned and unmanned aircraft, partnered on Project Aether with Arizona-based World View, the company that developed the balloon system, and has promised space tourism, with no success yet.


Sierra Nevada Corporation said due to security purposes it was unable to elaborate on the exact locations where the “fully trackable” balloon systems entered the ocean.

But according to the Argentina-based website StratoCat.com.ar, an independent source about stratospheric balloons around the world, the balloon systems both crashed into the Pacific about 300 miles from the Big Island launch site and in an easterly direction.

The balloons have ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast) transponders that are registered and can be tracked.

The first balloon flight was launched on March 27, after waiting for a good weather window, and flew to an altitude of about 79,100 feet before losing altitude and ultimately failing.

The first World Vision flight launched from the Big Island on March 27 crashed into the Pacific Ocean a few hours after launching from Waimea-Kohala Airport on the Big island. (Chart: StratoCat.com.ar)

Despite knowing the first flight crashed, a second flight was launched on March 31, and it too failed after reaching an altitude of about 78,400 feet, before steadily losing altitude.

A second World Vision flight launched from the Big Island on March 31 and also crashed into the Pacific Ocean a few hours after launching from Waimea-Kohala Airport on the Big island. (Chart: StratoCat.com.ar)

“Despite our best efforts to navigate the balloons to land and recover them, both flights had to be terminated over the Pacific Ocean and unfortunately recovery was not feasible,” Sierra Nevada Corporation said.

“We are deeply saddened by this unintended and unanticipated outcome. While this was not the preferred outcome, the balloons splashed down in a desolate area of the Pacific Ocean largely devoid of marine wildlife and we are hopeful this will have minimal impact.” 

World View told StratoCat a remote area was selected in coordination with FAA authorities to conduct a safe, controlled termination of both flights. The East-Coast based FAA communications office, reached just before the end of business hours, said it could not respond right away. World View also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Each balloon system, developed by World View Enterprises with the trademark name Stratollite, is actually two balloons.

A zero-pressure balloon (filled with helium) lifts the system into the stratosphere, to about 75,000 feet or more. A smaller and lower super-pressure balloon is used for navigation by making it go up or down. Ambient air (which is heavier than helium) is pumped in or out by a compressor as ballast weight.


Each system also has a suspended payload, with a solar power array that is formed in a vertical train and always pointed toward the sun and far enough below to not be shaded by the balloons.

Now, all four balloons and the two payloads are on the ocean floor.

A World View flight of a Stratollite balloon system during a test on the mainland.

In Sierra Nevada Corporation’s “frequently asked questions” about the project, it said if a balloon lands in the water it is “fully trackable.”

“Should a balloon encounter a situation that results in ocean landing, resources will be deployed to try and recover any and all balloon remnants. This scenario is extremely unlikely. Furthermore, no toxic chemicals are used on HABs [high-altitude balloons] that could cause damage to water or ocean life.”

The company also said the balloons were constructed of Linear Low-Density Polyethylene, an extremely strong and lightweight blended plastic material that – even if punctured – will not immediately deflate. This provides time to navigate the balloon to a safe area for recovery. Due to materials used in construction and the minimal supplies required to launch a balloon, incidences or other failures surrounding launch are generally rare.

But the multi-million dollar balloon systems did crash, back-to-back.

The balloon systems crashed outside of the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary boundaries. It is not clear at the time of publishing if any entity has jurisdiction of the ocean in the area where the balloons crashed.

The Hawai’i State Department of Transportation on March 21 issued a press release alerting the public about the balloons, which originally were planned to be launched between March 23-25. This was partly due to the “Chinese spy balloon” incident that just weeks earlier captivated and caused concern as it flew across the United States and ultimately was shot down by the U.S. military over water off the East Coast.

HDOT said the balloons flights “are coordinated with federal, state and local authorities.”

Project Aether’s mission was to demonstrate unmanned stratospheric communication capabilities. The balloons were supposed to fly a journey that would take two months and end at a location on the East Coast. Their target altitude was between 70,000 and 90,000 feet up in the sky, well above the flight paths of commercial airplanes, the HDOT said.

During the test flights, the balloon systems were supposed to perform station-keeping demonstrations over predefined sites.

In the stratosphere, there are generally four directional winds. Controlling altitude allows for free navigation in the stratosphere (accessing winds that go East, West, North, and South), or what is known as station keeping — the ability to remain over an area for several weeks at a time.

The two flight crashes were the second phase of the “Project Aether,” which began in 2021 for the U.K. Ministry of Defense. The goal is for the unmanned balloons to be used for stratospheric communications and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

In a Sierra Nevada Corporation Oct. 26, 2022 press release, the first phase of the project went according to plan, with a Flight 1 demonstration launched from Page, Ariz., and continuing northeast across several states to more urban environments.

“SNC successfully performed all stratospheric beyond-line-of-sight operations and recovered the payload, maintaining the altitudes for the duration set by the Aether program office,” the company said.

However, a source in stratospheric ballooning said the flight went further than planned, with the performance not a complete success.

Big Island Now reporter Nathan Christophel contributed to this story.

Cammy Clark
Cammy Clark works for Maui Now, Big Island Now and Kauaʻi Now as an editor and news reporter. She has more than 35 years of journalism experience, previously working for the Miami Herald as the Florida Keys Bureau chief and sports writer, the Washington Post, St. Petersburg Times, United Press International, the Orange County Register and WRC-TV/George Michael Sports Machine. She grew up in New Hampshire and studied print journalism at American University in Washington, D.C., where she was the sports editor for the college newspaper, The Eagle.

Cammy can be reached at [email protected].
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