YUAA flies high with Horizon Balloon

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Photo by Dan Stein.


On the morning of Spring Fling last year, the members of the Yale Undergraduate Aerospace Association weren’t putting on neon pinnies or dancing in mud on Old Campus.

Instead, the group was driving through Connecticut to track the flight of “Horizon,” the high-altitude balloon with a built-in camera they built. In early September, the group’s Horizon Balloon Project was named a national finalist for the James Dyson Award, a competition funded and named after British industrial engineer James Dyson which honors student groups for their creativity and inventiveness in engineering. But for the YUAA, things weren’t always flying so high.

On Feb. 12, YUAA, founded at the beginning of the 2010-’11 school year, launched its first high-altitude balloon, named “Babelon.”The team on the ground lost contact with the balloon shortly after its launch, and the Yalies were unable to locate it again. The project, which had received financial support from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Yale’s Physics Department and the Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee, was unsuccessful.

“We had to convince them that we didn’t succeed, so they should give us more money,” said Israel Kositsky ’13, YUAA’s president.

The association spent the spring learning from their mistakes and looking to for ways to overcome the challenges their first balloon had faced. Jan Kolmas ’14, who founded YUAA with Kositsky last year, said that the group began with balloons because they don’t require “in-flight guidance” but can reach impressive heights. Balloon projects are also difficult, according to Kositsky, because once the balloon has been launched its fate is entirely out of the team’s hands.

“You send it up and that’s it,” Kositsky said.

At 8:30 a.m. on April 26, the morning of Spring Fling, they launched Horizon from New Britain, Conn. YUAA spent the next three hours tracking Horizon using a custom-developed iPhone app. The balloon reached a height of around 50,000 feet, higher than that reached by commercial airliners, while snapping photos of the ground below, according to the group’s website. Once the helium balloon finally burst, the parachute and payload, including the camera, landed in a tree. Having prepared for this contingency, the team activated a failsafe mechanism that used heat to snap a wire and dropped the payload’s cargo down to the members waiting below.

Initially, the team didn’t know how to develop the GPS tracking system or the failsafe mechanism, Kolmas said, but they “learn[ed] by doing.” Deputy Dean of SEAS Vincent Wilczynski echoed Kolmas’ description. He said the group’s biggest challenge was a “lack of initial knowledge” in engineering.

Wilczynski recommended that the group apply for the Dyson Award after Horizon’s flight, Kositsky said. The project was selected as one of 10 finalists from the United States, though it did not win the national award to represent the United States for the international Dyson Award.

This year, YUAA has grown to over 20 members from last year’s nine, and they’ve begun work on “Horizon II,” which Kositsky said will “arguably be the most advanced balloon out there” for an amateur project. Kolmas said the group’s new members are encouraged to explore on their own.

YUAA treasurer Michael Magdzik ’13 said the association became a “truly global effort” over the summer, as they had “a lot of late night Skype sessions” to plan their efforts from their respective summer locations. He added that the team would always have a lively discussion before beginning a new project.

After Horizon II, Kositsky said the group is interested in possibly building a low-flying glider, among other aeronautic projects. Magdzik said that he has always been interested in aerospace’s potential applications for the military and everyday citizens.

The winner of the international Dyson Award will be announced Nov. 8.

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