When I was in high school, I spent some of my weekends appeasing my empirical interests by undertaking thought-provoking science experiments. Included in the research; I tied a small lightweight cardboard box filled with scientific instruments for measuring ambient temperature, pressure, humidity, and other atmospheric properties to the bottom of several small balloons filled with helium gas.
Walking out into an empty church parking lot, near my home, I carefully released the balloons and cardboard box. I knew that animals may mistake balloon debris for food, ingesting the material, blocking their stomach or intestines leading to starvation. Therefore, I kept the balloons tethered to a very long line and not floating free. After sufficient time for the instruments to gather the information, I retrieved the balloons and cardboard box by pulling on the line and bringing it back to the ground.
When it was colder I used a PEACOCK brand lighter fuel hand-warmer which used a lighter fluid that reacts with a platinum catalyst to release heat by oxidation reactions. It generated heat for about 12 to 24 hours to keep me warm while launching and retrieving the balloons, especially at night.
One day I remembered reading that in 1962, John Glenn thrust into space on board the Friendship 7, America’s first manned spacecraft to orbit the earth, with a specially modified Minolta Hi-Matic camera. I decided to get more sophisticated by adding a camera that had a self-timer to my experiments. This way, I could take photographs of the city and countryside from a high altitude.
During several months the increasingly quite larger, now single authentic weather balloons, reached ever greater heights with more complex electronic equipment packages including cameras in a large wooden basket. I was in the process of locating and purchasing a huge weather balloon when I received a phone call from the Command Duty Officer at the Naval Air Station Los Alamitos, later renamed Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base / Los Alamitos Army Airfield.
Always interested in aviation, I thought this call was a to notify the surrounding community about an upcoming airshow provided by the NAS Los Alamitos. The officer invited me to a tour of the base, lunch at the mess hall officers club and a brief meeting with the base commander.
Several days later, I showed my license ID at the NAS Los Alamitos front gate and was directed to get in a jeep and have the driver take me to the Operations building. An officer met me at the door and invited me to take a personal tour. I was thinking this all seemed strange as I expected it to be a group tour but I was excited to tour the base and focused on that.
He drove us to the tarmac where we walked around looking at the different parked naval aircraft while he described their function, performance and typical armament. He then, to my surprise and excitement told me to climb aboard one of the fighter jets, an F4 Phantom II fleet defense fighter and to sit in the cockpit. It was a great experience. And, the first time I had been in any aircraft much less a fighter jet.
Then we walked to another F4 Phantom II at an embankment and we stood behind a large concrete barrier. He signaled a man and then I watched the amazing static live fire test of the guns. Little did I know then, that several years later I would observe and photograph these F4 Phantom II fleet defense fighters flying in Vietnam during my 14 months U.S. Army tour of duty.
After that stimulating experience, we drove to a windowless prefabricated building. As we entered I noticed in the subdued light several radar screens with blips representing numerous aircraft. A radar supervisor talked about the incredibly crowded airspace over Southern California, mentioning that the field’s control tower is one of the busiest both in the state and in the Department of Defense.
We visited the air traffic controllers on duty in Los Alamitos’ tower and they showed me the aircraft traffic flight patterns which I then realized included the area I flew my now bulky weather balloons on even longer tethers.
We ate lunch at the mess hall officers club where he introduced me to many of the fighter jet pilots who were very friendly and informative. They also shared stories of their air-to-air ‘dog fighting’ experiences. It was the first time I heard anyone discuss the need to have guns added to the air-to-air missiles. The guns initially were thought to be obsolete as they were replaced by missiles. However, the air war over Vietnam proved otherwise.
We then visited the Meteorological Facilities and Services. An officer explained the aircraft instrument approaches to the runways depending on the weather. Up to this time, I had not given many considerations of how much the weather affected the takeoff and landings of aircraft at the base.
We visited a building dedicated to aircraft crash and rescue and search and rescue. I watched a training exercise on the tarmac and was very impressed with the commitment to safety and complex procedures.
I then met with the Commanding Officer in his office at the end of the day. We talked privately about my visit and what I liked. He patiently answered many of my inquisitive questions.
Realizing by now that although not stated, I had been invited as a result of my weather balloons becoming a potential hazard for flight operations at the base. I was very impressed with his thoughtful and compassionate approach in handling an obviously challenging and potentially life threatening situation.
I learned as much from this interaction as I did about the naval base operations. Educating someone with thoughtfulness, compassion, patience and understanding brings about changes more effectively. When a person adopts what is meaningful as their own core values, they take greater responsibility for their actions.
He never did mention anything about my using the large weather balloons that I clearly figured were in the military flight path. He didn’t have to. I never launched another balloon again.