If 9-year-old Reese Gurwicz decided to launch a balloon along the South Jersey shore, all he likely would have gotten would be a fine.
But make that a fully equipped weather balloon launched in the name of science, and Reese not only got loads of data for his third-grade project, but a family adventure that spanned two states, all while gaining an increased understanding of how complex weather forecasting really is.
Building a weather balloon is no simple task, nor is chasing it during its almost 2½-hour, 150-mile flight. So Reese, a student at Seaview Elementary School in Linwood, enlisted the help of his dad, Mitchell, and 11-year old sister, Ella.
It was Reese’s love of sports, specifically hockey, that sparked the idea for the project. One of Reese’s friends and hockey teammates had a successful launch during a similar project but was unable to recover the balloon, which landed 50 miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.
“It sounded like a really cool idea, so we figured we’d give it a try and hope to get the balloon back,” Reese said.
All weather balloons have instruments to measure important meteorological variables, such as temperature, pressure and altitude, But the Gurwicz balloon had a few added “luxuries,” such as a GPS tracker, radio beacon and a GoPro camera to capture the flight.
Dad was instrumental in the balloon assembly, which took up to 10 hours during the course of a week, and ensuring it weighed less than 4 pounds.
But computers were key in forecasting the flight path the balloon would take and brought the Gurwicz balloon-chasing team to McClure, a tiny town smack dab in the middle of Pennsylvania, 175 miles from their Linwood home, during the first weekend of April.
“We wanted to recover the balloon, and figured the best shot to do it was to have it land near the many farms in Cumberland and Salem counties,” Mitchell Gurwicz said.
The jet stream was blowing from the northwest that day, and Gurwicz’s reasoning would later pay off.
After staying overnight in a hotel in McClure, the Gurwiczs launched their balloon on the morning of April 2.
Ella, who loves writing and does so competitively, traded her pen for a video camera to tell the tale of their adventure.
“Bon voyage,” Ella and Reese shouted as they let the balloon go.
The chase was on.
Reese loves any fast sport in which he has to keep moving, like hockey and even squash, his dad said. Balloon chasing may not be an official sport, but it certainly requires constant movement.
Both Reese and Ella enjoy horseback riding, but they decided their dad’s 2013 Chevy Tahoe was better equipped for the hot pursuit.
A transmitter gave the balloon’s location about every 15 minutes, which the Gurwiczs tracked from their truck.
“We stopped for breakfast, and must have looked funny all crowded around a small screen 1½ inches wide excitedly tracking the balloon’s progress,” Mitchell Gurwicz recalled.
“Actually getting it back was the coolest part,” siblings Reese and Ella said enthusiastically in unison. Their dad agreed, especially regarding the GoPro and even more so once they watched the video.
“The balloon was so high that you can actually see the curvature of the Earth,” Mitchell exclaimed.
The balloon soared high, more than 15 miles above the ground, before it popped and began its descent back to Earth.
“We were so excited when it landed, and right about where we thought, too,” Reese and Ella said. The balloon landed in an open field near Pittsgrove Township in Salem County, luckily between two rows of dense trees.
While the kids loved the thrill of the chase, it was the data the balloon collected that intrigued their dad.
“I totally ‘geeked out’ over the numbers,” said the elder Gurwicz, who was able to find the moment the balloon went through the jet stream as it zipped along at up to 150 mph.
There were plenty of weather lessons in those numbers for Reese and Ella, too.
“I learned about the jet stream and how temperature and pressure changed as the balloon went up and how the balloon and parachute were affected,” Reese said.
But it was the height itself that generated the most excitement in the Gurwicz household, as father, son, and daughter excitedly called out the height every thousand feet.
“84, 85, 86 thousand,” Reese, Mitchell, and Ella called out in succession, later amazed at the maximum height the balloon achieved.
“89,405 feet,” a still in awe Reese pointed out. That’s just a hare under 17 miles high.
But what if luck had not been on their side and the balloon had landed in a tree?
“Then it’s Plan B, which was to leave it there and come back with a bow, arrow, and string,” Mitchell said, thankful his aim didn’t need to be tested.
But father and son are aiming even higher for their next balloon launch, something that is already in the works.
“We’re hoping to hit 100,000 feet the next time,” said father and son in harmony, elevating their hopes with their newfound knowledge of both balloons and weather.