We blew these things up with a specific amount of helium so they would rise at a known rate of assent and tracked them with a device called a theodolite. At night we attached a small flashlight size bulb with a water-activated battery and tracked that tiny light up to 10,000 feet. We usually cheated and use two lights to make tracking easier. Kinda hard to see that tiny light against the bright stars we had in the clear skies of the Mojave Desert where we were taking these PIBAL (Pilot Balloon) obs.
We took azimuth and elevation readings at one-minute intervals and recorded those to plot them and arrive at pretty accurate wind speed and directions at 1,000 foot intervals. We did this at Cuddyback AGGR (Air to Ground Gunnery Range) north of George AFB in the Mojave Desert of southern California. The F-4 fighter crews used our winds aloft obs to adjust their approach and aim on the targets.
Big balloons and helium in the hands of young men who sometimes had too much time on their hands was a combination ripe for mischief.
One of my favorite ploys was to breathe the helium and call Janis, usually around 0100 when she was sound asleep, and talk like I was Donald Duck. The helium affected your vocal chords and changed your voice to sound just like the Walt Disney character. I thought this was hilarious. Janis never seemed to find much humor in it—can’t understand why.
Another observer calculated he could inflate three 1,000 gram balloons and jump off the roof of the barracks at Cuddy and float like Mary Poppins with her parasol. I think he miscalculated. I figured the three balloons had the lifting capacity of maybe half a pound.
Mary Poppins crashed.
One time the range officer was really ticked his pilots were missing the targets, and he blamed my PIBAL obs. He called me to the tower and reamed me out, told me I had five minutes to get him fresh winds, implied correct winds. That presented a problem. It would take me at least two minutes to get down from the tower and to our balloon shed, and that would be running. Then you have to fill the balloons at a certain rate, which was quite slow, and I have no idea why. We ignored that rule anyway. Tracking the balloon would take at least another eight minutes, and plotting the winds would take another five or so. That was well over my allotted five minutes. I had a choice: lie and make something up, or do it right? I took the high ground. I figured if he wanted my stripes because I did it right, I would be OK with my DETCO (Detachment Commander). I gave him fresh winds that indicated little change from the previous obs and never heard about it again.
On a side note, right after Cuddyback AGGR got their new electronic target scoring system that detected hits by the passage of the 20mm round within a set detection area, they had an issue with a fighter squadron commander back at George AFB. The CO was sorely disappointed with his pilots strafing scores and questioned the new equipment. He called and chewed out the Cuddyback crew then announced he was coming right up in his F-4 and would do strafing runs on the target to prove how screwed up the new system was.
The clever boys at Cuddyback, thus warned, cranked up the gain on the electronic scoring system. They had it high enough, if the 20mm round hit the dirt anywhere in southern California, it would score as a hit. The CO shot real well that day and called and apologized to the Cuddy crew when he got back to George. He then proceeded to ream out his pilots for their lousy shooting.
The Air Force could be a lot of fun!