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Paper airplane missing after world record attempt

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Call it the most unique game of hide-and-seek Michiana has seen in a while. Anyone can play, no invitation required.

Unlike the childhood merriment, though, participants won’t be seeking out another person. The target of this mission: A fluorescent pink paper airplane with a 28-inch wingspan. Here’s the catch – it could be anywhere in a swath that extends from just north of Plymouth in Marshall County to just south of South Bend in St. Joseph County.

One other snag – it’s probably buried under a foot of snow.

It all stems from a world record attempt launched from eastern Illinois on Dec. 28 by members of Fox Valley Composite Squadron, a West Chicago, Ill.-based unit of the Civil Air Patrol.

“We started getting into near-space ballooning about two years ago,” 1st Lt. Gary Brown, near-space balloon project manager for the group, told the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/1bQBZxJ). “It’s about the only way the average citizen is ever going to approach space. At the altitudes reached, you’re above 99 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Squadron leaders started the project for youth cadet members, ages 12 to 17, as a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) project. Over the past couple of years, the group has launched several balloons. This one was different, though.

“This launch was extra special because we decided to go for a world record attempt,” Brown said. “It was a shot at the Guinness World Record for ‘highest paper airplane flight from a high-altitude balloon.’ We thought, ‘Let’s go do that.’ ”

So, on Dec. 28, team members gathered at Kankakee Airport and let the balloon and paper airplane take to the skies. At first, everything seemed to be going as planned.

“We launched it and then we tracked it with the onboard, real-time telemetry and GPS tracking system,” Brown said. “It was all looking great.”

Then a bit of deja vu set in. The first record-breaking attempt earlier last month ended with a failure.

“When we started to get above 80,000 feet we all started to high-five each other,” Brown said. “Sixty-one seconds later after we were congratulating each other, we said, ‘Uh-oh.’ ”

As it was ascending through 85,153 feet – just 4,438 feet shy of the record of 89,591 feet – both the balloon and paper airplane experienced some kind of failure. The balloon and plane were just northwest of Plymouth when the failure happened. Based on telemetry data and historical weather, team members determined a cone where the balloon and plane likely landed.

“We were disappointed, of course we were. But, if this was easy, would it be worth doing?” Brown said. “Even though this is failure No. 2, we achieved greater altitudes and are coming closer and closer to our goal.”

After efforts by the group to locate the plane came up empty, squadron officials opted to seek help from the public and they’re offering a reward for whoever finds it. While the specific reward is yet to be determined, in the past the group has offered gift cards, a certificate of appreciation and a unit challenge coin as a means of saying thank you.

“We’re going to try again. That’s why this is so important,” Brown said. “Recovering the plane and the payload is critical for determining what went wrong and fixing it the next time.”

Anyone who finds the plane is asked to call Brown at 630-660-8231 or contact him via email at gary@foxcap.org.

This is an AP Member Exchange story shared by the South Bend Tribune.

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