Weather Balloon Launch: ‘Truly a Five-Sense Experience’

Fifth grade at Wheeling Country Day School is a special year. The most senior class serves as leaders and sets examples for other students. They get to visit the Stone Lab in Lake Erie and the capitol building in Charleston. And they get to research, build and launch a weather balloon.

The WCDS class of 2018 launched their weather balloon on Thursday, May 17. This was the fourth year for the launch. Science teacher Luke Hladek designed and oversees the project with the fifth-graders. It began as an idea to take aerial photographs of the campus but evolved into a true scientific exercise for the kids.

Wheeling Country Day School students and staff with JoJo IV.

The first year, both teacher and students dove into heavy research, and Hladek let the kids take the lead. This was their project.

“We researched as a whole class and learned about everything from the history of space flight to worldwide helium reserves,” he said. “I tried to make a commitment to allowing the students to truly lead the project, however long it might take. As we finished our research, ordered materials and completed our safety tests, one of our classmates, Josiah [Titus-Glover], suddenly passed away. I was asked to release the balloon following his funeral, and from that moment it became something totally new.”

The fifth grade that year named the balloon JoJo I, after their friend and classmate, and attached goodbye letters to the balloon neck. Hladek says it became a way to channel the heartbreak into something meaningful. Children, he said, find ways to carry on. Four years later, the launch is always a bittersweet moment as students and faculty gather and remember Josiah.

“While the emotional weight of the project is still surprisingly heavy, as are the risks, after four years the kids still lean into the responsibility of both launching something to the stratosphere and honoring the memory of a friend with tremendous maturity,” Hladek said.

This year’s balloon, JoJo IV, complete with payload and recording cameras, launched from the Country Day campus and traveled to a height of roughly 100,000 feet. The class made calculations about where it would land once the balloon burst.

Luke Hladek, left, and Kaleb Gardill with JoJo IV.

“We’ve learned to analyze launch, weather and flight data much more thoroughly, and we’ve shifted to a spring liftoff when the winds are weaker and the weather less severe,” Hladek said. “We’ve updated all of our equipment and developed more formalized launch and recovery procedures as well.”

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As the project has evolved, the kids have broken off into teams rather than tackle the entire thing as a group. Now, there’s a launch team, a recovery team, a PR team.

Hladek believes this hands-on approach to science has a profound impact on young minds.

“I think all of the science and vocabulary and content knowledge truly becomes secondary to the idea of doing,” he said. “It’s immersive. They embrace each other’s curiosity but ask hard questions. They argue over goals and discover the problems before they start solving them. They feel the materials. They unbox and test electronics instead of being handed a charged, ready-to-click camera. They secure and mount tracking devices. They ask (beg) people to answer questions on camera. They smell the odd odor of a balloon popped at 100,000 feet. It’s truly a five-sense experience, which I find to be more valuable and more lasting than any chapter in any textbook.”

The launch team gathered at 7 a.m. this year to assemble the balloon. The PR team live-streamed the event on Twitter. Someone had to call the FAA about the balloon’s predicted flight path. And once it disappeared above a thick layer of cloud cover, Hladek and fellow teacher Michael McDonald gathered the recovery team and headed for the area near Elizabeth, Pa., where the payload was expected to parachute to earth when the balloon burst. They found it in a horse pasture, and Hladek is in the process of recovering the footage taken by the balloon’s camera.

Members of the recovery team, from left, Micah Kramer, Vaughn Crile, Michael McDonald, Luke Hladek and Sloan Hanasky, successfully retrieve the balloon near Elizabeth, Pa.

It’s a lot of work to build and launch a weather balloon, but as the years have passed, Hladek and his students have refined the process and gotten it down to a science, so to speak. Still, launch day is exciting for the kids and the faculty. As the balloon rises and sails away on the jet stream, it takes with it the joy and curiosity of our future leaders. These kids will do great things, and emotions run high on launch day.

“If I had to say what I love most,” said Hladek, “It’s liftoff, as nerve-racking as it can be to let go. I love that for one moment, one day, we all look up.”

(Photos by Laura Jackson Roberts)

Laura Jackson Roberts is a freelance writer in Wheeling, W.Va. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and writes about nature and the environment. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child MagazineVandaleerAnimalMatador Network, DefenestrationThe Higgs Weldon and the Erma Bombeck humor site. Laura is the Northern Panhandle representative for West Virginia Writers, a blog editor for Literary Mama Magazine and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She recently finished her first book of humor. Laura lives in Wheeling with her husband and their sons. Visit her online at