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Up, up and away

Ben Sanders doesn't normally jump out of helicopters, especially when they are hovering a few scant metres above an American mountainside.

Ben Sanders doesn’t normally jump out of helicopters, especially when they are hovering a few scant metres above an American mountainside.

But last weekend, he did just that while retrieving the payload of YuKonstruct’s high-altitude camera balloon that launched from Whitehorse on Thursday.

He and his inventor friends never guessed the balloon would travel so far.

“We precisely weighed everything, and based our calculations on wind speed and direction. Our prediction was that it would cross into B.C. and land near Atlin Lake. It surprised everyone by being nearly twice as long and nearly twice as far,” he said.


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Most people’s idea of “calculations” involves maybe a smartphone calculator, a pad of paper and at least a little guestimating. For Sanders, it’s a little more than that. He used to work for NASA.

“I have some experience in that realm because I used to work for MD Robotics, working to help rebuild the CanadaArm after Columbia crashed. This felt just as exciting as those experiences, in particular because it was a small team,” he said.

The balloon was launched from Yukon College, carrying a payload of two GoPro cameras, weather and temperature gauges and a GPS beacon. It was part of a collaboration with the school’s Cold Climate Innovation centre, and a way to boost awareness of the YuKonstruct group’s idea of creating a shared creative workspace in Whitehorse.

The helium-filled balloon rose into the stratosphere over the Yukon, touching the edge of space at 100,000 feet before the balloon burst. Then the package parachuted back to Earth, carrying stunning images of Northern Canada from the edge of the great beyond.

But a few minutes after lift off, the spacecraft’s GPS went silent.

That was expected, Sanders explained, because civilian GPS units stop transmitting above 20,000 feet. Even so, waiting for it to come back online was more than a little tense.

“There was this Mission Control sort of moment where we were all sitting around the computer screen and there was this ‘ping.’ We threw our arms in the air, but then we realized exactly where it was,” he said.

It came down 281 kilometres south of Whitehorse and 44 kilometres east of Juneau, Alaska, landing on a mountainside overlooking a glacier.

“At least it didn’t land in the ocean,” Sanders said, laughing.

That set off a somewhat epic quest to retrieve the capsule. Whitehorse’s Capital Helicopters had agreed to donate a flight to Atlin to pick up the package, but with it landing on American soil, things became a little more complicated.

Sanders and videographer Kieran O’Donovan got up early Friday morning and rushed to Skagway where they planned to fly to Juneau.

They were delayed by fog in Juneau and wound up taking the ferry instead. Sanders managed to convince Juneau’s Temsco Helicopters to fly him out for only the cost of the fuel.

That’s how Sanders found himself about to leap out of a helicopter in the American coastal mountains.

“We had to perform what’s called a toe-in where the front tips of the helicopter’s skids dig into the mountainside, and while it remains in a fully-powered hover, you jump out, pull in the payload and climb back in,” he said.

Once back in Whitehorse, Sanders presented a video of the payload’s flight and its adventurous retrieval as part of YuKonstruct’s research, innovation and commercialization workshop on Tuesday night.

There were gasps and cheers as the audience watched footage taken from the edge of the atmosphere.

The whole spectacle was a way to help get the YuKonstruct project off the ground, Sanders said.

“After our makerspace open house, we thought, let’s try and keep the momentum up. We’re having a lot of progress on that.

“YuKonstruct has formed a board and become a non-profit. The idea is that YuKonstruct will ultimately become a funnel towards the Cold Climate Innovation folks for productions. We can be a space where people come up with ideas and designs, and then they can go to CCI for help with commercialization and production of Yukon-made products,” he said.

You can see a video of the balloon’s odyssey at

Contact Jesse Winter at