The Stories They Tell 3

Operation Hi-Ball

Sometime during the week leading up to Friday, May 18, 1962, RIT faculty and staff received the following memo: “Operation Hi-Ball, the launching of an automatic camera from a 12 foot helium filled balloon, is scheduled to take place this Friday… your presence on Friday for the scheduled 2:00 p.m. lift-off is invited.” The “operation” referred to in this memo had begun several months before, in February 1962, when assistant professor of Photo Science, Richard Zakia, suggested to a few second year students in his sensitometry class the possibility of finding alternate methods of taking aerial photography, such as the use of helium balloons to float a camera above the ground. The idea took flight and it wasn’t long before it was not just one or two students, but the entire class that were involved with the project. It was formally organized as “Operation Hi-Ball” on February 9, 1962 with the election of an executive board comprised of George Pittman (President), William Darrow (Vice President), James Langone (Treasurer), and G.W. Hass (Secretary). Work then began on collecting the required materials and organizing the necessary clearances, both with the FAA and the City of Rochester. With their materials, including a Graflex 35mm automatic camera and a special spherical gondola designed by Fred Abel, a graduate engineer at University of Notre Dame, to hold it, and clearances in hand, the class moved forward with their planned launch on May 18, 1962. However, thanks to the memo that had been sent around campus announcing the launch, the simple photo science experiment had become a school-wide event. Members of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity supplied the onlookers and “project engineers” with lemonade, and even went so far as to name RIT student Winnie Vaughn “Miss Hi-Ball.” Despite all of their careful planning, some last minute adjustments needed to be made. A third balloon was added to the gondola containing the camera for increased lift. However, despite this late addition and the recalibrations it required, the launch occurred at 9:45AM, over four hours before it was scheduled to. While the early launch seemed promising, the wind blew the balloons in the wrong direction and their tether line caught on the ironwork on the roof of the church on the corner of Spring Street and South Plymouth Avenue. The task of retrieving it fell to the Rochester Fire Department, who returned it to the students, only for them to make a disappointing discovery. When they attempted to develop the film in the camera, they realized that it had not advanced as it should have, and they had no pictures to show for all of their work.