A story in last week's Maryland weekly had the incorrect name for the church that launched balloons later found in Italy and Tanzania. The Gaithersburgh church is Grace United Methodist Church. (Published 6/18/87)
It was a feat that would make hot-air balloonist Phileas Fogg proud. A Gaithersburg church reported last week that helium balloons launched in April had made their way to Tanzania and Italy last month.
"We were blown away," said Brenda Ajamian, director of the youth ministry at Grace Baptist Church who arranged the balloon launch on Palm Sunday. "Everybody in the church just couldn't believe it."
"I thought somebody was tricking me at first," she said of her reaction after receiving the card from Tanzania, about 8,000 miles from Montgomery County.
"I said to the postman 'Is this possible?' and he said, 'Well, the postmark is right.' "
Ajamian said that church youths from grades seven to 12 traditionally have launched balloons on Palm Sunday as an Easter season symbol of Christ's resurrection. The balloons sent up this year on April 12 carried a card, made of green construction paper, that said, "Rejoice! Christ Is Risen!" and asked people finding the message to return the tag. "Usually, we get them back from New Jersey or Pennsylvania or something like that," she said.
Ajamian said the "wind was extremely strong" when the multicolor 12-inch balloons were launched from a grassy area across the street from the church in the heart of Gaithersburg.
This year, nine cards were returned from Maryland and nearby states, more than twice as many as in 1986. But the real excitement was generated by the overseas messages.
According to a note scribbled on the church's card and returned in an envelope with Tanzanian stamps and postmark, a pair who identified themselves only as Lalo and Felipe found the tag and mailed it on May 12.
"Walking along Lake Victoria here in Mwanza, Tanzania, East Africa, we picked it up," they wrote. "Thanks for your greetings. He is Risen, indeed!!" Their note reached Gaithersburg on May 20, the first of the overseas cards to come home.
Then, on June 1, came a letter from Elisabetta Menna with an Assisi, Italy, postmark. She said she found the card May 20.
Officials at the National Weather Service also were amazed at the balloons' success.
"Sounds hard to believe, extremely rare," said Peter Ahnert, an upper-air test program manager for the weather service at Dulles International Airport. He explained that normally these balloons keep rising until the pressure inside is greater than the atmospheric pressure and the balloon bursts. But he said some balloons traveled from Japan to Montana during World War II.
Harlan Saylor, deputy director of the National Meteorological Center in Camp Springs, said such a trip was possible if the balloons caught a wind current below 15,000 feet. Those currents blow west to east, he said, and would move at a rate that would put them over Africa and Europe in mid-May.
"It is safe to say that based on general climatology of wind systems at 10,000 feet for that time of year, it's possible that balloons could have made that long a flight," Saylor said.