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NUWC Division Newport mechanical engineer finds work/life balance in the sky

By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs | Feb. 24, 2020

NEWPORT, R.I. — Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport mechanical engineer Noah Forden finds balance between his work and personal life quite literally by having his head in the clouds. When he’s not designing or testing underwater vehicles, Forden takes to the sky in either a hot air balloon, hydrogen balloon or single-engine airplane, all of which he built.

“I know I am experiencing things that most people will never get the chance to see or feel, and I feel very fortunate,” Forden, a resident of Exeter, Rhode Island, said. “It’s the kind of thing you wish you could share with everybody you know, but you just can’t.”

A Division Newport employee since 2002, who works in the Undersea Warfare Weapons Vehicles and Defense Systems Department, Forden has been building balloons for 33 years and flying them for 29 years. His recent foray into the world of hydrogen balloon racing has led to some fascinating experiences.

In 2016, Forden got his hydrogen balloon license by joining a club of about 20 people who had a hydrogen balloon and similar interests.

“Later that year I flew my plane out to Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is the mecca for ballooning. The Albuquerque International Balloon Festival hosts about 700 balloons every October,” Forden said. “I went out there with my little one-man hot air balloon in the baggage compartment, it’s called ‘Cloud-Hopper,’ just to play around with that and assist my hydrogen gas balloon instructor who was flying in a race at that time called the America’s Challenge.”

One day before the race, which fields competitors from all over Europe and the United States, his instructor’s co-pilot suffered a medical issue and could not fly.

“My instructor asked me if I wanted to fly in the race, which was just a crazy thing to happen — it just doesn’t happen,” Forden said. “This is a very, very competitive race, it’s very difficult to get into and there aren’t a lot of people who are qualified even to fly these balloons. To be asked at the last minute, a day before the race was just a Cinderella story.”

Forden and his instructor flew for 32 hours, ultimately touching down in Kansas and finishing in third place. From there, Forden was hooked. He decided to build his own balloon with the help of Bert Padelt, a world-renowned balloonist who had previously worked as launch director for Steve Fossett in all of his around-the-world balloon attempts.

The new balloon, “Across the Universe” — all of Forden’s balloons are named after songs by the Beatles — was used by Forden and Padelt in the 2017 and 2019 America’s Challenges. During the race last October, the duo flew 1,016 miles in 36 hours from Albuquerque to northern Minnesota at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 18,000 feet.

The two placed well enough in that race to qualify for the October 2020 Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett race, gas ballooning’s world championship and the oldest aviation event in the world.

“I hope to be able to participate in that but I’m not sure that I will. It’s held in Poland, which is not the best place for a balloon race being that prevailing winds tend to take you into Russia and Russia is out of bounds,” Forden said. “A race from France or somewhere further west in Europe would be better but we’ll see what happens. It’s exciting to have the opportunity to go.”

For Forden, his technical background as an engineer has proven to be quite helpful as gas balloon racing provides a host of challenges. Unlike hot air balloons, gas balloons don’t have any sort of airborne heater, so they are controlled by either valving gas to go lower or dumping sand to go higher.

“Weight is really, really critical. The more sand or water ballast that you can take — things that you can throw overboard — the longer you can fly,” Forden said. “When the sun sets at night, the gas contracts because it gets colder and the balloon wants to go down. If you want to stay at the same altitude, you have to dump sand or something overboard. When the sun comes up in the morning, it heats the gas, it expands and you want to go up. So, if you want to stay at the same altitude, you have to valve gas. That is what shortens your flight.”

To help mitigate this, Forden said he and Padelt each lost 20 pounds before their last flight. In addition to flight control, this also helps with the cramped conditions for the 36-hour flight. The balloon itself is 38 feet in diameter and holds 1,000 cubic meters of hydrogen. The wicker basket is only 4½ feet long by 3½ feet wide and includes a bunk for sleeping, water, food, emergency communications gear, GPS trackers, a toilet, sleeping bags, cold-weather gear, satellite phones and just about anything one would need to be airborne for four days and then stuck in the wilderness for another two waiting for rescue.

“It’s a tight squeeze for two people. You have to know each other well and be comfortable with each other. It’s a challenge,” Forden said. “Everything has to be packed very carefully. We have a lot of it hanging on the outside of the basket and when we come in for a landing we have to bring it all in and stow it. That’s part of the challenge.”

Once you are airborne, Forden said, there is an incredible stillness in the world around you.

“This is a little bit counterintuitive since you are often traveling at 10-35 mph,” Forden said. “You quickly accelerate to the speed of the wind, which means that you almost never feel any wind in a balloon because you are moving with the wind at its exact speed.

“Things are very quiet. You can have conversations with people on the ground from several thousand feet up in a normal speaking voice on a quiet night.”

This stillness creates the opportunity for some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. As Forden and Padelt flew over Texas, they could hear a pack of coyotes howling at one another in the middle of the night, despite them being thousands of feet below. The remote areas they flew over also had very little light pollution, allowing for some spectacular stargazing.

“The clarity of the stars at night that high up in an open wicker basket with no window between you and the rest of the universe as there would be on an airliner is truly breathtaking,” Forden said. “We often see several shooting stars during the night, and the Milky Way galaxy is so very bright and clear. For me, this is an intensely sublime and often emotional, almost spiritual experience.

“Balloons let you experience the natural world in a way that is impossible any other way, and I have always found that fascinating. No two flights are the same and never knowing where you will land with any real precision, or who you will meet when you get there, is always a real adventure in a time where adventure is harder and harder to find. That has always been a big draw for me.”

Flight has always appealed to Forden. He recalled how building kites and model airplanes with his grandfather as a child led to flying radio-controlled gliders in college at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. One time, a friend came to him with plans to make a hot air balloon out of tissue paper and birthday candles. The balloon inflated, but did not lift off.

“So, we went back into the dorm and made a shallow tray of tin foil with a little balsa frame that held it in place,” Forden said. “We found some alcohol to put in there and when we burned that we had a nice blue flame with plenty of heat to make it lift off.

“As it took off it started rising faster and faster, and when that happened the shallow tray of alcohol started to buffet and actually rained alcohol out of the sky and almost lit some trees on fire.”

This gave Forden his start in ballooning, as he used his experience to build a radio-controlled hot air balloon.

Over the last 33 years, Forden has honed his skills to become an expert on the matter and has built a number of balloons. This includes a one-man balloon that he designed to fit in the back of the airplane he built, a Vans Aircraft RV-7 all-aluminum, riveted construction two-seat airplane kit with a cruise speed of more than 200 mph. This journey also has kindled a desire to share his love of flight with others.

“I’m a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association and we have a local chapter over at Quonset. For many years, I was the Young Eagles coordinator for our chapter,” Forden said. “Young Eagles is a program where we offer free airplane rides to kids between the ages of 8 and 17. It’s a program where more than 2 million kids have gotten a free airplane ride and introduction to flight from a pilot who volunteers his or her time and small aircraft.

“It’s exciting to be a part of that. In my tenure as the chapter coordinator, we’ve given rides to more than 350 kids locally here in Rhode Island. This can motivate kids and provide insight about career choices in technical fields they might not have thought about if they didn’t have this opportunity. Being a part of that is very rewarding.”

NUWC Newport is a shore command of the U.S. Navy within the Naval Sea Systems Command, which engineers, builds and supports America’s fleet of ships and combat systems. NUWC Newport provides research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater  systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures associated with undersea warfare.

NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869.  Commanded by Capt. Michael Coughlin, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher's Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.