Operation Gaseous Research

in which we ignited flammable gases

In my view, you cannot have a Stealth Force until you have a Mission.  The genesis of Stealth Force Beta occurred after we had completed our first operation and decided we wanted more.  That first operation was Operation Gaseous Research.

In the winter of 1990, I was in a remote mountain cabin with a bunch of friends.  On a trip into the valley, we stumbled across the Plow & Hearth Outlet store, where I bought a handy device for starting fires.  It was basically a stick with a butane tank at one end, a metal tube on the other from which the butane escaped, and a trigger switch in the middle with a spark generator to ignite the butane.  It was fun to play with, even when there wasn't something nearby in need of combustion.  Somehow, I got the thing all the way back to New Mexico after Christmas break before emptying its fuel.  But the next time I was at the Socorro Safeway grocery store, I scanned the small hardware section, and found a can of butane for refilling lighters.  It came with an extensive assortment of plastic tips for connecting to an even more extensive assortment of butane apertures.

Entertaining applications for the lighter soon became evident.  If one pulled the trigger partway and held it, a respectable quantity of butane would be emitted; then squeezing the trigger completely would ignite the miniature fireball.  My next door neighbor in the dorm was Taige Blake; he and Jason Coder would sometimes find themselves in my room seeking entertainment.  Sitting on my shelf was the butane refill can. Taige--who would later earn the Beta name "Torch"--was intrigued.
SPRIL Lemonade and Cupcake Stand
Warren Marts and Meiko Haushalter were among the volunteer members operating the highly successful Subatomic Particle Rights League 49ers Fundraiser Lemonade and Cupcake Sale, on October 21, 1989.

In 1989, I found in the Lab Safety Supply catalog a bright yellow plastic bucket with bold black diagonal stripes which I purchased for the Subatomic Particle Rights League fundraiser lemonade and cupcake sale at the town's fall 49ers festival.  I had affixed a hazmat "DANGEROUS" sticker; everyone referred to it as the Dangerous Bucket.  Before long it had been used for purposes that made it no longer food-safe.

We knew from experience that butane gas is considerably heavier than air.  You can fill an open-top container with butane, and as long as the wind doesn't blow it away, the invisible butane will simply stay there. With lighter in hand, Taige sprayed a bit of butane into the bucket,  ignited it, and got a small fireball.  Inspired, Jason sprayed more butane into the bucket, ignited it, and got a medium-sized fireball.  Continuing, Taige sprayed a lot of butane into the bucket, ignited it, and got a large fireball.  That large fireball expanded so quickly that it swallowed his arm and he leapt back in panic as his arm was engulfed in flame.

But only for a moment.  The handy thing about butane fireballs is that they combust almost instantaneously--the fireball was gone before Taige's reflexes had any effect.  We smelled burnt hair.  Taige discovered that most of the hair on his lower arm had burned off.  We had invented an easy and painless depilatory, although it was probably too startling for mass-market appeal.

About this time, my boisterous friend Jethro arrived at my dorm room for some purpose or another, which he immediately forgot when he saw our fireballs.  He took our experimentation a dramatic step further when he graduated from the Dangerous Bucket to a 33-gallon aluminum trash can, which he filled with about half of a can of butane. Then he ignited it, and while it burned he continued spraying butane from the can into the alarming fireball.  We tried to stop him, but he proved resistant.

Since there was presumably no oxygen in the butane can, we were fairly certain that the fire wouldn't burn along the butane stream up into the can and detonate the can in his hands.  But we certainly weren't confident enough to risk our own hands at such foolishness, and decided that Jethro was too reckless for us to be comfortable inviting him on any future Beta projects involving explosives.  However, he was to prove instrumental on the stealth force's Operation Highway Robbery and was involved in an incident on campus involving horchata.

We learned the nuances of creating exciting fireballs.  If you want a big fireball that burns itself out quickly, you should mix some air into the butane so oxygen is already present.  If you want a slower-burning fireball that starts in one part of the butane and spreads over a full second or so, you should shoot a whole bunch of butane in and ignite it almost immediately, so there's not enough oxygen initially and the flame has to wait for more to arrive before consuming all the butane.

Fingers about to start the blazethe blaze
Operative Fingers ignites a series of three large balloons, and the fireball from a large-balloon explosion

But over the weeks, we grew tired of creating fireballs in buckets.  Open-air explosions are exhilarating, but the only challenge they present is making them bigger, and Jethro had shown us that such escalation was certainly expensive and perhaps dangerous.  So we found a creative way to control the explosions--it was the genius of fellow student Dave Hershberger that we fill balloons with butane and ignite the package.

After discovering the delight of a single balloon exploding in a popping fireball, we soon started reactions consisting of multiple balloons which ignited each other in a cascading series. Balloons have the notorious habit of not staying where they're put, so we experimented with various techniques to hold them in place.  The school newspaper Paydirt had a superfluous half-gallon of rubber cement after converting to its new waxing machine.  As editor-in-chief, I was where the buck stopped when it came to disposing of undesired adhesives.  We discovered rubber cement was the perfect adhesive. Rubber cement consists of solvent and rubbery goo.  The solvent is both volatile and flammable, so flame follows a line of rubber cement just like it follows a line ignited by Wile E. Coyote.  The goo itself also burns, as long as 30 seconds if applied in a thick line.  So we glued balloons to the cinder block wall and lit them.

We learned how to create time-delay fuses with a horizontal line of rubber cement--the flame would slowly run along the line, igniting balloons it encountered on the way.  We discovered how to make a large balloon burn for a long time by filling it with pure butane, putting a piece of scotch tape on the outside, and puncturing the tape with a pin.  Once the leaking butane was ignited, a jet of flame would shoot from the hole until eventually the tape and balloon would melt enough to destroy the balloon's structural integrity and the whole thing would go up in a great ball of flame.  Most exciting!

Torch before the conflagrationthe conflagration
Operative Torch lives up to his name in igniting a network of ten smaller balloons. Small balloons filled with a mixture of air and butane produced the most complex and interesting explosions.

We also found that a cluster of small balloons filled with a fuel/oxygen mixture could produce very interesting results. Sometimes, a balloon not engulfed by the conflagration of those beneath it would develop a pinhole leak, and shoot a jet of flame in a random direction.  We developed the art of arranging balloons of different sizes, patterns, fuse lengths, and fuel/air mixtures.  Each experience was a fleeting sculpture in three dimensions of space and one of time.

With the success of Operation Gaseous Research, Stealth Force Beta formed over the following weeks, and fully coalesced with the success of Operation Southern Bumper.  Taige earned the name Operative Torch for his fearlessness with flame on Operation Gaseous Research.  Our experiments with butane continued sporadically through the months.

Operation Gaseous Research, Phase II

Over a year later, a new opportunity presented itself after I had become student government president. I was browsing the Oriental Trading Company (OTC) catalog shopping for door prizes to encourage student senators to show up to meetings on time when I discovered cute plastic propellers that attach to the neck of a balloon. As air escapes from the balloon, it spins the propeller, and also blows through a whistle--the propeller apparatus turns a balloon into a whistling propeller-driven projectile.  I instantly thought of applying one to a butane-filled balloon.  One dozen propellers cost $7.80, a significant sum for students, but seemed worth the investment.

Propeller balloon bomb!
A Whistling Balloon Helicopter that would be transformed into a Buzzing Butane Bomb.  It even came with a spare balloon, although we found that the propeller assembly was destroyed in the conflagration.

Torch and I ponied up the money on the next order I placed with OTC. A few weeks later, our toys arrived. That Saturday night, we prepared to set one off.  Torch and I lived on the top floor of the three-story South Hall, by far the largest dorm on campus. Most of the residents of the third floor were seniors; most of the residents on the ground floor were freshmen. As it happened, some of those freshmen were having a party two stories below.  There was a convenient vacant dirt area adjacent to them and directly below us. Torch and I prepared a balloon on the balcony. He held the balloon while I shot it full of butane, then gingerly forced the propeller attachment onto the balloon's nozzle.  I fumbled with the lighter, and as soon as a spark hit the butane, the invisible jet of gas turned into a shot of flame.  Torch let go without delay.

Since butane is considerably heavier than ordinary air, the balloon fell rapidly. It had 24 feet to fall.  The propeller--the heaviest part--hung on the bottom, and the jet of butane shot straight down toward the ground vaguely like a lunar lander.  Further, the OTC contraption had been designed whistle when the balloon was filled with ordinary air.  With denser butane it made a much deeper buzzing sound.  Torch and I readied our first propeller-driven flaming buzzing butane bomb.  (Unfortunately there were merely two of us present, with no hands free for photographing the spectacle.)

The jet of flame thrusting out the bottom of the balloon and the spinning propeller seemed to slow the bomb's descent.  The bomb's gentle cascade toward the ground below was a sharp contrast to its buzzing jet of flame.  Moments before it hit the ground, we heard an exclamation from an obviously inebriated partygoer, unseen from our vantage.  As the balloon hit the ground, the whole assembly went up in a ball of flame several feet in diameter.  A more vociferous exclamation was heard from below, and he attempted to persuade others to come with him to investigate the conflagration a few feet outside the festive room.  The remains of the bomb did not smolder long, though, and by the time he and a few others went out to investigate, they were unable to locate the debris.  One of the others falsely assured the drunkard he had not hallucinated the flaming bomb, and they all went back inside.

Torch and I contemplated the idea of various advancements in butane bomb technology, such as depositing several tablespoons of rubber cement inside the balloon to make the wreckage burn for a longer time.  But such advancements also bore the potential of harming unsuspecting innocent bystanders, and would have to be done somewhere uninhabited.  Before we had a chance to conduct tests, Torch graduated and Stealth Force Beta moved on to more constructive projects.

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