The USS Wood County, transport and landing ship tank was launched on 1 October 1956 and commissioned in Norfolk in August 1959. She initially acted on the US Atlantic coast until the summer of 1960 when she was transferred to the Mediterranean, where it remained in service participating in military exercises during two years.

In 1962 she was transferred to the Caribbean Sea and was part of the fleet that performed the blockade in the vicinity of Cuba ordered by President Kennedy during the so-called "missile crisis" with the Soviet Union. Over the next two years she remained serving the U.S. fleet alternately in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

A perfect test platform

A ship at sea provides an ideal launch platform for large high altitude plastic balloons. By running with the wind a ship can create a highly desirable "zero wind" condition during the critical stages of balloon inflation and launch. This advantage has led to a history of balloon launches conducted at sea. As balloons and balloon payloads increased in size, however, the problem of obtaining an appropriate launch vessel became more acute. Such a vessel required the speed and maneuverability necessary to negate wind effects, a relatively large deck area to support conventional launch techniques, and an adequate storage area for the lifting gas, flight system hardware, and balloon launch equipment. These requirements limited ship selection to aircraft carriers, which were costly and of limited availability.

Image of the balloon launch operations from the USS Wood County

In 1961, the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories (AFCRL) was asked to develop a shipboard launch technique that would circumvent the restrictions of an aircraft carrier while retaining the highly desirable properties of a shipboard launch. In accordance with this request, AFCRL developed the "C" launch technique, a launch method that was designed for operational use aboard small vessels

After being successfully demonstrated on land, in 1964 the technique was tested at sea and the USS Wood County was the selected ship to serve as test platform. In August that year, a Model II "C" Launcher, which was designed to launch balloons with loads up to 3000 lb, was used to launch 4 complete balloon systems each capable of raising an 1800''1b payload to a 65,000-ft altitude. These launches were conducted in the U. S. Navy VACAPES Control Area during the period from 24 to 27 August 1964 in true surface winds ranging from calm to 17 knots. The ship experienced little difficulty in maintaining the desired zero-wind condition during these exercises.

That would be the only time the ship would be used for that purpose.

Subsequently, she participated in the coup of 1965 in the Dominican Republic, evacuating American citizens from the island and during the following years continued its usual pattern of service in the area of the Virginia capes, the Caribbean and in the Mediterranean Sea. Shortly before his retirement from active service in May 1972, participated in a series of exercises to test a new type of gunship vessel for NATO called hydrofoil. After that was put permanently in the reserve before being sold to be scrapped in 1978.

Table of balloons launched from the USS Wood County

DateHourFlight DurationExperimentPayload landing place or cause of the failure
8/24/1964 ---VERTICAL LAUNCH SYSTEM TEST--- No Data ---
8/25/1964 ---VERTICAL LAUNCH SYSTEM TEST--- No Data ---
8/26/1964 ---VERTICAL LAUNCH SYSTEM TEST--- No Data ---
8/27/1964 ---VERTICAL LAUNCH SYSTEM TEST--- No Data ---