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The Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival is one of the largest balloon events in California.  I approached Rusty Manning, festival CEO and owner of A Grape Escape Balloon Adventure, with my idea: a cluster balloon in the form of a bunch of grapes.  It would be he worlds first "special shape" cluster balloon, or the world's first person-carrying balloon sculpture, depending how you looked at it.   Rusty was very supportive, and   the Callaway Vineyard and Winery generously agreed to sponsor my flight.  And so I was off on my Grape Adventure.

Unfortunately, I learned that my regular balloon supplier does not make purple balloons in my regular seven-foot size.  After a lot of phone calls and e-mails, the best I was able to do was purple and lavender balloons in four- and five-foot sizes.  This would require roughly 150 balloons to fly, rather than my normal 50 -- my crew chief Ernie cringed when I told him this.  Luckily, fellow balloonist Jerry Sebby lent his expertise to the process, devising a system of manifolds and hoses that would make it possible to inflate the balloons much more rapidly and uniformly.  I worked out the arrangement of balloon sizes and colors, string lengths and risers (webbing straps to which the balloons attach) that would result in what I hoped would resemble a bunch of grapes.

I named my craft the Concord.

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The inflation started at 4 AM at Lake Skinner.  There were about twenty-five people there to help -- ballooning friends and festival volunteers.   The new inflation system worked well, and thanks to all our planning, things were no more chaotic than usual for a cluster balloon inflation.

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We attached the balloons to the webbing risers that would give the balloon it's shape:   green balloons on a central "stem";  four high risers with fifteen balloons each to form the top of the bunch of grapes; and four low risers with twelve smaller balloons each for the bottom. 

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By then, the hot-air balloons were preparing to launch.  Jerry, who would be following me in his hot-air balloon, began inflating beside me.

 

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I got into my harness, and
the crew began attaching the last of the "grapes" directly to me.  Soon I was surrounded by giant purple and lavender balloons.

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We launched a pibal to verify that my direction as I ascended would keep me away from the crowd -- an FAA rule for "ultralight vehicles" like the cluster balloon.

I let Jerry lift off first, then had the crew release me.

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Up went  the giant bunch of grapes.

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There were some cheers as I went up.  I waved to everyone on the ground.  Jerry followed along beside me in his hot-air balloon.

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This was my first time flying a cluster so close to so many hot-air balloons.  It was wonderful being up in the sky with all of them, although it meant I had to be constantly watching for traffic.

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It was a beautiful day for flying with balloons.

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My objective for this flight was just to have fun with the other balloons, and let the people attending the festival see the Concord -- although it's fun "speck out", I would save that for another flight.  So, after my initial ascent, I dropped down to drift low over Lake Skinner.As I relased some of the lower balloons to descend, the cluster began to taper more at the bottom, improving the "bunch of grapes" shape.

 

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The winds were light.  I continued southeast across the brushy fields and hillsides of the park.

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Finally, after a little over an hour in the air, I landed.

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That's the story of the Concord: the worlds first "special shape" cluster balloon and/or the world's first man-carrying balloon sculpture, depending on how you look at it.  So if you're a bit into your cups at a wine festival and think you see someone being carried off into the sky by a giant bunch of grapes, don't worry too much -- it may be my friends and I, out flying cluster balloons!

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Crew Roster: Cluster Balloon "Concord"

Crew Chief: Ernie Hartt
Chief Engineer and Chase Balloon Pilot: Jerry Sebby
Safety and Launch Officer: Dave Lynch
Tank Monitors: Lanny Hendrickson, Mark Franklin
Norm Best
Kyle Childers
Susan Dawson
Edie Dunnington
Robert Dunnington
Edward Distor
Gary Eaton
Holly Galbraith
Louise Hendrickson
Eric Klipfel
Kristina Lynch
Kim Lynch
Mike McWilliams
Robin McWilliams
Rob Ryerson
Cathy Sebby
Anne Tyszka
Bob Tyszka
Rosemary Tyszka
Diane Vandenberg
Larry Vandenberg
Judy Wagner
If I've left anyone out, please e-mail me!
Thanks to the Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival (Rusty Manning, CEO; Donnica Jones, Balloon Coordinator) and Callaway Vineyard and Winery.   Thanks also to Pacific Southwest Aerostats, Cameron Welding Supply and Gary Hardison.
Photographs by Robert Dunnington, Lanny Hendrickson, Louise Hendrickson, John Ninomiya and Judy Wagner.

 

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