History and Technical Notes

A History of Cluster Ballooning

bulletBallooning pioneer Jean Piccard first conceived of the notion of using clusters of gas balloons to fly, and in 1937 tested his concept in a flight to 10,000 feet using 98 latex weather balloons attached to a conventional balloon basket.
bulletIn 1954, Gary Cashman made several flights in the Albany, New York area using hydrogen-filled weather balloons attached to a seat on which he rode.
bulletIn 1959, Audouin Dollfus carried scientific instruments to 40,000 feet using a chain of 105 balloons that stood 1,500 feet tall.
bulletDon Piccard, son of Jean and a major figure in the development of the modern sport of hot-air ballooning, made flights using clusters of plastic balloons in 1957 and 1962, including a flight to 17,747 feet  that still stands as a world altitude record for category AA-2 balloons.
bulletLarry Walters, with out any prior experience with ballooning or aviation, attached 40 helium balloons to a lawn chair, intending to ascend a few hundred feet.  Instead, he rose to 16,000 feet over Long Beach, California on July 2, 1982.   Remarkably, despite contacting power lines at landing, Walters survived his flight, and was fined several thousand dollars by the FAA.
bulletInspired by Walters, skydiver Kevin Walsh made a flight to 9,000 feet with 57 helium balloons and descended by parachute on New Year's Day, 1984, in Stow, Massachusetts.
bulletIan Ashpole, a commercial balloonist from England, made some ascents to 10,000 feet with several hundred three-foot balloons as an advertising promotion for a champagne company in 1997.  For safety reasons, Ashpole ascended with his cluster balloon attached to a hot-air balloon, and descended via parachute.   In 2001, Ashpole made a similar ascent to 11,000 feet which he claimed as a world record for flying with "party balloons", receiving television coverage on the BBC news.
bulletAnother Englishman, Mike Howard, attempted to fly to 18,000 feet for the Guiness Book of World Records TV show on FOX in 1998.  Unfortunately, his lift calculations were apparently wrong, and he ended up unable to get above 3,000 feet.   In 2001, he tried again, this time with partner Steve Davis and succeeded in reaching 18,235 feet.  This was also asserted to be a record of some sort, although Howard's balloons (up to five feet) were arguably too large for the "party balloon" record, and his altitude was several thousand feet short of the 21,400 foot mark set by John Ninomiya in 1998.
bulletJohn Ninomiya (yours truly) went for his first cluster balloon flight in 1997, and as of the end of 2001 has flown clusters twelve times. 

A Few Technical Notes

My helium cluster balloons have been flown legally under Part 103, the part of the Federal Aviation Regulations governing "ultralight vehicles" such as hang-gliders, paragliders and ultralight airplanes.  To remain legal under Part 103, my flights must avoid "congested areas" and the airspace controlled by airports or ATC (Class A, B, C, D and certain parts of class E).  My flight to 21,400 feet was done with permission of Los Angeles Center ATC, and required me to carry an aircraft radio and transponder.

My cluster balloons have ranged between 7,000 and 9,000 cubic feet in volume.  The balloons I currently use are latex balloons, ranging in size from five to eight feet.   The balloons are sealed with masking tape and cable ties, and are secured with nylon twine to carabiners in groups of three to six, depending on the size of the balloons.  The carabiners are attached to long webbing straps that attach to the harness I wear.  The webbing straps are of different heights to hold the balloons in tiers; this allows me to cut away the top layer of balloons without risk of tangling, which would be necessary to avoid being dragged in a high-wind landing.  The harness I wear was designed for paragliding, and includes an integral reserve parachute and a padded back protector.  I carry water ballast in two-gallon bladders designed for camping use.

Some Definitional Nitpicking

Even with only three or four cluster pilots worldwide, there are some significant variations in the practice of cluster ballooning. The following is my take on some of the distinctions.

I'm a balloonist, and my approach to cluster ballooning has reflected that.  To me, ballooning involves free-flying from launch to landing, preferably under reasonable control the whole time -- the skilled parts being the control, the launches and the landings.  Other approaches are clearly possible, but when I began cluster ballooning, I was determined to learn how to fly with a cluster of helium balloons as a real autonomous aircraft.  I think I've succeeded, and for me, the translation of my dream of ballooning into something completely workable and real has been much more satisfying than a "stunt" approach.

I use latex rubber balloons -- not weather balloons, but large-size balloons made by toy balloon manufacturers for decoration and advertising.  The British cluster brethren seem rather obsessed with using
"toy" or "party" balloons, so they can claim some type of  world record.  This is an arbitrary distinction at best -- how small must a balloon be to be a "toy"?  I find that a hundred or so balloons is pretty much the limit of what you can keep untangled and controllable in flight, which dictates using balloons of at least four-foot size.  Therefore, I happily leave the blobby-looking clusters of six-hundred party balloons to others; my inner child likes my big, beautiful "toys" just fine.

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