Cluster Ballooning

A Dream of Flight

When I was a boy, my parents bought me a children's science book about the force of gravity.  One chapter in the book was about ways that people have attempted to overcome force of gravity, and included a photograph of a man floating into the sky in a harness tied to a cluster of large orange weather balloons.  "Ballooning into the Sky, " read the caption.  "Balloons filled with helium can indeed carry a man aloft, but control is limited."    

To me at eight years old, the picture was mesmerizing.   I dreamed that I was the man in the harness, waving to the people below as the balloons carried me up over the clouds, higher and higher into the sky. 

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Red Balloon Small.jpg (13064 bytes) A year or two later, I saw the film "The Red Balloon", which ends with the little French boy, Pascal, floating over Paris with a huge bouquet of toy balloons.  It was, beyond a doubt, the most wonderful thing I could ever imagine doing.  I promised myself then that someday I would float off into the sky with helium balloons too. Pascal Small.jpg (11610 bytes)
I was hoping, of course, that it would happen sooner rather than later.  A practical-minded boy, I sent away for the Edmund Scientific catalog, from which you could order weather balloons and even little aerosol cans of helium.  However, even some optimistic guesses at the size and number of balloons required convinced me that it would cost me more than my allowance AND my lunch money for the next few years to buy what I needed.  So I was stuck on the ground.
But as the years passed, I never lost interest in the idea of flying with helium balloons.  As a teenager I didn't say anything about it, since it was unusual and not likely to make me look cool with other teenagers.  But it  was still something I dreamed of doing.  Ballooning into the sky -- what could be better than that? 

Practical-minded again, I looked for activities that might provide me with some part of my ballooning dream.  While I was in college, I learned to fly hot-air balloons, and some years later, I began flying Cloudhoppers, both of which have been a source of great fun and pleasure.  However, the dream of flying with a cluster of colorful helium-filled balloons stayed with me through the years.   Finally, in 1997, I set out to my make my dream come true.

Learning to Fly with Helium Balloons

I've flown helium cluster balloons seventeen times over the past several years, making me the most active among the three or four people worldwide who have ever flown cluster balloons (see History and Technical Notes).   A summary of my flights follows; click on the hyperlinks to see detailed accounts of my more recent flights, with a some great photographs.

By the way, as it turns out, my boyhood take on the matter was exactly right: it really is one of the most wonderful experiences in the world!

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Silver Pleiades:
April 15, 1997

For my first cluster balloon flight, I used seven, large slivery mylar balloons which were built by Don Piccard, one of the pioneers of modern hot-air ballooning.  The flight took place at El Mirage Dry Lake, in the high desert north of Los Angeles. I flew for ninety minutes and reached an altitude of 4,000 feet AGL.

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Mixed Bouquet: June 10, 1997

I flew for a second time at El Mirage, this time supplementing my seven Mylar balloons with 16 six-foot latex balloons. I reached 9,000 feet AGL.

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Celebration: July 2, 1997

For this flight, I launched from Temecula, in the Southern California Wine Country with 72 latex balloons. When I released the cord holding me to the ground, my balloons and I soared upward at five-hundred feet per minute.  It was an incredible feeling.   Finally, as the thin air became hard to breathe, I leveled out at over 16,000 feet.  The wind took me twenty miles to the east, over a lake to a mountain valley, where I landed in a meadow in a pine forest.  

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Celebration II: December 30, 1997

It's hard to imagine anything nicer than floating over the Southern California Wine Country on a sunny December morning.  The countryside was enjoying it's brief winter's green.  I floated over the vineyards, then drifted higher.   I watched some small planes take off and land at a little airport a few thousand feet below.  Late in the flight, I drifted close to the town of Murrieta, where I landed in an empty lot.  A man from the local radio station drove up and put me on the air with the morning DJ's, who had been receiving calls about the "balloon man" for the past half hour.

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Detailed photos and narratives are available for more recent flights. Links to the webpage for each flight are found on the Logbook page; links to the flights from the States of Enlightenment project are also found on the States of Enlightenment page.

 

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