Cluster Ballooning is either one of those "sports" you wish you’d thought of, or one of those ideas you did think of, but were too chicken – or sane – to go through with. Sure, it looks like being carried off by a multicoloured raspberry, but would you care about such style points if you were floating coolly on a cloud – and with so little keeping you up there? Prepare for lift-off as we take an aerial tour through this extraordinary and breathtaking form of ballooning.
Cluster ballooning is beautiful in its simplicity. The pilot is harnessed to a bunch of helium-filled balloons, each of which is tiny compared to a standard hot air balloon. Control doesn’t come easy. Without the vents used by hot air balloons for altitude control, cluster balloons rise almost uncontrollably, leaving the balloonist to burst or cut balloons loose to level off or descend. Ballast like bottled water can be released to help the ascent or slow too quick a return to earth.
While no license is needed for cluster ballooning, there are only a handful of pilots on – or hovering over – the face of the planet. One of them is American John Ninomiya, a high-flying figure in what he sees as “something between an extreme sport and a personal eccentricity”. Ninomiya has the largest number of flights – around 60 to date – and the most flying time of anyone in the business. He uses anywhere between 50 and 100 balloons, and claims to have flown to an astonishing altitude of 21,400 feet. That's 4 miles high.
To Ninomiya, cluster ballooning has a double appeal. Firstly, it’s a highly unusual form of ballooning with its own equipment and technique, which requires no little skill to do safely. Yet on the other hand, as the man himself told us:
“Cluster ballooning is also something very beautiful and whimsical – like something from a children's story, or something from a dream. For me, the tension between those two elements – being carried away with these huge, colorful toys, and at the same time, exercising the appropriate skill not to end up in trouble with the FAA, or possibly injured or killed – that's what I find so interesting about cluster ballooning.”
Big kids' stuff maybe, but experienced flyers like Ninomiya have gone about their sport the sensible way, taking precautions like flying at sunrise or evening when winds are low, and having crews of people to help with preparations. Conversely, there are the cases of guys who have attempted cluster ballooning in a decidedly more DIY fashion. In 2007, Oregon gas station owner Kent Couch flew almost 193 miles sat in a chair borne aloft by 105 helium balloons, with amateur devices to measure speed and altitude and GPS to track his location.
Couch took his cues from the godfather of everyman cluster ballooning, Larry Walters, who one fine Californian day in 1982 decided to fulfil a lifelong dream by attaching 45 weather balloons to a piece of garden furniture. “Lawnchair Larry” rose 16,000 feet in the air, over 500 times his intended altitude, eventually descending by shooting some of the balloons with the pellet gun he had packed along with a CV radio, sandwiches and a six-pack of beer. The following is a conversation Larry had with CV monitoring group REACT:
REACT: What information do you wish me to tell [the airport] at this time as to your location and your difficulty?
Larry: Ah, the difficulty is, ah, this was an unauthorized balloon launch, and, uh, I know I'm in a federal airspace, and, uh, I'm sure my ground crew has alerted the proper authority. But, uh, just call them and tell them I'm okay.
Nowadays, cluster ballooning has both its ups and its downs. In 2008, Catholic priest Adelir Antonio de Carli took off from Brazil in a chair fixed to 1000 balloons, but drifted out over the ocean and was unable to navigate. His body was later recovered offshore.
On the plus side, though, there are the pilots like John Ninomiya – or Mike Howard, who in 2001 flew into the record books, reaching a height of over 18,300 feet aided by over 400 helium balloons. Howard has since done his bit for the environment, soaring over a coal plant – and one of Germany’s largest CO2 emitters – suspended by 600 balloons in a Greenpeace stunt. Check out the video here.
There seems to be but one essential prerequiste to fly like these diverse balloonist characters. Before you take off on a voyage of discovery with little more than inflatable toys holding you on high, you first need to take your own visionary flight of the imagination.
With special thanks to John Ninomiya for use of images from his website
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