Of wind, helium, and hope — plus the occasional disaster.
- By Mark Karpel
- Air & Space magazine, August 2010
Last May 28, Jonathan Trappe became the first person to fly across a major body of water—the English Channel—while strapped to a cluster of balloons. Flight preparations had begun at midnight, assisted by an assortment of English balloonists, glider and airplane pilots, curious locals, and me.
I am a clinical psychologist, but my interest in people passionately drawn to unusual pursuits led me to cluster ballooning. Not many Americans have heard of it, except as a child’s fantasy, or an image in movies like last year’s Pixar feature Up, but the first actual cluster balloon flight dates back to the 1930s. Eventually, I became so drawn in I took a short break from my practice to volunteer as part of Trappe’s ground crew for the Channel crossing.
The flight was covered by media around the world. The last cluster balloonist to generate that kind of attention was Larry Walters, a truck driver who in 1982 strapped 42 weather balloons to a lawn chair and hurtled himself into the sky over southern California. On national newscasts that evening, Walters’ story introduced an image of the cluster balloonist—part legend-in-the-making, part laughingstock—that remains largely intact. It’s time to reconsider.
What follow are the stories of 10 cluster balloonists from the last seven decades. What were they seeking? Everything from novelty and adventure to scientific knowledge to celebrity and fame. But overall, they fall into two groups: seasoned balloonists and scientists on the one hand, and amateur dreamers and schemers on the other. The first group personifies Daedalus’ caution and skill; the second, Icarus’ sky-struck recklessness.
Of the sober-minded group, the most famous is Jean Piccard, a Swiss-born aeronautical engineer and balloonist who got interested in using balloon clusters for high-altitude research. (And yes, if you’re wondering—Piccard was the inspiration for Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard.) At midnight on July 18, 1937, Piccard, 53, took off from Soldiers Field in Rochester, Minnesota, on the world’s first documented cluster flight. His system was based on over 90 weather balloons. His ground crew included his wife, Jeannette, the first U.S. female balloon pilot licensed by the National Aeronautic Association, the couple’s three sons, and 150 volunteers; 5,000 spectators strained to watch the proceedings.
Emergency fire trucks stood ready, since Piccard planned, over strenuous objections from colleagues, to use TNT charges to release tie-down ropes and, on landing, to cut loose the upper cluster of balloons, filled with hydrogen—highly flammable in the presence of oxygen. He intended to level off between 2,000 and 3,000 feet and guessed that he would remain in the air for about seven hours, drifting 100 to 200 miles.
Two of his predictions proved accurate; the third one missed.
Piccard rose to 11,000 feet—over a mile and a half higher than intended. To descend, he pulled a few balloons down to the gondola and pierced them with a knife—the preferred means for serious cluster balloonists. Guns make good copy, but in the cold of high altitudes, balloons lose elasticity and are harder to deflate by gunshot. (Jeannette Piccard said that, when shot, sounding balloons “just get a small hole and sit there and smile at you.”) After six hours, Piccard landed in a farmer’s wood lot outside Lansing, Iowa.
On September 9, 1954, residents of Albany, New York, looked up to see 60 balloons floating into the sky with a figure beneath. It was Garrett Cashman, a part-time hypnotist and dance teacher, and according to Lawrence Gooley, an authority on the Adirondack region, Cashman was seated on a piece of plywood that dangled from two clusters of balloons; between the clusters, a parachute was slung. Cashman had brought along an anchor, sand for ballast, and a meatloaf sandwich. He rose to over 6,000 feet, floated for about 20 miles, and, immediately upon landing, was arrested for flying without a license and operating an unlicensed aircraft. He was jailed and later fined $50 by the Civil Aeronautics Administration.
He later got both licenses and launched a career flying balloon clusters at airshows and auto races and as an advertising gimmick. After one rough landing in which he sprained his ankle, Cashman told reporters he “might quit the business,” adding, “I like to dance too well.”
Twenty years after witnessing his father’s cluster balloon flight as an 11-year-old boy, Don Piccard launched his own cluster system. Piccard, co-founder of the first balloon club in the United States, also created the first super-pressure balloons—in which the volume is kept constant as the pressure changes—and manufactured some of the safest and most distinctive hot-air balloons. For his first cluster flight, Piccard used balloons made of polyethylene film instead of rubber, explaining: “Gas balloons, old army balloons, were very big, very heavy, a lot of work, and took a lot of gas to fly.” By comparison, Piccard’s 40-foot-long methane-filled plastic cylinders were “fairly inexpensive, easy to handle, less work, and very safe.”
In September 1957, Piccard attached himself to 12 balloons and launched from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. After about two hours, one of the balloons failed. Piccard threw some sand out to compensate, then decided to make a precautionary landing in a farmer’s cornfield. Now 84, Piccard continues to improve balloon systems, using tetrahedron shapes made of Mylar and nylon film, and is organizing a cluster balloon flight to the mesosphere, which begins at about 30 miles above sea level.
In April 1959, an astronomer and expert balloonist modified Jean Piccard’s design to become the first Frenchman to reach the stratosphere, which starts between eight and 15 miles up. Now 85, Audouin Dollfus is among the foremost French authorities on the solar system, the author of more than 300 scholarly papers, and the discoverer of Janus, one of Saturn’s moons. He is also the son of Charles Dollfus, a famed French balloonist. Interested in observing planetary phenomena without the interference of atmospheric distortion, he organized a stratospheric flight in a sealed capsule with a compact telescope mounted on top. The capsule was suspended from a chain of 105 rubber balloons, each the size of a small truck, that rose nearly 1,500 feet in the air.
Dollfus launched at sunset from an airfield outside Paris. Two hours later, he wrote in his logbook, “I see a perfectly horizontal line—the tropopause, dividing the sky into two parts. The lower part, due to dust-borne particles, resembles an almost-phosphorescent sea whose brilliance surprises me,” while above, “the air is perfectly pure, the stratosphere. The sky is dark, despite the full moon, and the constellations shine without scintillation.” His cluster had reached 46,000 feet—8.7 miles. When he finished his observations, Dollfus triggered explosive charges to release some of the balloons and begin his descent. Upon landing and stepping out into complete darkness, he felt something warm rubbing gently against his skin; it was the nose of a cow.
Thomas Gatch Jr., the son of a World War II naval hero, failed at nearly everything he attempted before seizing on the idea of being first to cross the Atlantic Ocean by balloon. He constructed a sealed gondola in his garage and attached it to 10 super-pressure gas balloons. Taking off from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in February 1974, he intended to ride the jet stream at 38,000 feet. His technical preparations, although extensive, were woefully inadequate for such an ambitious enterprise. According to William Armstrong, who handled his public relations, Gatch had only minimal training in hot-air balloons and none in gas balloons. He had never assembled all the components of his aircraft before the flight, and failed to either pressure-test the balloons at high altitude or float-test the gondola in water. He neglected to rehearse emergency procedures for a water landing, and he launched at dusk; had a problem surfaced early in the flight, rescuers would have had to search in darkness. He repeatedly ignored warnings from seasoned balloon pilots, he failed to get Federal Aviation Administration approval for his craft’s airworthiness, and he notified authorities of the flight only after takeoff.