Of wind, helium, and hope — plus the occasional disaster.
- By Mark Karpel
- Air & Space magazine, August 2010
(Page 2 of 3)
About an hour into the flight, the center balloon burst. Alluding to the company that manufactured them, Gatch griped to his ground crew, “Tell Raven I want my money back.” Then he lost radio contact. Two days later, crewmen on a freighter in the mid-Atlantic were mesmerized by a ghostly silver sphere floating under a canopy of balloons 1,000 feet in the air—far below Gatch’s intended altitude and hundreds of miles off course. While they couldn’t see all of the gondola’s interior, what they did see showed no signs of life. Search parties were dispatched; they combed hundreds of miles of ocean for weeks. Neither Gatch nor his aircraft was ever found.
Larry Walters had no training or experience as a balloon pilot, but according to Mark Barry, who manages the most authoritative Walters Web site (markbarry.com), the truck driver started preparing for his flight more than 20 years earlier, testing balloons’ lifting properties. And not long before the flight, he took a skydiving lesson. However, Walters had no license for the system he assembled, which consisted of 42 balloons roped to a Sears lawn chair. On July 2, 1982, in the back yard of a small home in San Pedro, California, Walters, then 33, readied for takeoff. He carried jugs of water for ballast and a BB gun to shoot the balloons as a means of descent.
Walters had tethered the chair with two cords to a 1962 Bonneville; he planned to hover close to the ground, safely roped to the car, until ready for free flight, but he had significantly overestimated the amount of helium he would need. When one cord anchoring the chair was cut, the other one snapped from the strain, and Walters rocketed up to 16,000 feet. Soon commercial pilots were calling the tower at the Long Beach airport to report a guy floating three miles up in the airport’s approach path, sitting in a lawn chair and holding a gun.
Walters soon dropped the gun (which he had neglected to tie in) and drifted, shivering in the high-altitude cold, until he slowly began to descend. Coming in to land, he crashed into power lines, briefly blacking out power to part of Long Beach. FAA officials arrived at the scene to find him helplessly suspended in the wires. One of them later said, “We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act and, as soon as we decide which it is, some type of charge will be filed.” For knowingly launching an unauthorized flight in a heavily populated area with congested air traffic, Walters was hit with $4,000 in fines, later reduced to $1,500. He never flew again.
If Walters had flown in a conventional gondola with 42 balloons, the reaction would have been mild amusement; the chair was something else. Few things say “up” less than a lawn chair. Walters transformed an object designed for daydreaming into a vehicle for actualizing his dream. The sheer originality of that act and the goofy charm of his low-tech aircraft made Walters a legend.
The Publicity Hound
Yoshikazu Suzuki thought he could cross the Pacific Ocean under 26 balloons. The Japanese Civil Aviation Bureau questioned Suzuki’s plan. His emergency gear was inadequate and his balloons, filled with only 31,800 cubic feet of helium, were smaller than those used for standard gas balloon races and hardly enough for crossing the Pacific. According to Sabu Ichiyoshi, former chairman of the Balloon Federation of Japan, the only communication device Suzuki carried was a mobile phone, good only on land and within Japan.
He launched in November 1992 and was never heard from again.
“I don’t think he ever received any training to be a balloon pilot,” says Ichiyoshi. “It seems he was a person who likes to see media people.”
John Ninomiya has made more cluster balloon flights than anyone living or dead—to date, over 60. An actuary with a Ph.D. in epidemiology, he was a licensed hot-air balloonist with hundreds of hours of flight experience when he made his first cluster flight, taking off from north of Los Angeles in 1997 with seven Mylar cells supplied by Don Piccard, who drove them from Minnesota to advise and assist.
Ninomiya says that he was drawn to cluster ballooning’s simplicity and purity. “It’s taking ballooning down to its simplest form,” he says. He also wanted to construct his own aircraft, one that could be flown safely and under reasonable control.
He typically uses between 50 and 150 balloons, along with a harness like those favored by paragliders, allowing him to “walk around up there” and to land on his feet. For a balloon and wine festival, Ninomiya has flown under purple and green balloons rigged into the shape of a grape cluster, an arrangement he dubs The Concord.
To burst balloons, Ninomiya carries knives on a lanyard around his neck, “because you don’t want to drop your knife.” Although he has flown as high as 21,400 feet, recreational flights are usually under 5,000 feet.
Father Adelir Antonio de Carli, a Catholic priest in Brazil, decided to take off under 1,000 balloons in order to raise funds for a religious charity. De Carli registered at a flight school but refused to attend theory courses, including those on weather, and dismissed his instructors’ warnings about prevailing winds. One teacher characterized him as “undisciplined…not humble at all…the know-it-all guy.” Video clips of his April 2008 takeoff from the port city of Parangue reveal crowds standing under a gray sky in a steady rain. When asked about the ominous weather, de Carli responded, “There will only be good weather during my flight.”
Intending to fly 450 miles inland, he was instead immediately blown out over the Atlantic Ocean. Eight hours later, he was losing altitude and asking how to use his GPS unit—one of many preflight safety procedures he had ignored. He soon lost radio contact. Search parties found his balloons and, two months later, his body. “The Brazilian priest was a complete idiot,” says Don Piccard. “To take off with an offshore breeze and go at altitude with no control and no way to deflate…”
Before his first cluster balloon flight, Jonathan Trappe spent one year preparing. A technical projects manager from Raleigh, North Carolina, Trappe trained with hot-air as well as single-cell gas balloons. He performed multiple unmanned tests to ascertain the altitudes at which balloons with various amounts of gas would burst, and whether one burst would lead to a chain of others. He wanted to know how many balloons to sacrifice in order to reverse a climb without precipitating a dangerous descent. He researched all Federal Aviation Administration and local air regulations. On June 7, 2008, he took off from Franklin County, North Carolina, and flew for four hours, reaching 15,000 feet and traveling about 50 miles.