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Unlike the flash-in-the-pan types, John Ninomiya have put years into the pursuit. (Ed Stockard)

The Drifters

Of wind, helium, and hope — plus the occasional disaster.

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.”

The Heir

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.

The Stargazer

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.

The Rule-Breaker

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.

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