The Drifters

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

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

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.

From This Story

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.

The Pioneer

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.

The Dancer

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